Concerning dragons

You wouldn’t expect East Anglia to be the ideal place for dragons, and indeed there are few tales in Suffolk, Norfolk or Cambridgeshire. In Essex, though, there are many tales – but this isn’t the place to discuss such creatures. If you do want to find out more, my History Press colleague Jan William’s book Essex Folk Tales has all their secrets. It seems as if the dragons have all been vanquished now, just like all the other large predators that compete with humans, but both Norfolk and Suffolk did once have dragons. Norfolk’s dragon lived in Ludham in the Norfolk Broads, but doesn’t seem to have troubled the Suffolk black. She spent her time on the county’s southern border – no doubt because of the proximity of all those Essex foes!

The story detailed in Suffolk Folk Tales brings together two fifteenth century accounts. The first comes from 1405, when Henry IV was on the throne. England was still reeling from the deposition of Richard II – and his subsequent death in prison. Owain Glyndŵr, the Welsh prince – and probably very familiar with dragons – rose up against the new king in 1400; and the Percy rebellion in the north was rumbling on. But these events didn’t affect the prosperous wool towns of Suffolk as much as a dragon arriving in their territory…

This first account comes from the Chronica Monasterii S. Albani – another example of a tale preserved by medieval monks. But this account isn’t as cut and dried as Ralph de Coggeshall. There is a bit of a mystery as to who wrote what – and when. Most people think the dragon was recorded by John de Trokelowe. It’s likely that Trokelowe was a scribe for another monk, William Rishanger. Trokelowe is a figure of some controversy as he took part in a rebellion against his mother house, St Albans, when living in the monastery’s dependent priory in Tynemouth (not very close to St Albans…) and he and the other monks were hauled back to St Albans as prisoners. Things must have been very tense in the monastery at that time, and it’s the time that’s the problem. This rebellion happened in the last years of the 13th century. Trokelowe was already a grown man – he couldn’t possibly have been writing more than a century later.

What about Rishanger? He was a chronicler at St Albans, but we know he was born around 1250. Still writing aged 150? Probably not, unless there’s a tale about St Albans that we don’t know! The Rishanger/Trokelowe chronicle was continued by Henri de Blaneforde, but he too is too early to be the writer. It seems likely that the chronicle that deals with Henry IV and Richard II was written by William Wyntershylle, another monk at the abbey described at the time as a ‘man of great learning’ by his peers. Who knows what went through his mind as he recorded the account of the dragon in far off Suffolk? Maybe he himself was a Suffolk man – or maybe this tale was the talk of the country!

This description gives us the first indications of the dragon’s appearance: ‘vast in body with crested head, teeth like a saw and tail extending to an enormous length.’ It identifies a key witness, the lord of Smallbridge Hall, Sir Richard de Waldegrave, the first of that name to live at the hall. He was 70 in 1405, and it’s possible that he, or a member of his family, span this tale to the monks at St Albans. But Sir Richard wouldn’t be there for the second sighting of the Suffolk black as he died in 1410.

The second account comes from another monastic source, and is found in the library of the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury Cathedral. It records, in brief, a battle between a black dragon and a reddish spotted dragon over ‘Sharpfight Meadow’, one, probably the black, coming from ‘Kydyndon Hill’ and the other from ‘Blacdon Hill’ in Essex. These are now known as Shalford Meadows, Kedington Hill and Ballingdon Hill – but some sources say that Kedington is really named Killingdown after the dragon fight. In the monk’s tale, the red Essex dragon gains the victory, which I must say offended my Suffolk pride, so I decided to reinterpret what had happened and put a different spin on it.

I visited all the sights of these tales, and the folk tales that embellish them – a good accounting is given on the Bures St Mary website. We – my husband, my mother and I – fortified by a coffee from a farm shop nearby set out one day last July to brave the site of the black’s lair on Kedington Hill. It was one of the few hot days of last year’s miserable summer, and the fields were cracked and scorched looking. In one, there was a fine view down to the Stour, and my Mum discovered the secret of the Suffolk dragons – underground lairs. After all, what else could have caused that cracking and scorching, after all the rain we’d had, except a dragon?

We then discovered the ancient looking willows amidst rampant nettles above the housing estates on Ballingdon Hill, and made our way up onto the hill and out into similarly dry looking fields – was this the lair of the Essex beast? Then down to Henny Street to look at Shalford Meadows, with a picturesque Stour hung over by weeping willows, and equipped with friendly cattle that my husband took a shine to. So far so normal.

