Listen to or download 'Here Be Dragons', which examines the history of dragons, the different types and the cultural differences, while trying to determine the idea of what is a dragon in different times and places concentrating on Wessex in particular, and especially the Christchurch area.
Welcome to the “Here Be Dragons” pod cast. My name is Michael Hodges and over the next thirty minutes or so I am going to give you an insight into the history of dragons in Wessex and in particular those in the Christchurch area. Many dragon carvings can still be seen in this day in Christchurch Priory Church. There are different types of dragons and their cultural meanings have changed over the centuries.
So let’s start off by saying what a dragon really is. If you look at pictures of dragons you can see he’s a sort of a flying crocodile. You know the Romans used dragons as a military banner. In fact the man who carried the wind sock banner of a cohort was called the dragonarus. The Romans incidentally didn’t invent them they got them from the Persians. And the Saxons and Britons fought each other with different coloured dragons. The Saxons had a white dragon and the Britons had a red dragon. There are stories about Merlin and the romances of Arthur to remind us of that. If we go back to what a dragon is though, it’s a flying crocodile. Now crocodiles don’t fly. But the most frightful beast even today is the twenty foot long salt water crocodile, which you still get in northern Australia. In fact in the early maps showing where the medieval sailors were inventing new information going into new places very often equatorial rivers which they were plotting will see on the sea outside the river the sign “Here Be Dragons”, because that’s where the salt water crocodile was to be found. Dragons like salt water crocodiles were terrifying things and so where a map maker didn’t know what to put because it was terra incognita – no one had been there - he might well write on the side of the map “Here be Dragons” because it was a frightening place that nobody visited.
The idea of a dragon flying seems to come from China. Chinese have a view that the dragon is an intelligent creature, not particularly unfriendly and lives in the sky. What is interesting about their dragon is that it can only go in straight lines and I’ll come back to that later about dragons and straight lines; bear that in mind though.
The other thing about dragons is that they are supposed to breathe fire and, of course, that is absolute nonsense isn’t it? The nearest thing to a fire breathing dragon is probably the crocodile tank, the last of which was a Churchill built tank which has been modified to fire a flame thrower for about a 120 yards. But you know there is a snake, the Spitting Cobra of India which spits poison. It spits poison very accurately at the eyes of the creature from which it requires to defend itself. If you get the poison of a cobra spat into your eyes it burns. I suggest this is where the idea of a fire breathing dragon comes from.
So we have crocodiles, we have poison spitting cobras; we have the salt water crocodile. And we have the Romans meeting the Persians in battle about 500BC; the Persians using the crocodile as a banner, the Romans saying this is a good idea, they use it as a banner. They bring it to Britain. The Britons see them using their windsock crocodile banner they copy them. The Saxons copy them. In fact we even find in the banners of the Prince of Wales I believe they are still to be found, a golden dragon. And the Mercian’s were fighting under a golden dragon in the 700s AD. The dragon banner appears on the Bayeaux tapestry, one is still flying over Harold’s house carls one has already fallen to the ground. The dragon banner continues in use today in the British army – everything from the dentists which have a dragon’s head in their military badge, to lots of units in the West Country in Wessex which incorporate dragons. The 43rd Division, which later became reduced after the last war, later a brigade, had a dragon cap badge. So we still find dragons appear in military heraldry.
Dragons also appear in our folklore and they appear in churches surprisingly enough. Really good examples of dragons in churches are here in Christchurch Priory. Christchurch Priory had a ceiling put in under its roof beams in 1820, but if you allowed to go up and look at the roof beams, you will see that they have dragons painted on them. Some of them also have George - the man who deals with the dragon.
