Journal of Geomancy vol. 2 no. 2, January 1978

Number two in a series covering the dragon legends of England



By Alan Bullion.

There are many dragon legends throughout the length and breadth of the British Isles, some well known and others lesser known.  This article concerns St. Leonard’s Forest in Sussex which was formerly a vast expanse stretching over an area of many miles but today considerably reduced due to the encroachments of modern man, to an area just outside Horsham. 

The first recorded dragon was slain by St. Leonard in the 6th century.  This was of course contemporary with the dawn of the Christianization of the native ‘pagan’ religion in this country and so perhaps can be regarded as being associated with the legends of St. George, St. Michael and other dragon-slayers.  By tradition this saint was wounded during the battle with the dragon and wherever his blood fell, lilies-of-the-valley grew. 

Today, we can see an area known as the Lily Beds in this forest, where these lilies grow wild in abundance.  The endeavours of this saint were also rewarded by the fact that God granted that the adders in the forest would lose their sting and the nightingales would also no longer be able to sing.  Apparently the saint was something of a hermit and the birds disturbed his praying.  {33} St. Leonard, despite slaying this dragon and thus christening the forest, did not destroy the entire progeny.  He did not destroy the bird song either as one can still hear nightingales there even today. 

In 1614 some local villagers are alleged to have espied “a strange and monstrous serpent”.  This rather unique creature was 9 feet long, red scales on its belly, black scales on its back, with a ring of white marks around the neck.  It also had rather large feet and could easily catch up with any unfortunate man running away from it.  According to the published account it also had “two great hunches so big as a large foteball, which (as some thinke) will in time grow to wings”.  It left a trail of “glutinous and slime matter which is very corrupt and offensive to the smell”. 

This pleasant creature was able to spit a lethal venom over great distances, and was blamed for the dead bodies of two persons found in the forest – “as by woeful experience it was proved on the bodies of a man and a woman coming that way, who afterwards were found dead, being poisoned and very much swelled, but not prayed upon”.  Two dogs were also found killed again presumably by the dragon, but these also had rather suspiciously not been devoured.  By contrast the dragon was said to live on a diet of rabbits by those who had seen it, so he was obviously not as voracious as his African counterparts. 

As with so many other dragons we do not know what the fate of this creature was, but after 1614 right up until the 1800s odd sightings still occurred in this vicinity. 

St. Leonard also gave his name to a coastal resort in Sussex called St. Leonards on Sea, thus suggesting that either the saint landed here at one time on his missions or that the forest once stretched as far as this, although I can find little information regarding this.  There is also a St. Leonard’s Tower in West Malling, Kent.  This was constructed very early on in the 12th century and is said to be linked with Malling Abbey by an underground tunnel.  Malling Abbey is also connected to the North Downs by another tunnel to a so-called ‘smugglers’ cave’ and a church was also attached to this tower although it has long since disappeared. 

From this it can be seen that St. Leonard had a reputation that was quite widespread in this part of England.  Coincidentally the forest was also said to be haunted.  Squire Paulett was a headless ghost who leapt up behind riders in the forest, gripped them around the waist and rode behind them to the forest edge.  He is a mystery character, as his life was completely unknown, but he seems to have been a rather harmless evicter of unwanted persons from the forest. 

The dragon has recently become more illustrious due to a matchbox label which depicts it, red scales and fiery breath and all, manufactured by the Sussex Match Company Limited.  The 1614 ‘monstrous serpent’ seems to appear as a coy, but friendly and also somewhat bewildered creature, confronted by two hunting dogs and a man on horseback. 

Finally, a strange story was told to me quite recently by an elderly man who was stationed in Horsham in World War Two.  While wandering through the forest one day he came across a seemingly abandoned hut, which, when opened, was found to contain a hoard of gold and silver cutlery.  Who it was owned by or why it was there he did not know.  Perhaps the dragon did have a hoard of treasure to guard after all!