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“The dragon, the greatest of all serpents, is the devil, the king of all evil. […] it deals death with its poisonous breath and blow of its tail”
This description was written in the 12th century by the French cleric Hugues de Fouilloy. He regarded the dragon as the “enemy of the pure animal”, a creature so foul that death followed in its wake wheresoever it went. 1
When this text was written, the notion of dragons as fearsome, death-dealing monsters was nothing new. Great serpentine creatures had been spoken of for centuries. Early references to dragon-like beasts can be found in ancient Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese and Japanese accounts, as well as in classical Greek and Roman sources. Not all of these accounts described the dragon as an evil creature. 2 However, they all seem to agree that dragons were no ordinary animal. Rather, these creatures possessed awesome spiritual as well as physical strength – and, far from being confined to mere legend, these creatures did indeed exist.
Just outside the market-town of Horsham, in Sussex, England, lies St. Leonard’s Forest. The forest, now a mere fragment of the ancient woodland which once extended across the area, was named after the French saint Léonard de Noblac. It is said that Saint Léonard once lived within the forest. According to legend, the French hermit’s spiritual solitude was disturbed by the presence of a great dragon, who also called the forest home. What followed was a long battle, which Léonard – despite being injured – won, thus earning him the reputation of a dragon slayer. Many believed his feat to represent the slaying of the last dragon in England. 3 This was in the 6th century. However, over a thousand years later, dragons in St. Leonard’s Forest were still spoken of. Not only that, several local residents claimed that one particularly fearsome specimen still haunted the area.
Dating to 1614, True and Wonderfull describes a “strange and monstrous” dragon said to reside in St. Leonard’s Forest at the time of publication. Believed to have “been bred” in a “vast and unfrequented” area of the forest, in amongst “overgrown hollows”, the serpent-like creature was claimed to have been seen by multiple witnesses.
Described as being known to roam an area measuring three or four miles around its forest lair, the dragon had supposedly been seen within half a mile of the market-town of Horsham. Two unfortunate souls, a man and a woman, were even thought to have been killed by the beast, after their bodies were discovered, “poisoned and very much swelled, but not preyed upon”.
The author of the pamphlet detailed how the great serpent “always in his track or path left a glutinous and slimy matter”, similar to that of a snail. The creature’s excretions were said to have been “very corrupt and offensive to scent”, with the ability to putrefy air and produce a poisonous miasma which was dangerous to inhale. 4
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In addition to this putrid matter, the fearsome beast was known to “cast his venom about four rod from him”, the equivalent of 20 metres or 66 feet. Presumably, this was how the unfortunate man and woman had met their end. Two dogs, it is also claimed in the pamphlet, met a similar fate, when they and their owner went to the forest seeking to slay the monster. 5
As for its appearance, the dragon was “reputed to be nine feet, or rather more, in length”, thicker in the middle, and “somewhat smaller at both ends”. Its back, according to those who were fortunate enough to survive witnessing it, was covered in “blackish” scales. Under his belly, the scales “appeared to be red”.
“I speak of no nearer description than of a reasonable ocular distance.” 6
The author of the text also expressed concern at the “two great bunches” which had been observed on either side of the dragon. Each as “big as a large foot-ball”, it was feared that the two bulges would, “in time grow to wings”, and thus enable the creature to cause even more destruction. 7
The eventual fate of the dragon, however, was not recorded. If a great and fearsome serpent did live in St. Leonard’s Forest in the 17th century, what became of it – and of the people who lived alongside it – is not known.
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