The story revolves around John Lambton, an heir of the Lambton Estate, County Durham, and his battle with a giant worm (dragon) that had been terrorising the local villages. As with most myths, details of the story change with each telling.
The story states that the young John Lambton was a rebellious character who missed church one Sunday to go fishing in the River Wear. In many versions of the story, while walking to the river, or setting up his equipment, John receives warnings from an old man that no good can come from missing church.
John Lambton does not catch anything until the church service finishes, at which point he fishes out a small eel- or lamprey-like creature with nine holes on each side of itssalamander-like head. Depending on the version of the story, the worm is no bigger than a thumb, or about 3 feet long. In some renditions it has legs, while in others it is said to more closely resemble a snake.
At this point, the old man returns, although in some versions it is a different character. John declares that he has caught the deviland decides to dispose of his catch by discarding it down a nearby well. The old man then issues further warnings about the nature of the beast.
John then forgets about the creature and eventually grows up. As a penance for his rebellious early years, he joins the crusades.
Eventually, the worm grows extremely large and the well becomes poisonous. The villagers start to notice livestock going missing and discover that the fully-grown worm has emerged from the well and coiled itself around a local hill.
In some versions of the story, the hill is Penshaw Hill, that on which the Penshaw Monument now stands, but locally the credit goes to the nearby Worm Hill, inFatfield. In most versions of the story, the worm is large enough to wrap itself around the hill seven times. It is said that one can still see the marks of the worm on Worm Hill.
The worm terrorises the nearby villages, eating sheep, preventing cows from producing milk and snatching away small children. It then heads towards Lambton Castle, where the Lord (John Lambton's aged father) manages to sedate the creature in what becomes a daily ritual of offering the worm the milk of nine good cows, twenty gallons, or a filled wooden/stone trough.
A number of brave villagers try to kill the beast, but are quickly dispatched. When a chunk is cut off the worm, it simply reattaches the missing piece. Visiting knights also try to assault the beast, but none survives. When annoyed, the worm would uproot trees by coiling its tail around them. It then created devastation by waving around the uprooted trees like a club.
The story is set (apparently) in AD 1200–1300
After seven years, John Lambton returns from the crusade to find his father's estates almost destitute because of the worm. John decides to fight it, but first seeks the guidance of a wise woman or witch near Durham.
The witch hardens John's resolve to kill the beast by explaining his responsibility for the worm. She tells him to cover his armour in spearheads and fight the worm in the River Wear, where it now spends its days wrapped around a great rock. The witch also tells John that after killing the worm he must then kill the first living thing he sees, or else his family will be cursed for nine generations and will not die in their beds.
John prepares his armour according to the witch's instructions and arranges with his father that, when he has killed the worm, he will sound his hunting horn three times. On this signal, his father is to release his favourite hound so that it will run to John, who can then kill the dog and thus avoid the curse.
John Lambton then fights the worm by the river. The worm tries to crush him, wrapping him in its coils, but it cuts itself on his armour's spikes. As pieces of the worm are chopped off, they are washed away by the river, preventing the worm from healing itself. Eventually, the worm is dead and John sounds his hunting horn three times.
Unfortunately, John's father is so excited that the beast is dead that he forgets to release the hound and rushes out to congratulate his son. John cannot bear to kill his father and so, after they meet, the hound is released and dutifully dispatched. But it is too late and nine generations of Lambtons are cursed so they shall not die peacefully in their beds. That is how the story ends.
This curse seems to have held true for at least three generations, possibly helping to contribute to the popularity of the story.
- 1st generation: Robert Lambton, drowned at Newrig.
- 2nd: Sir William Lambton, a Colonel of Foot, killed at Marston Moor.
- 3rd: William Lambton, died in battle at Wakefield.
- 9th: Henry Lambton, died in his carriage crossing Lambton Bridge on 26 June 1761.
(General Lambton, Henry Lambton's brother, is said to have kept a horse whip by his bedside to ward off violent assaults. He died in his bed at an old age.)
