In the Northeastern part of England there is a legend
from medieval times about a giant worm that terrorized the region.
Now a worm might not seem to be a very interesting creature to
build a story of terror about until you realize that the old English
form of the word worm (or wyrm) refers to a humongous snake or
dragon. Though there are slightly different versions of the tale
told all around the area, the basic story is as follows:
A rebellious, young man name John Lambton, heir
of the Lambton estate in County Durham, decided to go fishing
one Sunday morning, though he was warned by a mysterious old man
that no good could come of skipping church. Lambton is unsuccessful
in catching anything out of the local river Wear until he pulls
in a strange fish. The eel-like creature has the head of a salamander
and nine holes on either side of its skull. Lambton doesn't like
the look of it at all and declares he has caught "the devil."
On the advice of the old man, he decides not to return it to the
river, but instead decides to throw it down a convenient well.
Lambton grows up and goes off to fight in the Crusades.
The creature apparently thrives in the underground and grows and
grows inside the well, eventually poisoning the water. When it
finally emerges, it has grown to a humongous size and begins terrorizing
the land by eating livestock along with the occasional village
child. It also approaches Lambton Manor, where John's father manages
to placate it on a daily basis by filling a stone trough outside
the building with fresh milk for it to drink. In between assaults
on the surrounding countryside, the creature relaxes by wrapping
itself around the base of a hill.
Various villagers and knights come to slay the monster
but find that slicing off sections of the worm is ineffective
as the creature seems to be able to reattach lost parts without
much permanent damage. Moreover, anyone who comes too close to
the worm finds themselves caught in its coils and slowly squeezed
Hill, where the Penshaw Monument now stands, is supposed
to be where the worm spent much of its time. (Public
Young John comes home from the Crusades to find
his father's land in ruin from the worm. He vows to destroy the
creature and seeks the aid of a local witch. The witch first tells
John that he is responsible for the worm's existence by his actions
as a boy and this increases his determination to rid the land
of it. The witchs' advice is to go to the local blacksmith and
have his armor covered with razor-sharp spear points. Then he
should catch the worm as he lays wrapped around a great rock down
by the river and fight him there. She warns Lambton that if he
is successful in his quest, he will be required to kill the first
living thing he sees after his victory or the Lambton family will
be cursed for nine generations and no heir will die peacefully
in his bed.
Brave Sir John takes her suggestions to heart and
they prove to be the keys he needs to defeat the beast. When the
animal gets a hold of him in its coils, it cannot squeeze him
to death as the spear points on his armor will be driven into
the creature's body. Because he is fighting the worm on the edge
of the river Wear, any parts he cuts off the monster fall off
into the water and are swept downstream so the beast cannot heal
itself by reattaching them.
After a titanic battle, John Lambton is victorious.
It has been arranged that at his bugle signal one of his hunting
hounds will be released. It will run to him and John will slay
it to save his family from the curse. As it happens, however,
John's father forgets about the signal and runs out himself to
greet his son after the victory. John does not have the heart
to kill his father and the family is cursed for nine generations.
The Lambton Worm is a fascinating and colorful legend.
Is there any evidence that it is true?
Realm of the Worm
Certainly parts of the story are rooted in reality.
Though the present Lambton Castle in County Durham did not exist
at the time of the legend, is seems likely that a Lambton estate
has been on the same location for several centuries. The castle,
in its present form, was built by by John George Lambton, the
first Earl of Durham, in the early 19th century. During that period
the Lambton family made a lot of money from the coal mining business
and put it into reconstructing the castle. Ironically, the castle
suffered substantial damage when the very coal mines that had
paid for it collapsed underneath the structure in the 1930's.
Castle as it appeared in the 19th century.
The river Wear, where John Lambton supposedly caught
the monster, does really run through Durham County. The hill mentioned
in the legend as the creatures resting place is said to be either
Penshaw Hill or Worm Hill. Penshaw Hill, which is topped by a
replica of a Greek doric temple built to honor the first Earl
of Durham, is often pictured in modern drawings of the worm. This
is an anachronism, as the temple wasn't built until 1844, several
centuries after the legendary monster was dead. More likely the
actual hill involved in the story is Worm Hill located several
miles away. It is said that for many years afterwards the marks
the worm made while wrapped around that hill could be seen by
those passing by.
The final portion of the story involves the curse.
Did nine generations of Lambtons die violent deaths? At least
some of them may have. Given that the Lambtons were involved in
such actions as the English Civil War, however, a premature end
to their lives doesn't seem all that unlikely. The curse may also
have been self-fulfilling: It is said that by the ninth generation
one Lambton slept with a horse whip by his bedside to defend himself
in fear that his servants might take actions to make the curse
Unfortunately, all this circumstantial evidence
doesn't add up to the worm legend being based in reality. Indeed,
the story has all the earmarks of a good yarn including a morality
lesson - you should go to church on Sunday, not go fishing. Parts
of it also mirror other tales. The command the witch gives to
kill the first living thing seen after victory sounds a lot like
the story of Jephthah from the Bible. Jephthah promised God that
in return for his victory he would make a burnt sacrifice of the
first living thing that greeted him on his return to his home.
Unfortunately he was not met by a goat or lamb, but by his teenage
daughter. Unlike John Lambton, however, Jephthah kept his vow.
The worm song as done for the Ken Russell
Worm in Story and Song
The fact that the tale isn't true hasn't discouraged
people from telling it over and over in different ways. In 1867,
C.M. Leumane wrote a folk song about the worm. Many variations
of the basic song are still sung throughout the region. One version
mornin' Lambton went A-fishing in the Wear;
a fish upon he's hook He thought looked very queer.
But what kind
of fish it was Young Lambton couldn't tell-
want to carry it, So he threw it down a well…
In 1911, Bram Stoker, the Anglo-Irish novelist that
also wrote Dracula, penned The Lair of the White Worm,
based on the Lambton legend. Stoker, who spent most of his professional
life as the business manager of the Lyceum Theatre, earned addition
money by writing books. His position with the theatre took him
on tour throughout the world and allowed him to collect legends
and folktales which he worked into his novels. While Lair of
the White Worm is considered one of Stoker's lessor works
(and his last- he would die the following year) it does reflect
much of the Lambton Worm legend within its pages.
Thor's cave was pictured as the ancient home of the great
worm in Ken Russell's film. (Photograph
by T Chalcraft released under Creative Commons ShareAlike
License version 2.5)
In 1978 the story of the Lambton Worm became an
opera written by Robert Sherlaw Johnson and Anne Ridler. A decade
later the legend was again brought to the attention of the world
when producer Ken Russell released his motion picture version
of the Stoker book: The Lair of the White Worm starred
a young Hugh Grant as the aristocratic descendant of the legendary
Lambton hero (whose name had been changed for the film to John
Dampton). Grant's character finds himself in trouble when he discovers
that the giant worm from the myth really isn't quite dead but
living under his estate. Russell's script is partly based on Stoker's
book but also draws heavily directly from the legend. The folksong
by Leumane also finds its way into the movie belted out by a rural
rock band. The motion picture is notable for its use of picturesque
locations throughout England including Knebworth house, the Victorian
residence of novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Thor's Cave, a
natural wonder that doubles as the lair of the great white worm.
It is still possible to visit County Durham and
see some of the places connected to the legend: Lambton Castle,
Penshaw Temple, and Worm Hill as well as others. If you travel
there, however, it might be wise to avoid fishing in the river
Wear on Sunday mornings.