We went on to Bures, parked the car, and headed up St Edmund’s Hill towards the chapel that sits on the site of a more ancient church where the young king was crowned by Bishop Hunberht. We went with the villager’s assertion that the ‘Clappits’ described in the 1405 tale was indeed the Claypits Avenue, and climbed the hill from there, discovering on the way some friendly pigs. Would these creatures be so relaxed if a dragon still lurked nearby?

At the church, we admired the unexpected tombs of the Earls of Oxford now resting there after their journey from Earls Colne Priory in Essex. And then, when we emerged from the chapel we discovered that the Suffolk black had at last come home. For there, drawn carefully onto the hillside opposite, was a perfect dragon.


This dragon we discovered from a press cutting in the church, had been made by a local farmer – and distant descendent of Sir Richard de Waldegrave, Geoffrey Probert.
Long live the Suffolk black!

The Tales are coming! Upcoming events for Suffolk Folk Tales

I’ll be arriving for a week of events on Friday 31st May. I’ll be kicking off with a short slot at the Everyman Folk Club, and then into a week of signings at bookshops around the county. I’ll then be back in July for another signing and another event – watch this space!

Saturday 1 June
Book signing for Suffolk Folk Tales.
Join Kirsty Hartsiotis at the Butter Market Waterstones in Bury St Edmunds for a book singing with a tale or two from the book told for free! Her new book Suffolk Folk Tales is a fascinating look at traditional and modern folk tales set in the heart of beautiful and mysterious Suffolk.
Waterstones, Butter Market, Bury St Edmunds, IP33 1DW, 12:00pm.
Further details: 01284 750877, or Waterstone’s website

Friday 7 June
Suffolk Folk Tales talk and storytelling.
Come and find out about the stories that haunt Suffolk’s countryside and towns – and hear local stories told by the author, storyteller Kirsty Hartsiotis. Event arranged by the Halesworth Bookshop.
Halesworth Library, Bridge Street, Halesworth, IP19 8AB, 10:30am
Contact: 01986 873840 for details

Saturday 8 June
Book signing for Suffolk Folk Tales. Join Kirsty Hartsiotis at Waterstones in Lowestoft for a book signing with a tale or two from the book told for free! Her new book Suffolk Folk Tales is a fascinating look at traditional and modern folk tales set in the heart of beautiful and mysterious Suffolk.
Waterstones, 98 London Road North, Lowestoft, NR32 1ET, 12:00pm.
Further details: 0843 290 8467,

Saturday 13 July
Book signing for Suffolk Folk Tales. Join Kirsty Hartsiotis at the Waterstones in Ipswich for a book singing with a tale or two from the book told for free! Her new book Suffolk Folk Tales is a fascinating look at traditional and modern folk tales set in the heart of beautiful and mysterious Suffolk.
Waterstones, Buttermarket, Ipswich, IP1 1BQ, 11:00am.
Further details: 01473 289044, or Waterstone’s website

Note on Ralph of Coggeshall

In Essex, there was an important monastery in Coggeshall , founded as a Sauvignac order in 1140 by King Stephen’s  wife Matilda.  By the early thirteenth century it had become part of the Cistercian order, and in 1207 Ralph, a monk of the order, became the 6th abbot.  Ralph of Coggeshall was the abbey’s chronicler, and he wrote the Chronicon Anglicanum from 1187.  He records he had hoped to make it a round 40 years of writing, but sadly it seems that he was defeated only  three years before reaching that goal in 1224. 

It was common for abbey’s to keep a chronicle of the events happening both locally and nationally – and sometimes internationally.  These formed the history of the abbey.  The Coggeshall chronicle survives in the British Library: MS Cotton Vespasian D. X.  It was preserved by Sir Robert Bruce Cotton, a 16th and early 17th century antiquary alongside most of the corpus of Anglo-Saxon literature, one of the 4 copies of the Magna Carta, and many other rare manuscripts.  Sadly not all of Ralph’s books survive – he refers to a volume made entirely of marvels and wonders.  So sad that that doesn’t survive!  What riches would it contain?    

Most of Ralph’s long chronicle is recognisably factual.  He does offer some political comment: he admires Henry II, and goes back in the chronicle and comments on his predecessor’s criticisms of the monarch.  He is impressed by Richard I – but has the good sense to recognise his limitations, saying of him, ‘no age can remember … [a king] who exacted so much money from his kingdom’.  But it is for King John, who was king for most of the time Ralph was at the abbey, that he really reserves his bile, expressing horror at some of his policies – such as the treatment of Prince Arthur.

