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A case study in folklore development.

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Dragon, legend, or cryptid? The legacy of the Lambton Worm

A case study in folklore development.

A core tenant of cryptozoology is the euhemerist belief that all legends possess a grain of truth; that stories of confrontations with fantastic beasts echo encounters with real animals. And while such legends do occasionally produce new animals, sometimes they yield a whole lot more.

One particularly interesting example involves the Lambton Worm, a well-known English folktale from County Durham that also happens to be one of my all-time favorite dragon legends. The story is too long and involved to recount here, but for those unfamiliar, check out any of the canonical versions from the late 19th century, like the anonymously published 1875 pamphlet, “The Wonderful Legend of the Lambton Worm” (re-printed in the appendix of folklorist Jacqueline Simpson’s British Dragons [1980]), Alfred Cooper Fryer’s Book Of English Fairy Tales From The North Country (1884), and Joseph Jacobs’ More English Fairy Tales (1894), as well as Ernest Rhys’ English Fairy Tales (1913).

A case study in folklore development.

English Fairy Tales (1913)

Over the years, a number of cryptozoologists have treated the story of the Lambton Worm as possible fact, including, most recently, Nick Redfern. Well-regarded cryptozoologist Karl Shuker is more ambiguous about the veracity of the legend, but in his 1996 book Dragons: A Natural History, he somehow arrives at the incredibly precise date of Easter Sunday 1420 for the start of the story, a claim which has been widely repeated since.

Loch Ness Monster seekers Roy P. Mackal, and especially Ted Holiday in his books The Great Orm of Loch Ness (1968) and The Dragon and the Disc (1973), are perhaps the most notable proponents of the Lambton Worm’s reality, claiming the beast may be Nessie’s kin – an idea that’s not wrong, while simultaneously not being right in the way they intended it to be.

While the most popular versions of the tale don’t appear until the late 1800s, as is usual with oral folklore, it’s difficult to pin down exactly how old the story of the Lambton Worm really is. Field maps of Durham dated to 1737 and 1750, uncovered by researcher Audrey Fletcher, show such topographical features as “Worm Hill” and “Worm Well.” The fact that such locations refer to the events described in the legend are confirmed in solicitor and antiquarian William Hutchinson’s The History & Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham Vol. 1 (1785) which reports that:

… Worm Hill, tradition says, [was] once possessed by an enormous serpent, that wound its horrid body round the base; that it destroyed much provision, and used to infest the Lambton estate, till some hero in that family engaged it, cased in armour set with razors.

This might sound like a ringing endorsement of the tale’s authenticity, but Hutchinson is careful to note that “the whole miraculous tale has no other evidence than the memories of old women,” a comment which simultaneously suggests the story’s general antiquity and confirms its status as folklore, not history. Hutchinson also didn’t believe the story, even if it were true, to be about a literal giant serpent, but rather a reference to “some Danish troop who kept [Worm Hill] as a station,” pillaged the land, and was eventually driven off by a local chieftain. The idea that the Lambton Worm was intended as a military allegory was later revived by researcher Gordon Rutter in a short-article published in Cryptozoology Review Vol. 3, no. 2 (Autumn 1998), though he admits it t be  pure speculation.

The legend of the Worm was subsequently enshrined in the official Lambton family history, as written by  Robert Surtees in The History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham (1820). According to Fletcher’s research, Surtees appears to have shared Hutchinson’s hypothesis that the legend referred to a military encounter, but was subsequently persuaded to change his mind by the celebrated Scottish poet and demonologist, Sir Walter Scott. A letter dated May 13, 1810, written by Surtees to Scott, mentions the legend of the Lambton Worm – marking the first time the creature is called that – and refers to Scott’s cryptozoological contention, as expounded in his 1802 anthology Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, that folktales and ballads about dragons indicate that giant serpents once inhabited the British Isles.

Surtees’ account of the Worm appeared at an important time in the history of the Lambton family. According to research by scholar Jamie Beckett of Durham University, the Lambtons had been one of the major landowning families in Durham County since the 13th century, and by the late 16th and early 17th century, had succeeded in increasing their wealth through further land acquisitions and shrewd investments in the burgeoning coal industry. This resulted in them becoming one of the richest families in all of Durham by the close of the 18th century, which helped them achieve political power.

A case study in folklore development.

