The Bere Regis Dragon

The history of the Bere Regis Dragon, as told by John Pitfield...

A few years ago on a dark, cold, wet winter's evening, at about nine o'clock, I was deliberating on my night-cap. Decisions, decisions.... when the door bell rang. The wind was sweeping the rain against the windows but I dashed through the lobby to open the door. On my way I had almost fallen over "Snowy" my cat, as he gets much more excited about the door bell than the rest of us.

The security lights had come on and I glimpsed something of a silhouette through the glass as I pulled on the handle to open the door. There on the step was a man clad head to toe in black surmounted by a fine, but ancient, umbrella. His soaking black mackintosh was calf-length and he had on brogues that had seen better days. He had a scarf over his lower face and was wearing a trilby with a hat-band with a feather. I only remember the detail because I was so surprised.

Under the hat-brim his eyes were black and piercing, but flickered in what seemed friendly recognition. "John?" he asked. His slightly muffled voice revealed that this was a man of advanced and possibly fragile years. "That's right" I replied. "The one who did the book?" he continued. "Yeees" I said slowly, wondering what was coming next, and beginning to think that I might even recognise him, but with no definite luck on that.

"Well, we had a talk the other day and decided that you should have this..." and from his pocket he produced a wooden box and pushed it toward me. I reached out, then he leaned slightly toward me and said "It's all in the past now and I'm the last of them who know and the others aren't interested." After a pause not knowing either what to say or even what to ask, I took it from his hand saying "Thank you".

Turning as if to leave, he paused then told me it was up to me what I did with it as it didn't matter any more who knew about it. He then turned and vanished into the darkness. As he proceeded down the path the lower security light came on again and his shadowy figure swept past it, then he vanished completely into the teeming rain-swept night.

I closed the door and thought, well that's the night-cap problem solved.... ...it's whisky! I retreated to my den, put the wooden box on the table and got the whisky going. It looked like an old cigar box but had a lock, which was broken, a brass handle on the top and was about 9 inches by 6 inches and about two and a quarter inches high and a bit wet now.

After a fairly serious swig and a bit of staring at the box I leant forward and pushed the lid back. There was cotton wool with some objects embedded but the most eye-catching was a small paper label on the inside of the lid. It was in black-faded-to-brown ink and read:-

The Leg of a dragon or Wyrm in Welsh Ydraig which of times past hung in the Church of St John Baptist at Bere and was thrown down and burnt in the Reigne of our Lady Ann. Ao. dni. 1721

It took several readings to work out what it meant but this was definitely a fascinating piece of Bere Regis history; something before the fire of 1788 which had wiped out most of the centre of the village and destroyed many things.

After another slug on the whisky I began rummaging through the contents of the box and the first item was a bronze figure, about six inches long. It was a casting of a creature, probably a lizard or a serpent, perhaps even a dragon. There was a mounting hole on the underside, perhaps for it to be mounted on a staff of some sort, a head at one end and a long tail at the other.

I had noticed before that the box rattled slightly when turned, and I then found out what was causing this. There were several white sea-shells at the bottom of the box, all quite small, plus something else which I did not recognise. Also there was a cylindrical pointed flint, perhaps looking a bit like a tooth.

After peeling back more of the cotton wool I was greeted with a sight that made me jump. Recoiling back into my chair I instinctively grabbed my drink, took another gulp, then looked again. It was a leathery paw or hand from some animal attached to a chain and thereto a bronze clasp. The claws were spread apart and the leather, or whatever it was, was black with some fur still attached. It made me uncomfortable to look at it. It was truly scary! I closed the box and walked around for a while trying to work out what this mysterious gift was and what can it all be about.

Mister.... mister... mister... oh what was his name? That man in black and soaking wet at the door. I am sure that I would recognise him again, but who on earth was he? He definitely had a proper Bere accent. I had to find out more, but it soon dawned on me that it was his intention that I would not be able to find out anything from him. I looked at the box again thinking '1721' over and over again whilst looking at the closed box. Something wasn't quite right. The box was only perhaps one hundred years old, one hundred and twenty five years at the very most. The contents though, they could easily be as old as the message on the lid suggested, so perhaps it was a replacement box.

I went to sleep that night wondering if this could be some sort of elaborate hoax or joke in the hope that I would write about it and take it seriously. It could be a hoax or it could be genuine, but which ever way it eventually goes it makes a great story!

