The Deerhurst Dragon
The figure of Saint George, despite being adopted by several countries around the world, is still regarded as one of the quintessential English legendary characters. But he was Turkish wasn't he? Or Greek? The man – maybe so. The dragon slaying legend – not necessarily. The myth of the dragon slaying warrior is woven permanently into English folklore with scores of different legends from the Lambton Worm to Piers Shonks and the Brent Pelham serpent while it's origins lie in wider European archetypes like Sigurd. While the dragons of Chinese and ancient American lore were usually benevolent creatures whose killing was a great crime, European serpents were invariably spiteful and aggressive beasts that killed indiscriminately until killed themselves.
So what has this got to do with Mercia? Well, some of the dozens of dragon slaying legends of Britain are set right here in the Midlands, with one in particular associated with today's location.
Deerhurst Church is incredible, with possibly the best surviving examples of Anglo Saxon architecture and carvings in the country. Not just complete walls, but huge arches and doorways along with carved terminals of animals both real and mythical. It must have been an awe inspiring building in it's day as most of the original Saxon structure and stonework survived through the Norman and later eras, with the medieval Gothic styling and later Victorian repairs holding the remains together nicely. First built as the centre of a priory during the reign of Offa, King of Mercia, it was partially rebuilt during the reign of Edgar the Peaceful – according to some experts as a result of being burned by raiding Danes.
A strange animal head overlooks the original entrance arch, while inside the door is guarded by snarling wolves on both sides. The stunning original Anglo Saxon font is on display, tastefully illuminated to show the detail of it's carving work, this was incredibly found in a field being used as a water trough for cows! What struck me most though was the huge original porticus now built into the west wall. On each side the arch ends in a carved dragon's head, with small patches of the original paint still on them. Wolves on the outside, but dragons inside? While the reasons for such imagery may lie in the curious way in which the Christian church gradually entwined itself round the heathen beliefs of the Anglo Saxons, the dragons here have special significance.
According to local legend, a dragon, or serpent, made the area of Deerhurst it's hunting ground, terrorising the local people. A man named Smith (according to one version) spent some time observing the creature's habits, noting that it had a soft and unscaled patch under one leg. He left a barrel of cream open and out for it to drink and when it dozed after basking in the sun, he struck – spearing it through at it's weak spot then helving it's head off with an axe. He was given an estate by the king (no mention of which one) to remain in his family as long as he wanted it, and the axe was preserved in a local church. Was this St Mary's at Deerhurst? There is no record of there ever being an axe there, if we assume any old axe could be held up as a dragon slayer's weapon. This version also points out that the serpent first slithered out of the nearby River Severn. Was this a parable about the Danish raiders, coming “a' viking” up the Severn on dragon prowed longships? Perhaps defeated by Saxon warriors wielding their famous two handed axes?
The wolves at the door might bear this out, as while inside now for protection from the elements they were originally outside, was this a totemic symbol added during the rebuild as psychological defence? Wolves were both revered and reviled during the Anglo Saxon era, a curious paradox where the animal was held up symbolically as a noble and wise beast but practically as a bringer of death and a constant threat to livestock. The white wolf that protected the head of our original patron St Edmund versus Edgar the Peaceful demanding 300 wolf pelts a year in tribute from his entreatied Welsh neighbours. The dragon story could well be what is enshrined in the carved heads inside on the porticus terminals, if the viking story isn't behind it maybe it was just a part of local lore? It's worth noting that the nearby Tredington church actually has a dinosaur encased within it's stones – the fossil of an ichthyosaur resides in the doorway. I think this too has it's part to play in this jigsaw of lore.
Dragons aside, a three minute walk takes you from St Mary's church to a real treasure. Odda's Chapel. Odda was a powerful lord during the reign of Edward the Confessor and built a great hall at Deerhurst. While the centre of the estate would have no doubt been a huge wooden mead hall, he had this private stone chapel built in honour of his brother Aelfric who was buried there. One of the few complete Anglo Saxon buildings still in existence, it is what it is, with no later additions or changes. Yes, it was converted into a farmhouse in the 1500s with the builders likely having no idea at all of the chapel's history, but when rediscovered in 1865 and the Tudor parts stripped away, we were left with this magnificent and complete Saxon structure. The dedication stone was found in an orchard close by and reinstated within the walls. The atmosphere is serene, even today.
Going back to the old Germanic saga of Sigurd, or Saeward as the Anglo Saxons would have called him, then on through Beowulf who came out of retirement to slay a dragon, then later medieval dragonslayers such as Piers Shonks, John Lambton with his spiked armour and our very own Smith of Deerhurst, the archetype of the noble hero standing against a seemingly unbeatable serpent beast is most definitely a part of the heritage of England and should be celebrated as such. This tradition was also recognised by JRR Tolkien who so masterfully wove the idea into The Hobbit with Smaug the dragon and his death from the bow of Bard. So by all means raise a glass on this St George's Day – cheers!
Anglo Saxon carved wolf head at the door of the church
Carved image of Sigurd fighting Fafnir the dragon, an archetype repeated over and over again
One of the dragon heads inside St Mary's church at Deerhurst
The entire porticus inside the church, Anglo Saxon dragon head at each end
Entrance to St Mary's church at Deerhurst, with the remains of another Anglo Saxon carving, perhaps a dragon?
Detailed Anglo Saxon architecture inside
The modest entrance to Odda's Chapel
Inscription inside Odda's Chapel
Arch inside Odda's Chapel