But this is a medieval chronicle, and the attitudes that the monks had to what was real and what wasn’t was different to our own.  Ralph doesn’t just record facts – he also records miracles and strange happenings.  He records the discovery of King Arthur’s tomb in Glastonbury, Essex-man Thurkill’s vision of heaven and hell, St Alpais’s fasting and holy life in France, and the publicani  of Rheims (not a landlord, but a sect deemed heretical by the church at the time for their belief, amongst other things, that procreation was a sin).  And, most importantly for us, he records local mirabilia – marvels, tales of wonder.  Three of these are set in Suffolk: the Green Children, Malekin and the Wildman of Orford.  A fourth tale tells of giants on the Essex coast, in Yorkshire and in Wales.  All three Suffolk tales are featured in Suffolk Folk Tales, and each will get their own blog. 

The Wildman of Orford


Orford’s Wildman has become a symbol for the small coastal village.  He was a man of the sea who was pulled up by 12th century fishermen’s nets and held captive in the bang-new castle until he finally made his escape.  He’s featured in the interpretation in the castle where his sad incarceration took place.  There’s a memorial to him on the Market Square, and he features on the Butley Orford Oysterage and on Pinney’s as you walk down to the quay.  There are also some suspiciously wild looking men on the font in St Bartholomew’s Church – though you can find them on many Suffolk fonts.  But where did the story come from?

Three stories in Suffolk Folk Tales, the Green Children, Malekin and the Wildman of Orford, come from the same early source.  The 12th and 13th centuries provide us with a whole host of stories written down by monks either as chronicles of their monasteries, or as works in their own right.  Geoffrey of Monmouth, Gerald of Wales and Gervase of Tilbury are well known for telling what we might now consider tall tales, and the three Suffolk stories are recorded by another monk – an abbot in fact.  His name is Ralph of Coggeshall, and he was abbot of Coggeshall Abbey in Essex.  You can find out more about him here.

Wildmen are a common trope in the Middle Ages.  These wild people, often called wodewoses (which seems to mean ‘wood-being’), have lived in the fringes of our minds since we first started writing stories down – and presumably were there long before that.  Enkidu, the friend of Gilgamesh in the three and half thousand year old Mesopotamian epic is a wild man who lives amongst the beasts.  Herodotus describes hairy men living in Libya, and they are often described by classical sources as living in India.  Wherever they live, they are outside human conventions, no matter how quietly they live themselves, and are viewed with fear and fascination.  One thing particularly distinguishes them from ordinary mortals: they are covered with hair from the top of their heads to their toes. 

The woods are places where civilised men don’t go – knights discover monsters and marvels in the woods in Arthurian romances.  Holy fools like Percival grow up in the woods.  Madmen run off to the woods in medieval literature – like Merlin in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, or King Suibhne in Ireland.  Outlaws can live beyond the law in the woods.  This is despite the fact that people in medieval England were using and managing woodland much more intensively than we do today for the basics of day to day life from firewood, to beechnuts, from the withies from pollarded willows to the hunting of deer in the king’s forests.  The woods were really a familiar danger – and it’s still easy to get lost, disorientated and spooked in woods to today, as countless ghost stories, sightings of big cats and even wild men attest.

You might ask what all this has to do with Ralph’s man from the sea.   When the fishermen capture him, he is described as being extremely hairy, ‘in such abundance that it appeared dishevelled and shaggy; his beard particularly was thick and pine-like, and around his chest it was particularly hairy and shaggy.’  The ‘pine-like’ makes him sound a little strange, as if his hair is more like pine-needles, thicker and fleshier than human hair, perhaps better for living under the water.  Ralph makes this strange creature like a wildman – like a woodwoses.  He doesn’t speak, he doesn’t recognise Christian symbols.  He is outside society – outside the law.  To the people who lived by the coast in Suffolk the sea would have been as other as the woodland.  It is wild and capricious, and as we know from Dunwich and the 1953 flood, can be incredibly destructive to the puny settlements of man.  Nonetheless, it would have been the main source of livelihood and connection with the outside world.  Like the woodland, it was vital but dangerous.

How true is the story?  Well, Ralph was writing around 30 years after the story was said to have taken place, in 1167.  Bartholomew de Glanville was certainly castellan of the castle at that time.  His family arrived in the area after the Norman Conquest, holding land in Norfolk and Suffolk.  From 1169 to 1175 he was High Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk, and he oversaw the construction of the castle at Orford from 1167. 

Henry II built the castle at Orford in part to stop treachery by lords like Hugh Bigod who had fought against him and his mother during King Stephen’s reign – and with good reason, as Lord Hugh would rebel again in 1173!  The keep would have been built first, and the mound on which it sits.  So the castle we see now wouldn’t have looked so different back then.  Habitable, but without its curtain wall.  It immediately provided a beacon for fishermen and sailors alike, along with St Bartholomew’s (named for that castellan, perhaps?) which was begun at about the same time. 

