Wednesday, 27 May 2015

"Never laugh at live dragons" - The Dragon of Henham or Strange News out of Essex from 1668

27 May 1668, the Dragon of Henham or “Flying Serpent” was seen by several witnesses in Essex.

“The place of his abode and where he hath been oftentimes seen, is called Henham, but most commonly Henham on the Mount, the town standing upon a hill, having many fair farms and granges belonging to it, in one of which named The Lodge, near to a wood called Birch-wood, by reason of the many birches growing there, in a pasture-ground close by the same, hath this monstrous Serpent been often seen upon the sides of a Bank, beaking and stretching himself out upon the same at such time asSol did parch the earth with his refulgent beams.” (Anonymous: “The Flying Serpent, or: Strange News out of Essex” (1669))



Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s idea of a dragon (c 1768)



Whatever made quite a lot of people across the globe come up with the rather universal idea of giant serpent-like creatures roaming the earth, either abducting aristo maidens or bringing rain and fertility, is still a mystery all by itself. That live dinosaurs might have inspired all the dragon myths and legends is nonsense, of course, even though fossil finds from various stages of Earth’s history might be behind some local variant of the myth, but the same could be true for live animals, from crocs and monitor lizards to olms, seen as the spawn of giant underground dragons in places like Slovenia. A psychological approach towards the origins of dragons and their appearance in tales at least as old as humanity’s ability to read and write itself seems somewhat more appropriate, since it is quite close to some folks’ urge to dress up facts in more elaborate garments or tell tales altogether. Be that as it may, in the earlies of natural science, when the local potentate’s or Renaissance man’s Wunderkammer was fed with dragon artefacts from every corner of the world that were actually dried parts of large rays or bats or lizards and bones that once had belonged to God knows what and sometimes even more or less obvious fabrications from all of the above. Benevolently, they were seen as attempts at reconstruction rather than the hoaxes they were, the next best thing before science could actually prove the existence of dragons. And while all kinds of previously half-mythical animals arrived in Europe’s capitals during the 16th and 17th century, rhinos, jumbos, giraffes and what not, captured dragons seemed to be long in coming. But some made at least a guest appearance in the countryside, such as the Henham Dragon.



Contemporary Woodcut showing “The Flying Serpent, or: Strange News out of Essex (1669)“



A length of 9’ might not seem that impressive, compared to the giants of the epics like Fafnir or Smaug, rather more along the diminutive serpentine lines of the poor things that get speared by St George in Renaissance art. However, if a 9’ flying object bears down on a solitary horseman riding through the lush Essex countryside in the merry month of May all of a sudden, hearts may easily sink in one’s riding boots. Thus, the first recorded victim of the Henham Dragon rode hell for leather back to where he came from, probably the hamlet of Saffron Walden and gathered his friends, probably over a pint or three, to warn them of the imminent reptilian danger down the road. Said danger, in the meanwhile, “lay on a hillock beaking (basking) himself again in the sun”, two passers-by saw the creature and described it “as near as they could guess 8 or 9 foot long, the smallest part of him about the bigness of a man's leg, on the middle as big as a man's thigh, his eyes were very large and piercing, about the bigness of a sheep's eye, in his mouth he had two row of teeth which appeared to their sight very white and sharp, and on his back he had two wings indifferent large, but not proportionable to the rest of his body, they judging them not to be above two handfuls long, and when spreaded, not to extend from the top of one wing to the utmost end of the other above two foot at the moll, and therefore altogether too weak to carry such an unwieldy body. These men though armed with clubs and staves, yet durst not approach to strike this serpent, neither it seems was the serpent afraid of them, for railing himself upon his breast about the heighth of two foot, he stood looking on them as daring them to the encounter.” Of course it was bound to happen. The locals gathered their pitchforks, torches and old Civil War gear, drove the Serpent into the next wood and, at this point, the anonymously published leaflet “The Flying Serpent”, the only source describing the incident, ends, but hope remains that the creature could somehow make its escape, across the border, to the continent or wherever flying serpents find refuge.



Had a good sense of humour: William Winstanley



England has, for whatever reason, the largest proportion of local dragon legends in Europe, even more than traditional dragon countries like Wales, France and Germany. The tale of the “Flying Serpent” from Essex is just one of the most recent and one that is not immediately connected to local folklore. In Saffron Walden, however, lived a somewhat accomplished author, who sometimes published under his own name, William Winstanley, and sometimes under the nom de plume Poor Robin and had, allegedly, a good sense of humour. There is a local tale that tells of Poor Robin and his nephew Henry who were seen early in 1668 at making the model of a dragon from canvas and wood and all the witnesses who claimed to actually have seen the Serpent were friends of Winstanley who might well be not only the author of the Henham hoax but the leaflet as well. At least the Serpent and the locals on the woodcut accompanying the anonymous leaflet are all smiling rather broadly. But who knows, the dragon lives on in local legend and even if it didn’t get an own article on Wikipedia yet, the Flying Serpent is very welcome the build its nest in the outdoor enclosures of the Wunderkammer to be wondered and marvelled at, as one of the places where such creatures indeed find refuge.


And more about William Winstanley (without a serpent reference, though) on:


and more about the Henham Dragon on a charming local website: