"One of those absurd stories which have a tendency to retard the human mind in its progress to a rational improvement" - Lipscomb
By Clive Harper
(What follows is taken from "The Hughenden Dragon" by Clive Harper)
Drawing of The Hughenden Dragon by British fine-artist Chesca Potter
The story of the Hughenden Dragon is almost unknown even to the residents of High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. It is not mentioned in the several surveys of British dragon-lore which have recently been published (1) and was effectively rediscovered by local historian Alan Cleaver (2).
It October 1758 there appeared in The Gentleman's Magazine a letter from an Edgar Bochart recounting the story of a water serpent he had come across whilst "in the country" during the summer (3). He tells how he first thought the story "fabulous" but had sufficient curiosity to seek out a farm where the incident was supposed to be depicted on a wall. He went to the farm and on one of its walls, found a painting of a dragon-like creature and a pencilled record of its history. The story which he felt "in every respect true" is as follows:-
A woman of the farm was used to getting water from a nearby pond. In the year 1578, the woman was troubled by a large water serpent which she frequently saw when she went to get water. She was frightened of the creature and told her neighbours about it. A plan was then agreed to do away with the serpent. The woman was to attract the serpent by sitting by the pond side, whilst some of her neighbours hid behind the briars which almost surrounded the pond, ready to kill the creature. The plan was successful and to mark the event the skin of the creature was stuffed with straw and hung up outside the house. Over the years the skin rotted and so a likeness of the creature was painted on a wall of the farm. The painting also gradually deteriorated and so had to be restored from time to time. The likeness Bochart saw he thought to be about forty years old, and showed a creature like a traditional dragon.
Bochart described the house where he found the dragon painting as having "arms visible in many places" and inferred that it must have been a hospital of the Knights Templar. He also stated that about half a mile in the valley beneath the house was the church of Hitchendon in the county of Bucks, which housed memorials to some of the knights.
Hitchendon was the 17th and 18th century name for what is now the parish of Hughenden (4). Bochart's "church of Hitchendon" was thus the church of St Michael and All Angels, Hughenden. The dedication is particularly interesting in that St Michael churches are frequently associated with dragon legends (5).
In the 18th century about half a mile from the church of St Michael, stood the ancient manor house of Rockhalls. In previous centuries this had been the home of the Wellesbourne family who are known to have had a penchant for armorial carvings - "Some ... members of the family of Wellesbourne ... in the reign of Henry VIII claimed, without any ground whatever, to be descended from the Montforts. They caused to be made and placed in the chancel aisle at Hughenden a monument to a fictitious ancestor ... and had the arms of Montfort and Wellesbourne with some differences carved on an older effigy which they found there" (6).
It is also known that there were similar carvings in the old manor house, which had no connection whatever with the Knights Templar (7).
Some time towards the end of the 18th century the old Rockhalls was pulled down but a number of carvings were saved and incorporated in the buildings now known as Rockhalls farm and Brands Lodge (8) where they can still be seen today. The armorial carvings enable us to identify as Rockhalls the house where Bochart saw the dragon painting. It is harder to identify with any certainty, the pond in which the dragon was supposed to have lived.
The most likely site is on the opposite side of the road from Rockhalls Farm, about 100 yards up the road towards Widmer End (9). This pond may only be part of the old Rockhalls moat and tends to dry up in the summer. It has however clearly silted up over the years and is surrounded by bushes and brambles which are very easy to imagine as Bochart's "briers".
The 19th century historian Lipscomb referred to the Hughenden dragon as "one of those absurd stories which have a tendency to retard the human mind in its progress to a rational improvement, and which are therefore to be discountenanced by every friend of historial truth" (10).
Today Lipscomb's view seems unfairly harsh and one would tend more to agree with Jacqueline Simpson - "A wider function of the dragon legends ... is to embody the whole community's pride, its conviction that it is in some way superior or even unique ... a dragon, is a claim to fame which any rival village would be forced to envy. But it is a claim which often seems to be accompanied by a twinkle in the eye". (11)
THE text above is copyright of Clive Harper. My apologies to him that I have not been able to contact him in advance to ask permission to publish this on the website. Hope you don't mind, Clive!
Shortly after Clive's booklet was published a Mrs King of Princes Risborough wrote to the local paper, The Wycombe Star, and said:
"Sir, I was interested in your article in this week's Star on the dragon story. I was born in that area and remember my father telling us when young (I am now 85 years old) of a story not quite the same as yours, of a woman and a baby in a pram being swallowed up by a dragon from the pond between Four Ashes and Terriers. I have no idea of the time this was but it must have been very early on, having never heard from anyone else of the story. I lived a Four Ashes over 20 years, just a small flat, besides the farm, two estates and one small holdings, two pairs of workman's cottages and two single cottages. There is a spot behind the farm on a footpath between Four Ashes and Hazlemere reputed to have been where Simon De Montfort had his castle.There is still a small moat and a deep ditch dating from about the 12th century - the same as the Hughenden church I think. As a child I was always afraid of the pond and the story. I made a copy to send when one of the papers were asking for old spooky stories then didn't send it but since the story comes from the hills and not the valley I thought you might be interested in it. You evidently had difficulty in finding the story you wrote on the subject. I wish I had heard more of the story and if my father did have any idea of date. Country stories are so interesting".
The pond indicated by Mrs King would seem to have been the same as the one identified by Clive Harper. It is fascinating to see how verbal tradition had distorted the story into one of a woman and baby being swallowed by the beast - but the central idea of the dragon remained.
1. Janet Hoult "A short history of the Dragon" Gothic Image 1978; Paul Newman "The Hill of the Dragon" Kingsmead Press 1979; Jacqueline Simpson "British Dragons" BT Batsford 1980; Ralph Whitlock "Here Be Dragons" George Allen Unwin 1983.
2. Alan Cleaver "Lurking Period in the Pond" Wycombe and South Bucks Star 20th January 1984 p25.
3. Edgar Bochart letter in "The Gentleman's Magazine", October 1758 pp 466-7
4. Victoria History of the Counties of England Buckinghamshire 1925 Vol III p57
5. John Michell "The View over Atlantis" Garnstone Press 1975 p57
6. E J Payne "The Montforts, the Wellesbournes and the Hughenden Effigies" Records of Bucks 1896 Vol VII pp 362-412.
7. Thomas Langley "The history and Antiquities of the Hundred of Desborough" 1797 pp 298-300
8. George Lipscomb "The History and Antiquities of Bucks" 1847 vol III p582.
9 National Grid Ref: SU 8757,9580.
10. George Lipscomb op cit
11. Jacqueline Simpson "Fifty British Dragon Tales" Folklore 1979 vol 89 p 786.