It is not necessarily wise to believe everything the mediaeval storytellers tell you.
Revenants and monsters, vengeful devils and headless saints: we are asked to suspend our disbelief to extraordinary lengths by our distant forebears. But the stories remain gripping, engaging, colourful, outlandish. And an entomological feast.
It is possible, even in this rational age, to visit the graves of dragon slayers in Britain.
They don’t always call them dragons. Sometimes they are called wyrmes. Sometimes they use the old Saxon word for a dragon: Knucker.
And in a village called Lyminster, which nestles in Sussex, there is even a knuckerhole.
A knuckerhole was a seemingly bottomless pool, in which lived a fearsome water serpent. This serpent made the locals’ lives a misery, kidnapping and devouring local maidens until at last there was only one left. And she was the most guarded: the daughter of the King of Sussex.
And powerful men don’t like to be crossed, not even by wyrmes.
So he offered the inevitable reward, and the straightforward story says some knight stepped forward and slew the creature. But the less straightforward one is seductive: local boy Jim Puttock approached the thing with an alternative to delicate maidens: a pudding. Designed to be completely indigestible.
So the dragon got terrible indigestion, and Jim nipped in with his sword and finished the monster off. Which just goes to show that water monsters should stick to seafood and not dabble in heavy English puddings.
I think we can all learn something from that.
Meanwhile, some of the dragon’s blood got on Jim’s hand. And after his victory pint he wiped his mouth and the blood poisoned him and he died, there and then.
It couldn’t have happened , could it? Although I wonder why a figment of the mediaeval imagination is buried in Lyminster churchyard.
And in a church in Slingsby, North Yorkshire, lies the effigy of a dragon slayer and his dog.
The story follows a similar pattern: hole half a mile out of town, marauding wyrme with a penchant for locals. Sir Willaim Wyvill, a fourteenth century knight, went out hunting with his dog and came across the dragon, fighting it to the death. He and his dog sleep in stone in the choir of All Saints’ Church, Slingsby.
And then there was Shonks. Piers Shonks to you: elevated by time to the status of a 23-foot giant who came upon a dragon in the forest near Brent Pelham, Hertfordshire, and killed it. Problem being, the devil has rights over all dragons. Satan got mad, and turned up to claim Shonks, body and soul. He would have him, he told the giant, whether he was buried inside or outside the church.
But Shonks was not just a pretty face. He opted for an action-man deathbed scene, shooting an arrow and vowing he would be buried where it fell.
It lodged in a crevice on the church wall: and the giant was buried right there, cheating Satan because he was buried neither inside nor outside the church.
They’re all over, the Dragon Slayers. And the wyrmes. Lambton, Laidley and Linton, Sockburn and the Wyverns of English heraldry. How do stories like that begin? Did wyrmes ever waddle unsettlingly about the earth, emerging from pools, snacking on riffraff and royalty alike?
And if not: who lies under the stones of the dragon slayers?