So there’s this huge elephant in the room.
And it’s being throttled by the most magnificent dragon.
It is mediaeval, part of a bestiary, and a familiar image in mediaeval manuscripts. When you do a search for ‘dragon’ with any of these manuscripts, this is what comes up: a large lizard with two legs and a tail to vanquish whole fortresses.
Thing is this: when you look at mediaeval representations of dragons: count the legs:
Do you make it the same number as I do?
Yet two legged dragons have their own separate name. They are a sub-species of dragon, current folklore says. Two legged dragons are called wyverns.
This distinction between dragons with two legs and four legs: it is absorbing. And I would like someone who really knows to tell me which came first in folklore: the two-legged or the four legged?
I have a very good reason for enquiring. For in my potterings about London I have come across these creatures which guard the City:
Popular myth, not to mention the City of London itself, in its guide to its arms, styles this a dragon. Online I have heard it referred to just as often as a griffin. Magnificent creature, whatever he is. I have heard his kind referred to as ‘supporters’ – those which hold up a central shield in a coat of arms. He has been part of the city’s arms for centuries, he and a mirror image.
Most coats of arms – including that of Wales – shows this form of dragon. four legs, stocky griffin-like stance. It has become a familiar form.
But from what I can dig up, he is not with what a dragon looked like to our mediaeval forebears. And in a modern context, look at Smaug, a long, lizard like creature. Or just check out the definition of a dragon from Mirriam Webster: “an imaginary animal that can breathe out fire and looks like a very large lizard with wings, a long tail, and large claws…”
Like a lizard with wings.
When did the dragon rampant make an appearance? And more importantly, where did he come from?
Back to one of my old obsessions. A creature I have seen all over and believe I can identify. Here he is, a gargoyle at Christ Church College, Oxford:
Here he is on silverware, two sauceboats dating from about 1740-50 from an old English family, the Champneys – you can read more about him here:
Here he is up in the gods, in the bell tower of St John The Baptist Church, Cirencester, famed for its mediaeval art:
And then, there is the story at Winchester Cathedral.
The painting is currently inaccessible – they’re using the Lady Chapel, where it is situated, to look at Kings’ bones – but it’s one of a number of panels illustrating miracles performed by the Virgin Mary.
So there was this painter, painting a picture of the Virgin, and Satan was so red-furious that he took the ladder and shook it, in the hope the artist would break his neck.
But Mary held the painter up so he could finish the work.
And here is a picture of Satan rattling that ladder:
Ring any bells?
Could it be that this dragon-like creature was singularly representative of the Prince of Darkness himself?
Is it heretical, I wonder, or possibly treasonous,to make a link between Satan and the dastardly griffin-dragon of the City of London?
Mediaeval Manuscript images from the collection at the Bodleian Library