Posted March 26th, 2012
by Pete Savage
Not a few have been puzzled by the heraldric red dragon seen throughout Somerset, because that is the emblem of Wales. However, dragons have been associated with Somerset for centuries and were adopted as standards by Celts, Romans and Saxons. The West Saxons in the 8th century carried a golden dragon or wyvern standard against the Mercians in 752 and the Danes in 1016, and its last use in battle was probably the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Somerset County Council was formed in 1889 but had no official coat of arms until 1906 when the council unofficially adopted a variation of the Wessex wyvern, using a four-legged dragon as their crest. This was formally ratified by the College of Heralds in 1911 as a red dragon on a gold background holding a mace as a symbol of office.
The County of Somerset Coat of Arms
The difference between a dragon and a wyvern is that a dragon has four legs while a wyvern only two legs.
The origin of the word wyvern or wyrm is interesting, being associated with the Latin vipera, Old Germanic wipera, Middle English wyvere, and Nordic orm, all referring to a poisonous serpent. The word dragon derives from the ancient Greek drakon and the Latin draco meaning a large serpent.
Dragons in legends usually symbolize some evil power, and perhaps many dragon myths have their origin in events where Christianity overcame paganism. For example, Carhampton is associated with the legend of the 6th century Celtic evangelist from Wales, Carantoc, and King Arthur who came to rescue the villagers from a flying dragon. Carantoc was looking for a place to set up his mission and so he cast his altar into the Severn Estuary saying wherever it came to rest, there he would build a church. On his way to Carhampton, King Arthur spotted the altar in the reeds near the sea, and picked it up. He noticed it was inscribed with the words “Carantoc’s Altar” but had no idea who Carantoc was. A few miles further on he met a man by the roadside who asked him if he had seen the altar of Carantoc, and revealed to the king that he was Carantoc. The king then asked him to call up the dragon from the marshes, which he did to everyone’s horror, except for Arthur and Carantoc. However, the dragon bowed its head in submission to Carantoc, who led it to the court of King Catho (Cado, king of the Dumnonians) at Dunster Castle, where the dragon was forced to promise that it would never hurt another soul again. It was so converted that from then on only used its fiery breath to aid villages light their bonfires in the rain, and Carantoc was granted land on which to build his chapel by the river at Carhampton.
The Norton Fitzwarren dragon is just one of many legends about dragons in Somerset. Here are a few listed in Somersetfrom http://www.paranormaldatabase.com/reports/dragons.php?pageNum_paradata=3&totalRows_paradata=91
After a battle at the hill fort at Norton Fitzwarren, a dragon appeared from the pile of corpses and began to terrorise the area, devouring children and destroying crops. A young man, Fulk Fitzwartine, fought the beast and after a long and bloody struggle, pierced its heart and cut off its head. In All Saints Church, a 16th-century rood screen depicts the story.
In Wells the cathedral is built on the area where the villagers were prevented from accessing seven holy springs by a wyvern, which was driven away by Bishop Jocelyn.
At Wiviliscome around 1827, when the church was being rebuilt, the devil riding a green dragon is supposed to have thrown rocks at the reconstruction work until driven away by St. Andrew.
Shervage Wood between Crowcombe and Holford was supposed to be the haunt of at least one dragon. In one story it was killed by a forester from Holford, while in another story two men from Crowcombe engaged a double-headed winged lizard that terrorised the area, winning the battle by forcing the creature to eat burning pitch. Carvings on the benches in the Church of the Holy Ghost show some of the battle.
At Clevedon, somewhere between Dolebury Hill and Cadbury Camp a dragon was reported to guard a secret stash of treasure concealed in this area. A similar story is associated with Castle Neroche south of Taunton where treasure is reputed to hidden around the iron Age Hill Fort. On Castleman’s Hill at nearby Trull another dragon is supposed to have been killed.
In the area where Stapley Farm now stands near Churchstanton, a dragon was killed by a knight and the lashing of the dying dragon’s tail is said to have carved out a hollow in a field known as Wormstall.
To the north ofTaunton, atKingston St.Mary, a fire-breathing dragon terrorized the region until a local hero rolled a boulder up a hill opposite the dragon’s lair and rolled the boulder down into the dragon’s gaping maw, choking the foul beast.
In Low Ham church is a spear used by a local hero to kill a dragon that lived in the Athelney Marshes and fed on local livestock.
The village of Aller is reputed to be named after a local hero, John Aller, who slew a dragon. In one version of the story he was poisoned by the creature’s dying breaths, while in another he found a brood of hatchlings in a cave and blocked it up.
Legend and fact meet at Putsham Hill, Kilve, where a dragon known as Blue Ben is said to have built the nearby causeway in order to reach the sea to cool him down on days he was particularly fiery. He met his end when he slipped on the rocks, and suffocated in the mud below. His skull is actually a fossil ichthyosaur, a prehistoric sea-dragon along with many other now-extinct reptiles that could explain why stories about dragons are found throughout the world.
The motto Sumorsaete Ealle means “All the people of Somerset” and is taken from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of AD 878 when King Alfred the Great liberated Wessex from the Danes. In early January the Danish army invaded the land of the West-Saxons as far as Chippenham, with a surprise night-time attack, driving many of the Saxons away and dominating those who remained. Alfred fled westwards to rally his troops in the woods and moors. That winter the Saxons in North Devon repelled a further invasion of Danes from South Wales. In the Easter of 878 Alfred raised an army at Athelney, and in the seventh week after Easter rode to Brixton by the eastern side of Selwood. There he was joined by “all the people of Somersetshire”, and Wiltshire, and part of Hampshire, who rejoiced to see him. “Then within one night he went from this retreat to Hey; and within one night after he proceeded to Heddington [Edington]; and there fought with all the army, and put them to flight, riding after them as far as the fortress, where he remained a fortnight [besieged them for 14 days until they surrendered]. Then the army gave him hostages with many oaths, that they would go out of his kingdom. They told him also, that their king would receive baptism. And they acted accordingly; for in the course of three weeks after, King Guthrum, attended by some thirty of the worthiest men that were in the army, came to him at Aller, which is near Athelney, and there the king became his sponsor in baptism[christened him Æthelstan]; and his crisom-leasing [anointing with oil to symbolize receiving the Holy Spirit] was at Wedmor [Wedmoor]. He was there twelve nights with the king, who honoured him and his attendants with many presents.”
The words “Sumersaete ealle” – all the people of Somerset – was adopted as part of Somerset’s coat of arms in 1911.
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