We even have a local pub which is now, called the George because the brewery heard people calling it the George and thought it meant George III. In fact the original pub sign going back into the 1700s is ‘St George and the dragon’. Many pub signs and other signs show George and the dragon fighting. Often George is shown as a knight in armour very often riding a horse – it must be a well trained horse if he is standing astride a crocodile breathing fire at him. Sometimes you notice that George is spearing the dragon and killing it, and sometimes he seems to be not so much spearing it, as banging it on the head perhaps if not with the tip of the dragon with the butt of the spear. Because you know spears were balanced they had a metal band around the butt to balance the spear, and if a dragon were electric or magnetic, with energy and you put metal on it what would happen? Well you would get an electric shock; but you earth it don’t you? So perhaps that’s a way of controlling a dragon if a dragon represents energy,
And here, we come back to the idea of straight lines again, because you do find in the Christchurch area and elsewhere, a lot of antiquities lining up in straight lines. If you go to an early Ordnance Survey map of the 1880s, which was very accurate if you get the 2 ½” or 6” maps, they included pretty well everything - standing stones, stones that nobody knew what they were for – (sometimes farmers thought they were for animals to scratch themselves on), a lot of the barrows which are no longer included or have been ploughed out and gone, round barrows, long barrows, henge’s, standing stones, stone circles. If you plot all these things (and they date from the Neolithic at the time of the first farmers and the Bronze Age, the time of Stonehenge), you find you get straight lines. Now if you look at those straight lines you find that also on these straight lines you get Free Reformation churches or chapels, or cross sites. If you look at these straight lines with all these antiquities on them, not only are they straight lines but they tend always to go towards an interesting horizon feature. Sometimes they go on beyond the interesting horizon feature to other features. The horizon feature might be a hill top, or it might be a dip between two hills. If you look very carefully at those hill tops and the alignments you can actually work out if it was where the sun rose at a certain time of the year, perhaps at the solstices, mid summer, mid winter, perhaps at the equinoxes, Michaelmas, Easter or perhaps at festival dates, like Candlemas or May Day or Lamas harvest or the All Hallows festival.
These festivals were also the ones that the early farmers used before Christianity, like the festival Imbolc for Bride, the virgin fire goddess, second of February; or the May the matron the bride of all good things, the earth mother who was celebrated on the evening of April 30th because that’s when people went a ‘Maying’. Then on May Day itself you have dancing around the maypole. Puritans didn’t like maypoles; they banned them. They thought they were phallic symbols. Well, they were really. It is also interesting that the colours of a maypole were pagan colours red and blue – blood and death. The ‘Maying’ ceremonies in the evening because the Celts didn’t count from dawn they counted from dusk. At the time of Cromwell, they banned ‘Maying’ because the boys and girls went out into the woods to practice sympathetic magic. They would do what comes naturally and the girls would not come back intact. That’s why it was an unlucky month to get married in May because you didn’t know who the father of a child was conceived in May. So don’t get married until June like I did!
So the situation of dragons, straight lines and folklore is all mixed together in a very interesting way. Here in Christchurch we have dragons in the Priory, not just painted on the ceiling, we have got them carved in the Priory. We have them on arches, at the foot of the major pillars nearest the altar. And those are particular dragons because they are quite big and they are covering each of the main directions. One is lying with it’s head looking to the Isle of Wight, one with it’s head towards the New Forest, one with it’s head towards Cranborne Chase, and one, with it’s body towards the Isle of Purbeck, with it’s head turned towards the Isle of Wight, as if what ever was troubling the dragons the worst place for it to have come from was the Isle of Wight. And of course, that’s an area that the Vikings held for two winters. Dragons are often associated with Vikings in Wessex, because the Viking long ships had these interesting figureheads that could loosely described as dragons. So the long ship or the dragon ship was associated with the Pagans who terrorized Wessex. It was only thanks to King Alfred that Wessex was able to stave them off and eventually recover the rest of England for the Christian church. It ended up with the Vikings becoming Christians themselves.
So dragons and Christianity get tied up with church folklore. Particularly interesting in Christchurch because not only have we got all these dragons carvings in the Priory and a pub that used to be the George and Dragon, we even have folklore in the town about dragons. And dragon folklore in Christchurch is interesting because it shows, I believe how folklore can tell you the truth in a way that sometimes seems as if it is talking nonsense. Two interesting stories about folk lore in Christchurch: one is that Christchurch is supposed to have been burnt by a five headed sea dragon and you think well this is nonsense isn’t it? Well is it? Sea dragons might be nonsense unless you say we are talking about Viking long ships. Five Viking long ships in Christchurch Harbour is very likely because we know the Vikings burnt Wareham and Wimborne, Wilton and Poole, Southampton and Portsmouth and over wintered two winters on the Isle of Wight, so why shouldn’t they have burnt Tweoxneam, the place betwixt the waters which the Normans called Twynham which only later became Christchurch. And if they burnt Christchurch, perhaps local people would have remembered it as a five headed sea dragon.
