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Deerhurst’s Dragon, Gloucestershire

At Deerhurst, near Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, just a mile or two from the site of the 1471 battle , a legend exists that long long ago a terrible dragon roamed the land. The creature feasted on cattle stolen from the people there, and poisoned the inhabitants for good measure. The king of the area offered as reward to anyone who could rid the place of the vile beast an estate on his lands nearby. But rather than, as might be expected, some valiant knight arriving to slay the dragon, a simple local working man, with the commonest of names, John Smith, managed the feat: he cunningly used a great quantity of milk left in a spot favoured by the dragon to render the thing drowsy. Smith was hiding nearby. Once it was fast asleep he crept up on the great serpent and with one blow of his heavy axe decapitated it. Perhaps unusually, for such tales often involve double dealing on the part of the one who offers the reward, Smith was indeed given lands for his work, and local legend has it that his descendents farm there still.
If we discount the story as true (which is a pity, everybody likes the idea of dragons even if we would not like one as a neighbour), what other explanations are there for it? There are several clues, if no hard and fast answer.
Deerhurst has the lovely Saxon church of St Mary’s , which was once part of a great priory. The priory was raided by the Vikings , and may have been made uninhabitable by them. Inside the church there are several carvings of wolves, or some say dragons. Do these commemorate the raiders? Or were they there before them – the church after all dates back at least as far as the early 9th century? Just a little distance away too is Odda’s Chapel , once part of a royal palace complex: could the dragon story have originated around the fire in the great hall there, told by a bard in return for his supper? Perhaps it stretches the imagination further, but another local link can be suggested: Edmund Ironside and Canute signed their treaty in 1016 at Deerhurst. This settled the wars in England for a time, dividing the country between them (the vigorous Edmund dying mysteriously young and suddenly only shortly afterwards). Could the dragon tale be a parable of the settlement, the Norse dragon lulled into lethargy by the Saxon king?

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