It is presumably St Bartholomew’s that the wildman is taken into – although whether the church was complete enough by then I don’t know.  It might even have been inside the small castle chapel – or Sudbourne church between Orford and Sudbourne, which was the original parish church of the village before the castle made it important.  The poor wildman must have been completely befuddled by the Christian regalia – and Ralph and his captors don’t stop to think what he might worship, down there beneath the sea…

I should note that Orford is very different now from how it was then – the lie of the land has completely changed.  The castle was once about 2 miles inland, with marshy ground stretching out to the sea.  Orford Ness probably didn’t exist – it has been growing since that time.  Much of the woodland you see from the shore hadn’t developed as yet.  It is hard then to imagine the scene that the fishermen and Bartholomew de Glanville would have seen when you are there – and who knows whether the wildman could hear the sound of the waves from his lonely cell in the castle dungeons.

But did anyone pull anything unusual from the sea?  Sightings of mermaids and the like are often dismissed as seals and manatees and other sea creatures.  But the wildman was kept in the castle for two months – surely someone would have noticed?  And if he was just an ordinary man – well, why did he swim back to sea?  We’ll never know what really happened, but the legend has stayed strong for 8 centuries!  It’s the little details I like, that give it verisimilitude – the squeezing of the fish, the three strong nets he passes through to reach the open sea.   Even Ralph wasn’t certain, wondering whether he was a fish pretending to be human, or an evil spirit in the body of a drowned man.  The most one can say, he says, that ‘many wondrous things as well as many events of this kind are narrated.’


I was very lucky when researching my book as I really wanted to get to the bottom of the three tales, which meant going back to the original Latin in which Ralph’s book was written.  My own Latin is not that strong – I only had the chance to start learning it when I was doing my Medieval Studies MA, so only had six-eight months of studying.  Not enough to tackle anything more than passages from the Bible!  Certainly not enough to get the fine detail out of the texts.   But I was able to phone a friend… Getting hold of the text wasn’t easy.   As a freelancer, I don’t access to the big university libraries where the text would be available, but I eventually tracked it down on the web in an old out-of-print book.  I then dispatched the Latin off to my friend Monika Simon in Germany, who translated it back to me in English.  Thank you so much, Moni!

Welcome to Suffolk Folk Tales

Suffolk Folk Tales coverOn the 31st May 2013 this book will be published by the History Press.  It is what is says it is – a book of folk tales, thirty of them all told, from the English county of Suffolk.  It is part of a series started by the History Press in 2009 with this book, Herefordshire Folk Tales, by my good friend David Phelps.  In 2011 I wrote Wiltshire Folk Tales and by now the ball was definitely rolling.  My husband’s Gloucestershire Folk Tales, and my Fire Springs colleague Kevan Manwaring’s Oxfordshire Folk Tales were published last year, and at the time of writing most of the English counties have either been published or are in production, and the Irish, Scottish and Welsh counties are progressing.

All of these books are written by storytellers.  Well, you might say, all writers are storytellers aren’t they?  But we are something slightly different.  We are oral storytellers, working in the tradition of oral storytelling that probably stretches back to when we lived in caves.  All we need to tell a story is a story to tell, our voice and an audience.  This kind of storytelling as at home in pubs as in theatres, in bed at night or in school.  Since the 1980s there has been a revival of storytelling in Britain, headed by figures such as Hugh Lupton and Ben Haggarty.  The History Press decided to invite storytellers to capture and share the folklore of the English counties after David approached them with his idea.

We are not necessarily folklorists – we may have collected the story, or we might not.  What matters is that we have a passion for telling the tales so that they engage the listener – and now the reader – and tell them a fine yarn.  These stories might be fairy tales, they might be local legends, about historical characters or a nameless everyman or woman.  They might be ghost stories, funny tales, saints lives, desperate romantic tragedies, or tales of trickery or the devil.  What matters is that the folk – rich or poor – told these tales about the places they lived in and knew.

I’ve been a storyteller since 2000, mostly performing with my storytelling group Fire Springs, a collective of storytellers – some of whom are also poets and musicians – comprising Kevan Manwaring, David Metcalfe, Anthony Nanson, Richard Selby and me.  We’ve worked together on shows such as Arthur’s Dream, Robin of the Wildwood, Return to Arcadia and Voices from the Past.  I now live in Gloucestershire, but I grew up in Suffolk, and my parents are still based there.  I have thoroughly enjoyed revisiting my home county and I look forward to sharing its tales!

Over the next few months I’ll be looking into some of the tales in my book and drawing out the stories behind them and my own personal journey around Suffolk and around the tales.