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The Legend of the Lambton Worm

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 to death.

Penshaw Hill, where the Penshaw Monument now stands, is supposed to be where the worm spent much of its time. (Public Domain/Wikipedia Commons).

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?

The 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.

Lambton 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 come true.

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 movie.

The 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 starts:

 

 

One Sunday mornin' Lambton went A-fishing in the Wear;

An' caught a fish upon he's hook He thought looked very queer.

But what kind of fish it was Young Lambton couldn't tell-

He didn't 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.

The spectacular 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.

Copyright 2007 Lee Krystek. All Rights Reserved.

 

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