We actually have a record of a five headed sea dragon burning Christchurch in 1113. This relates to a party of monks from Laon cathedral in France coming to the town to collect money to be able to rebuild their cathedral which was burnt down. They came to Christchurch in 1113 but we had started to build the Norman Priory, onto the Saxon Minster that was already here in 1094. It took 30 years to build the nave of the Priory. So these foreigners weren’t welcome because we wanted every penny we could scrape together to help build our Priory. So the Dean, (the monks weren’t yet at Christchurch in 1113), through them out of town. As a result they cursed Christchurch. And it’s recorded as a result of that curse a five headed sea dragon came and burnt the town. I think what really happened was the fire took place because most of the roofs in Christchurch in those days were thatched and fires were very common.
We often have stories of fires in local towns like Wareham and Salisbury, and Poole, and in fact as a result of these fires, children had to be brought up by the local ratepayers and they were orphans. Nobody knew what the family names were. So you get local surnames like Wareham and Salisbury and Poole which are a result of people in the past being brought up by those towns and having to take the towns name as their surname. Interestingly enough in Blandford, they were brought up there but didn’t take the name Blandford, you have a famous local surname, of very respectable people in Blandford, called ‘Bastard’ of a surname. So interesting what surnames can tell us.
If we go on thinking about the five headed sea dragon of Christchurch, it is likely, I suggest, that we have the Vikings in Christchurch burning the town perhaps around 900, perhaps 878 when Alfred perhaps gave orders for the Burgh. Christchurch was a walled town under Alfred, it had a ten foot high wall with a fighting platform on top behind a palisade with a ditch in front to keep the Vikings out. It ran from Pound Lane across the High Street to Bank Close then down through what is now Druitt Gardens to the end of Silver Street where it meets Church Lane. We didn’t need the wall to be continued round the rest of the town because the two metre deep, three or four metre wide Millstream was a defence on the other sides, plus the marshes and the Avon, and you have the much wider Stour on the south and the south west of the town.
A further piece of dragon folklore, relates to the River Avon north of Christchurch at Bisterne. At Bisterne we have a very strange story of a dragon being killed by a hero called Maurice De Berkley. Now the De Berkley’s are famous as a family they held the Berkley Castle in Gloucestershire, but there were Gloucester families that held land at Cranborne and at Bisterne. Maurice De Berkley was a hero of the 100 years war, that’s when the Battle of Agincourt took place. As a local person who was a hero, people not reading and writing, he would have been talked about around the fire in the evening. No television, no radio, no books to read, so you made up stories. If Maurice De Berkley killed the dragon, it’s not likely that he was the same chap who killed the dragon, if it was a Viking long ship because the Vikings weren’t operating in the 1400s. They had all being Christianized; they were the Normans who had conquered Britain in 1066. However if we were still remembering Vikings still trying to get up the River Avon to Old Saram, (because Salisbury did not exist in Viking times), then they may have been bought to battle at Bisterne where there is a Dragon Lane, with this dragon folk lore and the man who killed the dragon – here is a Hundred Years war hero - probably it’s because the story has got mixed up. It had not been written down, but talked about around the fire in the evenings. Now the really strange thing is that he is supposed to have worn very odd armour. He is supposed to have covered his armour in bird lime and used the bird lime to keep powdered glass on his armour. So that when the dragon, dragons are orms or serpents, wound itself round him, it cut itself to pieces and the bits fell in the Avon and were washed down stream and that was the end of the dragon. And you think, well this is absolute nonsense isn’t it covering your armour in bird poo and powdered glass. And yet, there was a King of Norway in 900AD who was called Ragnar Hairy Breeks and he is called Hairy Breeks because of his armour. He didn’t want to wear a tin suit in case he fell off his long ship and fell to the bottom of the sea. He wore leather armour, which would be lighter, covered in pitch so it would be waterproof but while the pitch was wet covered in sand. So it would be like fighting a man wearing sandpaper. Now if you are fighting a man wearing sandpaper but you don’t know it, and you a country bumpkin at Bisterne, the story might last afterwards as, “Well it was like a chap wearing armour covered in powdered glass.” So I think that is where the story comes from. It is a good example of how folklore can sound absolute nonsense until you pull it apart and try and understand it. And take it seriously and test it. Ragnar Hairy Breeks is a known historical figure. Incidentally, he is also reported to have been a dragon killer.
