Dragon Slayers and Knuckerholes


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?


42 thoughts on “Dragon Slayers and Knuckerholes

  1. What fascinating words Kate! For my part, I’m in love with magical dragon lore, like that in Anne McCaffrey’s books, which I devoured as a teenager, and brought to life more recently in the movie Avatar 🙂

  2. The east coast dragons and their slayers all have a whiff of Beowulf about them. Grendel and his mum are water monsters — though not dragons, that vame later in the story — and in his youth swimming out at sea he banquished ‘nicors’, the very same knuckers who had those holes you mention.

    In fact there was a scholar who tried to locate the Beowulf story in Kent…

  3. I do love these tales! Isn’t it interesting that almost every culture enjoys a variant of the dragon/dragon slayer. I’ve spent a little time (very little) enjoying Native American dragon-like characters. I would love to investigate further. Fascinating! Knuckerholes is a new one on me, Kate. 🙂

  4. They really needed me to teach them about the happy ending option, didn’t they?
    The wiliest wyrm that ever wyrmed is surely the one in Loch Ness. Nobody has cotched him, yet. Visiting there, I could well believe he lurks in those depths.

    1. There’s all that talk about them being a social memory of dinosaurs, isn’t there? It’s not so hard to project that a few might have managed to hang on a few million years…or is it billion….

  5. Dragons and dragon slayers do capture the imagination. One of my favorite stories, that I used to read to my grandchildren, was “The Paper Bag Princess” by Robert Munsch. It’s turn-about fair-lay when the princess takes charge.

  6. Our stories are all dragons right now, as we are up to our armpits in Cressida Cowell’s Vikings and dragons… brilliant stuff, those. Those dragons and their slayers, their boys, their heroes, from such a deep, wonderful tradition.

  7. Hard to believe with all the fantasy games I’ve played, I’ve never come across a knucker. Plenty of dragons and wyrmes, but never a knucker. Thanks! Next time there’s a knucker warning, I’ll know what to expect.

  8. Knuckerholes! A new concept in dragon lore for me to bandy about. Love this, Kate. Somewhere in this rambling old house is an old children’s book called “The Dragon in the Clock Box” where a young boy patiently tends a box where he says a dragon’ s egg nests. His family is less patient.

  9. I wonder what creature existed in the British Isles that could give rise to these ancient tales. Do you think it came to the UK from Vikings in Scandinavia with their sagas and scary looking raiding ships? In certain parts of the U.S. we have alligators/crocodiles and on that island near Japan are the Komodo Dragons, which are scary as hell. I think the UK would be too chilly for these guys.

  10. Love this. Could dragons, perhaps have been dinosaurs that didn’t die? Or simply creatures that humans feared because they had yet been named? I often wonder which comes first myth and imagination or simply fear of the unknown that becomes part of the human subconscious.

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