The Lambton worm is a legend from County Durham in North East England, and is one of the area’s most famous pieces of folklore.
The story is centered around John Lambton, heir of the Lambton Estate, County Durham, and his fierce battle with a gigantic worm (dragon) that had been terrorizing the local villages. Details of the story have changed over time with each telling, as with most myths of this kind.
The story reveals that a young John Lambton, was very defiant who missed church one Sunday to go fishing in the River Wear. In many versions of the story, while walking to the river, or setting up his fishing equipment, John receives warnings from an old man ( or a witch – depending on who tells the story) that no good can came from intentionally missing church.
It so happens that John Lambton hasn’t been able to catch a single fish until the church service concludes, by which time he fishes out a small eel- or lamprey-like creature with its salamander-like head bearing nine holes on each story. Depending on the rendition of the story, the worm is no bigger than a thumb, or about 3 feet long. In some versions, it has legs, while in others it is said to more closely resemble a serpent.
At this point, the old man returns. John proudly claims that he has caught the devil himself and decides to dispose of his catch by discarding it down a nearby well. The old man then issues further warnings about the beast’s nature and departs.
John eventually forgets about the creature (after throwing it in the well ,of course), and joins the Crusades, as a penance for his rebellious early years. The Crusades were a series of religious wars sanctioned by the Latin Church in the medieval period.
As time passes by, the worm grows immensely large and the well becomes poisonous. Villagers start to notice livestock going missing and discover that the worm, now fully-grown, has emerged from the well and coiled itself around a local hill.
In some versions, the hill is Penshaw Hill, on which the Penshaw Monument now stands. But the locals credit the nearby Worm Hill in Fatfield. The worm was so huge that it could coil itself around the hill seven times. It is said that the marks of the worm can still be seen on Worm Hill.
The worm terrorizes the local villages, preventing cows from producing milk, eating sheep and abducting small children. It then heads toward the Lambton Castle, where the Lord (John Lambton’s senile father) somehow manages to sedate the creature, in what becomes a daily ritual. The worm is offered the milk of nine good cows-twenty gallons.
A number of brave villagers come forward to try to kill the beast, but to no avail, as they are quickly dispatched. When is chunk is cut off the worm, it simply reattaches the missing piece. Visiting knights also tried to kill the beast, but none of them survive. When annoyed or defensive, the worm uproots large trees by coiling its tail around them, and then causes mayhem and destruction by swinging the uprooted trees like a mace.
Seven years later, John Lambton returns from the Crusades to find his father’s estates extremely impoverished. He decides to fight the beast, but first seeks guidance from a wise witch near Durham.
The witch hardens John’s determination to kill the beast by explaining his responsibility for the worm. She tells him to cover his armor in spearheads and to fight the worm in the River Wear. The witch also tells John that after killing the worm, he must then kill the first living thing he sees, or else his entire family will be cursed for nine generations, and will not die warm in their beds.
John prepares his armor according to the witch’s instructions. Before going to fight with the beast, John arranges with his father that, when he has killed the worm, he will sound his hunting horn thrice. On receiving this signal, his father is to release his favorite dog so that it will run to John, who can then kill the dog and avoid the curse.
John Lambton then confronts the worm by the river, where it spent days wrapped around a great rock. The worm tried to crush him, wrapping him in its coils, but cuts itself due to the armor’s spikes. Chunks of the worm fall into the river, and are washed away before the worm can reattach them to itself. Eventually the worm is dead and John, still aware of the curse, sounds his hunting horn three times.
Unfortunately for him though, John’s father is so excited about the beast being dead, that he forgets to release the hound, and rushes out to congratulate his son. John cannot bear to kill his father and so, after they meet, the hound is released and dutifully dispatched. But, since John’s father was the first living thing that he saw, and since had failed to kill his own father, nine generations of the Lambton’s family are cursed. They shall not die peacefully in their beds.
The story ends. As for the curse, it seems to have held true for at least three generations. This has contributed to the popularity of the story.
- 1st generation: Robert Lambton, drowned at Newrig.
- 2nd: Sir William Lambton, a Colonel of Foot, killed at Marston Moor.
- 3rd: William Lambton, died in battle at Wakefield.
- 9th: Henry Lambton, died in his carriage crossing Lambton Bridge on 26 June 1761.
The story was made into a song (Roud #2337), written in 1867 by C M Leumane, which passed into oral tradition and has several slightly different variants.