Wherever there have been Vikings there are stories of dragon folklore. Incidentally the Vikings took their figureheads down when they were out at sea, they only put them up when they were approaching land to intimidate the local people. And they used terror as a weapon to frighten people so people wouldn’t stop and fight, because if people did get behind defenses like Burghs and defended themselves effectively it wasn’t much the Vikings could do about it because in those days people hadn’t invented proper siege warfare arrangements. So if you could get to a Burgh like Christchurch and take cover with your family and your animals - they might burn your house bur that is only made of wood you can build another one - but they couldn’t get at you and yours. So Alfred had a Burgh roughly every 20 miles throughout Wessex so that you were never more than 20 miles from a point of refuge. And he had also organized men to man the Burgh. In Christchurch we had 470 warriors to man our Burgh and our 646 yards of wall so it was 4 warriors to every pole of wall, which gave you enough room to stand there with your spear and your shield with your colleagues either side of you but not absolutely on top of you so you had room to manoeuvre. So it all worked out quite satisfactory. Alfred also arranged through his Burghal system, with the Hundreds that supported the Burghs. That’s the Hundred Hides to every taxation area, to every Hundred, which was such an effective system it lasted throughout the Tudor times, that you were able to produce enough men not only to man your Burghs, but also to have a field army, and to have men to man ships. Alfred built himself a navy with longer, bigger, higher ships which would therefore be able to fight more effectively against the Viking ships. So it was all part and parcel of a hard time for local people, no wonder they remembered it, no wonder the dragon stories continued to be told.
The idea of dragons being involved with energies is apparently modern, perhaps. People talk about ley lines. People have arguments about what ley lines are. My personal view, is that they are Neolithic and Bronze Age farming calendars, because the first farmers that came to this country after about 4000 BC didn’t read and write. And if you are a farmer you have to have a calendar. You need to know when to plough or break up the land if you can’t plough it. Well, if you know that the sun always pops out of the same hill at the same time every year, and you give yourself a back marker, then you would say ok this is fine this is the time of the year we want to remember. It’s perhaps the time and the year when it is rising at its furthest north - mid summers day, or it’s rising at it’s furthest south - mid winters day. And these days are quite important because you don’t want the sun to disappear. If it is getting colder and darker, and the days are getting shorter you might be worried that the sun is going to disappear altogether. You might want to conjure it back. And so you would watch very carefully around mid winter to see is the sun is coming back. And that’s, of course, why we know today mid winter is usually about the 21st December. And we celebrate Christmas on the 25th because the sun tends to mark time at the solstices and you can be sure that it is coming back by the 25th. Incidentally, the Christians pinched the Christmas date from the Mithras, soldiers in the Roman army because Mithras birthday is the 25th December. It doesn’t really matter what date Christ was born because it’s the message he brings that matters most, and the church will agree that the Christians didn’t know the date they just decided to adopt that particular date in about 350AD.
So straight lines are to do with calendars, perhaps they are to do with energies, I think probably it is much more likely that they are to do with farming calendars. Although to be fair, lightening does strike in the same place twice, that is why we have lightening conductors. And lightening tends to strike on hill tops and places where stones are exposed. Wherever the lightening strikes it has an effect on the local earth’s magnetic field, which dowsers and people who are sensitive can detect. If it keeps striking the same place it is going to have a noticeable effect on the local earth’s magnetic field which perhaps people who are sensitive to energy or people who dowse can pick up. So that’s why you might get energy alignments which are straight lines which also happen to be Neolithic, farming calendar alignments on which you have pre-Reformation churches like Christchurch Priory which has thirteen of these alignments going through it. Most of them start on the Purbecks or on the Cranborne Chase. Both of which are chalk lands. The chalk meant that you didn’t have many trees to get down because the chalk is under about two inches of earth, so not many big trees there could get their roots in the ground. So if you are only armed with a stone axe you could break the ground up more easily. You don’t have so many trees to chop down. If you look at your alignments from places on the chalk lands there they are going through, thirteen of them at least, going through the site of Christchurch Priory which after all is the highest point in Christchurch. That’s why the castle came later and it is on a lower point than the Priory. And we find that there are also thirteen alignments that go through the end of Hengistbury Head, the part that has now eroded, and is now in the sea. These alignments set out from known stones like the Puck Stone, the Agglestone, the Harp Stone, the Remp stone, the Bread Stone, and they go through a whole series of other sites. Sometimes churches were put on these sites later on, they go through hill tops, they go through barrows and some go onto the chalk at the Isle of Wight, as well. So it all makes good scientific sense so pay attention to your folklore because it isn’t telling fairy tales it is telling you the truth. It is just that you have to untangle it because it wasn’t written down perhaps for thousand of years and so it was distorted in the telling.