The story was made into a song (Roud #2337), written in 1867 by C M Leumane, which passed into oral tradition and has several slightly different variants. The dialect is most effective when sung in a regional Mackem accent.
|One Sunda morn young Lambton went|
|A-fishing in the Wear;|
|An' catched a fish upon he's heuk||(=caught) (=his hook)|
|He thowt leuk't vary queer.||(=thought looked very strange)|
|But whatt'n a kind ov fish it was||(=what kind of)|
|Young Lambton cudden't tell-|
|He waddn't fash te carry'd hyem,||(=could not be bothered to carry it home)|
|So he hoyed it doon a well||(=threw it down)|
|Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,||(=Be quiet, boys, shut your mouths)|
|An' aa'll tell ye aall an aaful story,||(=I'll tell you all an awful)|
|Whisht! lads, haad yor gobs,|
|An' Aa'll tel ye 'boot the worm.||(=about)|
|Noo Lambton felt inclined te gan||(=go)|
|An' fight i' foreign wars.|
|He joined a troop ov Knights that cared|
|For nowther woonds nor scars,||(=neither wounds)|
|An' off he went te Palestine|
|Where queer things him befel,|
|An varry seun forgat aboot||(=very soon forgot about)|
|The queer worm i' tha well.|
|But the worm got fat an' grewed an' grewed,|
|An' grewed an aaful size;|
|He'd greet big teeth, a greet big gob,|
|An greet big goggly eyes.|
|An' when at neets he craaled aboot||(=nights) (=crawled around)|
|Te pick up bits o' news,|
|If he felt dry upon the road,|
|He'd milk a dozen coos.||(=cows)|
|This feorful worm would often feed||(=fearful)|
|On caalves an' lambs an' sheep,|
|An' swally little bairns alive||(=swallow) (=children)|
|When they laid doon te sleep.|
|An when he'd eaten aall he cud||(=all he could)|
|An' he had had he's fill,|
|He craaled away an' lapped he's tail||(=wrapped)|
|Ten times roond Pensha Hill.|
|The news ov this myest aaful worm||(=most)|
|An' his queer gannins on||(=goings-on)|
|Seun crossed the seas, gat te the ears||(=soon) (=got to)|
|Ov brave an' bowld Sor John.|
|So hyem he cam an' catched the beast,||(=home he came and caught)|
|An' cut 'im in twe haalves,||(=cut him in two-halves)|
|An' that seun stopped hes eatin' bairns|
|An' sheep an' lambs an' caalves.|
|So noo ye knaa hoo aall the foaks||(=now you know how all the folk)|
|On byeth sides ov the Wear||(=both)|
|Lost lots o' sheep an' lots o' sleep|
|An leeved i' mortal feor.||(=And lived in mortal fear)|
|So let's hev one te brave Sor John||(=let's drink to brave Sir John)|
|That kept the bairns frae harm,||(=from)|
|Saved coos an' calves by myekin' haalves||(=making halves)|
|O' the famis Lambton Worm.||
This worm-like, aquatic atrocity was allegedly responsible for a 7 year reign of terror in Durham, England during the Middle Ages and remains one of the most enduring dragon legends in history.
Long chronicled in the folklore of County Durham, England, the legend of this fascinating AQUATIC ENIGMA seems on the surface to be a Christian morality play, but when one looks a little deeper it becomes apparent that what we may be dealing with is a genuine, biological phenomenon.
The tale begins in Medieval times, when the young heir to Lambton Hall, John Lambton, decided to forgo the traditional Sunday mass in Brugeford Chapel in order to spend his morning fishing in the nearby Wear River. After hours of patient waiting, this young angler was astounded when his hook was suddenly snagged with a force so tremendous it almost tore the pole from his white knuckled grip.
After a seemingly endless battle, Lambton finally landed his catch, but much to his dismay it was not the gigantic fish he was hoping for. Instead Lambton watched in abject horror at a relatively small, glistening black, eel-like creature writhed on the rocky shore before him.
Lambton would later described the beast as having a head reminiscent of a salamander, complete with needle sharp teeth and nine holes along either side of its mouth, which may represent some sort of rudimentary gills.
The animal was also said to secrete a viscous, sticky fluid from its inky epidermis — not unlike some sort of monstrous mudpuppy.
Just as Lambton was about to return is quarry to the river, he was stopped by an elderly passerby who requested to see the creature. The old man was astonished by the sight before him and — according to legend — he blessed himself with the sign of the cross and admonished the boy for neglecting to attend church and warned him not to release the beast back into the river, stating that great misfortune would befall him if his advice were not heeded.
The boy must have taken these words to heart, for he packed the squirming creature into his catch basket. On his way home he passed by an ancient well — which, according to some, was Penshaw Hill, though others insist it is a place now known as “Worm Hill,” located in Fatfield — wherein he deposited the violent creature. This well would forever after be referred to as “Worms Well” by the citizens native to the region.
