History Thread: A Brief History of the Bures Dragon

Outside the town of Bures in Suffolk, a unique geoglyph can be glimpsed on the hills. The Bures Dragon commemorates a bizarre local legend about a rampaging reptile which scourged the town sometime in the Middle Ages. It’s a great example of how a banal, if fearsome creature can be interpreted as a legendary “monster” by a population unfamiliar with it.

The story first emerged in 1307, when Benedictine monk John de Trokelowe related a horrifying tale of a local animal attack. Some years earlier (no accounts specify the date), a large, ferocious reptile he deemed a “dragon” wandered into Wormingford, a village near Bures. It possessed a “crested head, teeth like a saw and a tail extending to an enormous length.” The townspeople were horrified by this visitation, fleeing the streets and locking themselves indoors as it ambled slowly through the village.

According to de Trokelowe’s account, the “dragon” did nothing more ferocious in Wormingford than simply making its presence known. Its rampage wasn’t completely without incident, though. Soon afterwards it arrived at a homestead known as Clappits, where it attacked several sheep. The farmer confronted the beast, which attacked and killed him, then feasted on his sheep. The dragon was now a killer.

As panic spread, a local landowner, Sir Richard de Waldegrave, assembled a posse of workmen armed with bows and arrows to kill the creature. They found the “dragon” near the farm and cornered it, unleashing a fusillade of arrows. Unfortunately, beast “eluded all of his shots…[and] sprang back arrow from his ribs like a knife or hard stone.” After this violent encounter, the wounded creature “fled to the swamp, and lay hidden among the reeds; nor was seen any more.”

A modern reader won’t find anything baffling about this story: a large reptile, probably a crocodile or monitor lizard, escaped from captivity, made its way to a nearby town and had an unfortunate encounter with the locals. Although “krokodiles” were a part of many medieval bestiaries (albeit in exaggerated forms), Suffolk farmers wouldn’t necessarily be familiar with such a creature. Hence the creature was dubbed a “dragon” or “wyrm” by witnesses; indeed, Wormingford reportedly received its name from the “dragon’s” visitation.

One might ask, reasonably, where this reptile came from in medieval England: but there’s an explanation at hand for that as well. Richard I returned from the Holy Land with a collection of animals for his royal menagerie, including a crocodile reportedly gifted to him from Saladin. This animal was kept in the Tower of London, where it lived without incident for several years until a storm flooded the Tower. Washed into the river the creature, somehow, found its way to Anglia and ascended into myth.

However sober the original account, subsequent retellings add absurd details worthy of the Pearl Poet. A 1405 account recapitulated the earlier story but added decidedly dragonesque details: that the creature rampaged through Wormingford, “breathing fire at anything that moved” and killing untold people and animals. Yet another account claims Sir Richard’s knights, having terrified the beast into submission, celebrated by feasting on the sheep roasted by its breath. Today, Anglian lore relates that “a mysterious bubbling can still be seen in one corner of the mere where the dragon disappeared,” implying that it might return for a future reign of terror.

The Bures Dragon is still popular in Suffolk, who relish it as a local legend, and from credulous cryptozoologists who accept the embellishments as a genuine mystery. A local landowner descended from Sir Richard de Waldegrave commissioned a carving of the dragon which is visible from the local countryside, a tribute to East Anglia’s own dragon tale.