Detective Work

In the cold light of the next day I began by looking up the dates for Queen Anne (the Lady Anne on the message) and she reigned from 1702 until 1714 in which year she died aged 48 years. The 1721 date must then be the date of the message and refer to the period in which the ceremony took place.

Reference to St John Baptist church at Bere pretty much confirms that this means our church as no other Bere church has the same dedication. The bit about it hanging in the church suggests some sort of clerical approval for its existence, which, if not worrying, is certainly curious. "Throwing down and burning" seems rather extreme and one wonders if this was conducted in public or was part of some secret ritual.

Then there are those two words which are unfamiliar; "Wyrm in Welsh Ydraig" so a quick check in various dictionaries shows that wyrm is from the Anglo-Saxon meaning snake, serpent or dragon. As for ydraig, that is Welsh for "dragon" or fire-expelling creature. So that's the message deciphered, if not understood.

What was going on in Bere between 1702 and 1714?

Mostly not very much, but on closer inspection 1703 seems to have been a turning point in the fortunes of Bere Regis people. After five hundred years the male-line of the Turbervilles finally died out in May. Then in November 1703 there was a terrible storm which passed through here with winds of 120 mph. Damage to the church is recorded but nothing is mentioned about the obvious devastation caused elsewhere in the village. A lot of thatched roofs must have been blown away. Then in May 1710 the final male Turberville died aged 36 years and called Robert Turberville. He was never considered for succession to Lord of the Manor, presumably for being sickly or perhaps enfeebled in some other way.

Who were the vicars at Bere Regis in Queen Anne's reign?

Between 1701 and 1711 William Hockin was vicar. He died at Bere and was buried on 7 February 1711. John Wills was instituted on 19 April 1711 after a two month interregnum. He resigned in 1725 and according to the Dean's Subscription Book, then went on to practice medicine. This was shortly after the invention of inoculation.

How is Queen Anne described in the history books?

She was Queen between 1702 an 1714 between the ages of 36 and 48 years, dying on 1 August 1714. Before she was crowned she was described as self-doubting and eager to please, but also stubborn and rigid on moral issues. She was very religious with Protestant fear of Catholics encouraging national unease. She had terrible gout and diseased joints, such that for her Coronation in April 1702 she could not walk and was carried into Westminster Abbey in a chair. She married the retiring and "colourless" Prince George of Denmark, which was followed by many still-births and miscarriages, and another child who died at ten years. This was the end of the Stuart-line. The power vacuum meant that Parliament was on the ascendant with Whigs and Tories running more of the country and even creating the "United Kingdom" on 1 May 1707. Anne's once-best friend, Sarah Churchill said she was "..ignorant in everything but what the parsons had taught her as a child" while in one notable speech in the House of Commons Anne said "I am entirely English." The House of Hanover began with George I (1714-1727) on her death.

What was going on nationally?

Agriculture seemed to be going well for the first part of Anne's reign, that is until 1709 when famine spread all across the continent through poor growing weather. Also in Europe the Duke of Marlborough was winning battles all over the place - that is until he was dismissed in 1711. The Churchill family had been very close to Anne, with Sarah being her best friend from an early age. In 1705 Edmund Halley realised that the comets of 1531, 1607 and 1682 were the same one. This was also the time when 20,000 African slaves were being imported each year to British colonies in North America, just part of the 7 million total "imported" in the 18th Century. 1709 was the year often regarded as the beginning of the Industrial Revolution with Newcomen's steam engine being commercialised.

Could all these national and local events been the stimulus for strange rituals at Bere Regis?

There was smallpox, death of the Turbervilles, seemingly endless wars, natural disasters, memories of comets in the sky, weak monarchy leading to new politics and the threat of new technologies. I am told, also, that "Queen Anne" furniture had its origins at this time!

Are there any clues in the church-warden's accounts?

I found two interesting entries, the first in 1711: "Paid to a Souldier that had lately been Sick of ye Small pox ...6d." More mysteriously, perhaps, is an entry from about March 1712 amongst detailed lists of purchases, for what and to whom, saying "Paid ... for other things... 2s." which is the only entry which is ambiguous. Two shillings in 1712 would today be about £40.

So... the big question. Is the Bere Regis Dragon genuine? It could be; I'm not sure. I will leave it to you, dear reader, to decide!

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