As the years passed legends began to spring up about this “cursed” well. Its waters were said to have become poisoned, and noxious fumes were rising up from its depths. As if all of that weren’t bad enough — according to those few brave souls who dared to approach this crumbling stone edifice — there was something alive in the moist blackness of the well.
By this point young Lambton had grown into manhood and, like so many of his brethren, he had hastened off to the Holy Land in order to fight in the crusades. It was during his tenure abroad, that the worm in the well also reached maturity much to the chagrin of local villagers.
Described as being a legless and wingless Dragon with razor-sharp teeth, eyewitnesses claimed that one could see a clearly defined musculature beneath this animals rippling ebony flesh.
This worm-dragon description has led some researchers to surmise that there may be a connection between this animal and the notorious LINDWORMS, which were said to haunt the rest of Europe and parts of Asia.
According to legend, this now massive animal finally managed to escape the stony prison of the well and slithered down the hill to its river home. After its return to running water nothing more was heard from this beast — that was until some time passed and it got hungry.
Reports which have been passed on from this period state that this creature went on a feeding frenzy, which claimed numerous cows and sheep as victims. It was said that the Lambton Worm had a particular fondness for cows milk and would often use its knife-like teeth to pierce the udders of its bovine victims and drain them of their precious, life giving fluid.
When a cadre of brave villagers attempted to stop this rampage nothing more was hear from them. Their corpses were discovered soon after near the river. Some of the men had drowned, others had been crushed, and still others had been literally torn apart.
Occasionally a traveling knight would make his way through the region and try to build his reputation by vanquishing the nefarious beast, but they all met with brutal ends. Legend even had it that when chucks of flesh were cut from the beast they reattached themselves in a supernatural fashion.
Thus began a 7 year reign of terror in which the villagers managed to satiate the beast’s hunger with daily offerings of warm milk for which a special stone trough was constructed outside Lambton Hall.
When Lambton finally returned home from the crusades, he was mortified by the terror which gripped his native land and the state of decrepitude that infested his soon to be inherited property. Feeling responsible for the entire situation, he solicited the help of a reputed witch who suggested that Lambton have the local blacksmith forge him a unique suit of armor one which was to be covered with double edged spikes or “spear heads.”
The witch then admonished the war weary Lambton that after the worm was slain he must then kill the first living thing he laid eyes on, lest his family be cursed with untimely deaths for no less than nine generations. In preparation for his coming battle with the beast, Lambton informed his father that he would sound his hunting horn three times to indicate that the monster was dead at which point the elder Lambton was instructed to release his son’s favorite hound so that he might kill it and avert the nine generation curse.
As Lambton cautiously approached the beast’s lair the creature, who had been lying in wait, sprung out at him. As it wrapped its coils around Lambton’s armored form, shreds of its flesh were sliced off by the spear heads. The enraged creature continued its suicidal onslaught until it had weakened itself so much that the young crusader was able to finally dispatch the creature with a single blow of his gleaming sword.
Upon hearing the horn blasts, Lambton’s father became so excited that he forgot to release the canine and rushed down to the riverside to see the worm’s CURIOUS CARCASS for himself. Much to the young crusader’s dismay it what not his beloved dog that he first laid eyes on the bloody shores of the River Wear, but his breathless father.
Unable to kill his own father, Lambton resigned himself to the witches curse, which his family would allegedly suffer the brunt of for at least three generations, leading to the enduring popularity of this legend. Nevertheless, the story of the animal itself — as well as it’s bovine-centric reign of terror — ends there.
For many, the legend of the Lambton Worm is nothing more than a story which was used to warn children not to miss church and to remind adults that debts must always be paid, but some investigators have pointed out that this animal seems to be more than a metaphor.
It seems as if the details used in the description of this beast would be superfluous if it was only serving as a generic villain in a morality play. Skeptics have speculated that the creature, if it were ever alive at all, may have been a gigantic python or boa constrictor, which had been transplanted to the British Isles by a sailor from a merchant trading ship or even a returning crusader.
While it is hard to discount this animal’s snake-like appearance, the possibility of a tropical snake growing to the aforementioned proportions — as well as surviving in Briton’s harsh winter climate — seems unlikely at best.
In 1911, Bram Stoker wrote “The Lair of the White Worm,” which was inspired by the legend of the Lambton Worm and in 1978, composer Robert Sherlaw Johnson wrote and opera called “The Lambton Worm.”
Whatever this creature may have been, it’s legend endures as both a Christian parable and an intriguing enigma for all enterprising folklorists and cryptozoologists.