In 1812 John George Lambton, at the age of 20, became a member of Parliament for County Durham. Just like the Young Lambton in the Lambton Worm tale, the historical John wasn’t known for following tradition. A left-leaning political radical, John used his position in government to call for wide-ranging political reforms, including universal suffrage and fixed-term limits for members of Parliament. He also decried the Peterloo Massacre of October 1819, in which British soldiers responded with violence to peaceful protesters. These bold moves earned John the opposition of the conservative majority, while conversely winning him the hearts of the English public.

Eventually, John was able to make good on his campaign promises when his father-in-law, Lord Grey, became Prime Minister. In 1832, Lambton helped draft the Great Reform Bill, which significantly weakened the conservative Tory party’s power in Parliament. A political cartoon from that year shows John Lambton and Lord Grey shoving their political advisories into the gaping jaws of a huge dragon-like beast, and it was also during this time that a number of cheaply made and mass-produced chapbooks began to appear recounting the tale of the Lambton Worm.

This thinly veiled political propaganda stressed both the idea of the noble Young Lambton as a champion of the common man, and the political commonalities between medieval and modern England during the first Industrial Revolution (1760-1840). It also helps that many were printed with dedications to John George Lambton himself. In fact, the Lambton of the story is even identified as a John in Alfred Cooper Fryer’s aforementioned 1884 retelling.

In 1830, Sir Cecil Sharpe, remembered today as the Father of the English folksong revival, published a small book called The Worme of Lambton, which provided both a retelling of the story and a commentary on it. Sharpe’s most important observation is that “it cannot be disguised that many of the inhabitants of the County of Durham in particular still implicitly believe in these ancient superstitions. The Worm of Lambton is a family legend, the authenticity of which they will not allow to be questioned.” Sharpe’s retelling and commentary were later reprinted in antiquarian Cuthbert Sharp’s widely read collection of folktales and folksongs, The Bishoprick Garland (1834).

The next major development in the legend of the Lambton Worm wouldn’t come until 1879, when folklorist William Henderson published Notes on the Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Border, drawing on the extant work of Surtees and Sharp (who is of course quoting Sharpe) for his retelling of the tale.

Henderson espoused the cryptozoological perspective that the Lambton Worm was a real, unknown animal, citing Scott’s hypothesis of an extinct race of giant serpents, the contemporary belief among many scientists in the existence of sea serpents, and the recent paleontological discovery of dinosaurs and other related animals. Henderson also noted that the trough from which the Worm was supposedly fed milk could still be seen at Lambton Hall, and that Surtees had claimed that in his younger days he had seen what was purported to be a piece of the Worm’s skin on display there, though it looked more like bull hide to him.

It is at this point that the tale of the Lambton Worm firmly enters the realm of popular culture, appearing in the numerous collections of English folk and fairytales cited at the top of this article. The legend would also serve as inspiration for Dracula author Bram Stoker’s final horror novel, The Lair of the White Worm (1911). Stoker seems to have been influenced by the cryptozoological ideas of Scott and Henderson, as Chapter 5 explains that the titular worm is an “antediluvian monster” which has managed to survive the end of “the age of the monsters” by finding refuge in some “holes of abysmal depth” scattered throughout the English countryside.

As scholar Katja Jylkka in a 2018 essay, and I in a 2019 essay, have independently noted, Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm can be seen as serving as a prototype for the subsequent claims made about Scotland’s Loch Ness, and its monster which would burst onto the scene in the early 1930s. This makes the Lambton Worm indeed a relative of Nessie, albeit an archetypal rather than biological one.

A 1988 film was (very) loosely based on Stoker’s Lair of the White Worm

While the Lambton Worm isn’t a real animal, it has nevertheless achieved a type of immortality which few zoological specimens can. Today the Lambton Worm remains a fixture of not only English folklore, but comic books and radio dramas as well.

Undoubtedly though, its best-known reference is as a folk-ballad composed in 1867 by singer-songwriter C. M. Leumane and still regularly performed in Durham to this day. And as listeners are informed at the beginning of this 2014 symphonic retelling of the legend presented in Durham Cathedral by The Durham University Brass Band, “This isn’t a fairy-story; it’s the tale of the Lambton Worm!”

Special thanks to Gordon Rutter and Karl Shuker, who took time to answer my questions concerning their work on the Lambton Worm. Also to Scott Mardis for his advice and assistance.  

The world is scary right now, even more than usual. That’s why, for the next few weeks, AIPT Science is taking skepticism back to its roots with some more lighthearted fare. Keep coming back for stories on ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot, and everything in-between, in OUR NEW PARANORMAL.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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