In 1086, or thereabouts, a man killed the last historically attested dragon of England. This was a good few hundred years before wolves were exterminated by royal decree. We know this fact because a tomb in the church of St Mary in Brent Pelham (halfway between London and Cambridge) records the name of the man who did it, Piers Shonks. Little known beyond a very narrow part of Hertfordshire, a new book sets out to explore this fascinating man.
There be dragons?
Dragons have been a perennial part of Western folklore. The legend of St George is just one aspect of this myth, but they pop up in other legends. One English myth about St James, tells how a dragon attacked the funeral cortège and was destroyed by the sign of the cross.
Where did dragons originate? The English word derives from the Greek via latin where it can also mean serpent or water snake. Greek examples of “dragons” could include both the Hydra (defeated by Hercules) and the Chimera defeated by Bellephron, the dragon defeated by Cadmus.
Sometimes, during the Roman period, the god Horus is portrayed on horseback defeating his uncle Seth portrayed as a reptile, images that draw on earlier Greek visions.
At the same time, the ancient world had an ambitious relationship with snakes, sometimes seeing them as lucky creatures. Greeks kept tame snakes to hunt rats and the Romans depicted household gods or spirits as snakes.
In Egypt, the cobra goddess Renentuet was a protector of mothers. She become associated with Isis (called Isis-Thermouthis). By the Roman period, the protecting spirits of Alexandria were depicted as snakes, Serapis, Good Spirit and Isis-Thermouthis.
How far this inspired later images of dragons is hard to tell, although in Historie of Serpents, published in 1608, Edward Topsell writes dragons are ‘only distinguished from the common sort of serpents by the combe growing uppon their hearts, and the beard under their cheeks. Certainly all the dragons depicted above have such finery.
In the Greek New Testament, the word Dragon is used in Revelation for the image of a pregnant woman (sometimes identified with the goddess Isis) and crucially for the image of the Last Battle:
And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels,
This image would have resonated across Christian cultures. The dragon was often identified as Satan, linking it to the snake who tempted Eve in Paradise (The Septuagint uses the Greek word ophis).
Dragons are most strongly associated with medieval chivalry. It is notable then that very few dragons are mentioned in the Arthurian cycles. Lancelot and Tristan both defeat dragons, but significantly are not strongly associated with them.
In Arthurian myth, Merlin has a vision of two dragons, a red one and a white one, fighting. He explains it as a prophecy that the Britons (the red dragon) will hold back the Anglo-Saxon invaders (the white) for a while, but then the Saxons will overwhelm the land. The red dragon ultimately became a symbol of Wales, but it’s also common in German myth. Both Siegfried and Beowulf fight dragons.
This all leads to the central theme of the Hollow Places by Christopher Hadley. Was a dragon actually killed nearly 1000 years in a field just over ten miles from what is today Stansted Airport? And who was the man that killed it?
Piers Shonks is a local legend in a small region of Hertfordshire, although little known outside of it.
An old tombstone in St Mary’s, Brent Pelham is said to be Shonke’s tomb. In the top part it depicts an angel carrying a soul up to heaven, surrounded by the four evengelists, in the middle a cross and in the bottom part a dragon. A Latin text records his death in 1086. The text however was a later addition. It draws on Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
The dragon is most likely a depiction of Satan the dragon and the image portrays an act of salvation in a time when people believed that prayers for the death could intervene with the final judgement.
It was probably during the Reformation that the meaning of the stone became disconnected with popular belief and its legendary aspects developed. It was almost certainly at this time that the grave experienced forensic destruction of the hands of the angels.
Between the Elizabethan period and the early twentieth century several notable local antiquarians and county historians recorded the legend of Piers. It changed over time. The earliest record of the legend, in 1598, printed text simply describes the tomb and says he is linked to a local moat. Roughly a hundred year laters, the vicar notes two versions of the Latin inscription with an English translation:
Cadmus his fame, St George his fame alone remains
Their tombs and ashes are all gone
But Shonks who valiantly the serpent wounded,
In spite of Satan, here he lies entombed
Here Piers is linked with two other dragon slayers, but a new myth develops. That Shonks defies Satan (the second translation states “Shonks one Serpent kills, tother defies”). The position of the tomb within the walls of the church lend itself to another set of legends that being buried within the wall was a way to defy Satan, denying him his part in a deal. Was Piers, then, a rural Faustus or perhaps he was a local saint?
I will leave the story here, but if you want to find out more you must read Hallow Places.
The books begins with an evocative description of the felling of an ancient yew tree in the area. The local agricultural workers tell the vicar that they have discovered the cave of the dragon, which Shonkes destroyed.
Hadley links this act to an almost taboo action and suggests it was a job given to underemployed agricultural workers. The yew tree has strong connotations and is associated with death and cemeteries: “that yew-tree’s shade, where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap” as Thomas Gray has it. Yews can survive for centuries.
The nineteenth century began with a call to colonise the world. The first President of the board of Agriculture said in 1803:
“Let us not be satisfied with the Liberation of Egypt or the subjugation of Malta. Let us subdue Finchley Common; let us conquer Hounslow Heath”.
The great momentum of exploitation, the wave of modernisation, reached Brent Pelham with the symbolic felling of the tree, but rather than destroy the local legends in its wake, it was caught in the weft of the story.
What is fascinating it not just that the legend has survived and developed, but that each age has brought its concerns and desires.
The book is full of incidental detail, full of rich nuggets, which together tell the history of a story and how it develops other time. It is linked by a gripping narrative, a historical detective story. The story is not just of Shonks, but the stories we tell ourselves. It is England which is revealed. An England of myths, antiquarians and stories.
Book cover, used under Fair Use as part of Book Review