When we examine folklore in Wessex we find these dragon stories are frequently on rivers, and on harbours, but not invariably, because the Vikings used to land and grab horses to go across country that’s why they were able to catch Alfred by surprise when they attacked him at winter time from Chippenham. You tend to find these dragon stories where the Vikings have been. But don’t forget the Romans were here, and the Saxons were here using dragons long before the Vikings. The Roman dragon can appear in some of the mosaics which occur. We have mosaics on the Isle of Wight which show terrible, frightening creatures. And people say, ‘Oh they are showing dragons.” Perhaps it’s because they are finding on the Isle of Wight a lot of the bones of dinosaurs and other giant creatures which pre-date mankind by many millions of years. And perhaps, why the Romans saw some of these and used them in the mosaics. But also we have here in Dorset there is a mosaic, I believe at Frampton which was dug up in the 1790s, and there you have an extraordinary type of dragon shown - a frightful beast, a chimera and it is being taken on by somebody riding a horse. The horse is a winged horse, a Pegasus, and he has got a spear and it may be that though the experts say that this is Belerium who is dealing with the chimera. I wonder if it is St Michael who is dealing with the dragon. Because Michael is after all, our famous dragon killer, he was subsequently usurped in that role by George and many of our George churches were Michael churches. Incidentally here at Christchurch, we have a Michael church at Sopley with Sheila-na-gigs on its north transept – a naked male, which is unusual and a naked female effigy both used an insult to the devil to drive him away. They are a form of Green-man. Christchurch Priory has a Green-man, the church is in it and that’s the nature god.
But the idea of Michael as a dragon killer probably goes back to pre-Christian times where we have a local god called Lugh. Romans when they came here recognized Lugh as Mercury - the messenger - just as the Greeks knew him as Hermes, the Egyptians knew him as Thoth. He was also the god of knowledge and wisdom and skill and information, because he knew things at a distance. He was also described as a Shining One, as a Silver-Handed One, and he too had a spear. So perhaps Michael’s spear as leader of the heavenly host, is in fact the idea of Lugh being borrowed by the Christian church. Michael lost his role as a dragon killer to George because when the local people were out there on the crusades, from perhaps about 1098 to about 1230s, and they were finding themselves hard pressed by the Muslims and would call upon the saints to help. The story is that St George appeared and gave them assistance. That’s because St George actually was buried, five miles from Jaffa at Lod, in Palestine. Jaffa was the harbour for Jerusalem so when people arrived at Jaffa they would probably hear about George being buried five miles away at Lod, because George was a Christian martyr. He was a Roman soldier probably originally from Turkey and was put to death under Diocletian around 300AD. So he is remembered and then when the soldiers fighting the Muslims thought that they were calling on the saints for assistance, they credited the man giving them assistance as being St George who was after all a Roman soldier. So they brought the story back and that usurps Michael to some degree. The reason that he usurped Michael is that George was given credit as being a dragon killer which is a complete mistake. It was because the Greek hero Perseus is credited with killing a sea dragon and rescuing Princess Andromeda at Jaffa around about 500BC when the Greeks were fighting the Persians at sea. The story about Perseus was therefore wrongly attributed to George, 800 years later, and then when the British soldiers were fighting the Muslims of Palestine, another 800 years further on, that the story was wrongly attributed to George, and brought back here and used to some extent to usurp the role of Michael was the dragon killer. It was a great pity because Michael is after all a leader of the Heavenly Host, he is the chief archangel.
So it’s interesting how again here, here is an example of how folklore based on truth getting muddled, because people passed on information by word of mouth round the fire in the evening and stories got garbled, but they were still based on actual true things.
Yes there was a George. Yes he was a Christian. Yes he was martyred. Yes he was buried at Lod, five miles from Jaffa. As regards Perseus killing a sea dragon, I suspect that Perseus was a Greek sea captain or admiral who had a successful battle against the Persians in the area. So it is all based on truth we just have to try and understand it and not write it off.
So I trust you, have been patient in listening to my vapouring,s but some of it is true you know.
Thank you for listening to me, if you are interested and want to know more I could recommend you to read my book “Here Be Dragons” which came out in 2008. It’s available at the Red House Museum or at the council’s information, or at local book shops. And it will tell you more than I have had time to tell you today.