County Durham. Sometime in the 14th century.
One day, young John Lambton skipped church to go fishing in the River Wear. On his way to the riverbank, an old man approached him, or a witch, depending on your version, warning the young man not to continue, and that missing church would only lead to misfortune.
Lambton sat on the bank as the churchgoers continued without him, catching nothing. However, as the service finished, a small creature hooked onto the end of his rod. The animal was the size of an eel, with nine holes down the sides its lizard-like head. It could have been the size of a worm, or three feet in length, either way, John had little fear in his heart.
As young Lambton inspected his catch, the old man returned and John naturally announced that he had caught the devil itself.
Hurling the aquatic creature into a well, he believed it to be destroyed and continued about his life with little thought for his demonic eel encounter.
As John grew up, he joined the Crusades, hoping to appease the acts of his rebellious childhood. However, the eel had not died, but grew, becoming fiercer and more vengeful in the passing years. Eventually, the worm grew so large that its presence in the well poisoned the water source for the whole village. Then, livestock disappeared. The worm was loose!
The worm was no longer a sinister eel, but an enormous, dominating beast that had grown so large that it wrapped itself around a local hill several times. The beast’s devilish nature knew no bounds and terrorised the surrounding villagers, devouring sheep, frightening cows into no longer producing milk and, as with all coiled beasts worth their salt, capturing small children.
With John Lambton away on his godly mission, the worm soon found its way to Lambton Castle, where his elderly father was left with the task of satiating the hellish beast. In a daily cycle, the worm terrorised the castle, resting only when it had consumed the offering of the milk of nine cows, or a trough overflowing with dairy.
Old John Lambton, keen villagers, and valiant knights all tried to defeat the worm and its constant cycle of carnage, but to no avail. When the worm was attacked, losing a piece of its flesh, the worm simply reattached it and continued in its violent throes. In response to such frustrating attacks, the worm coiled around its assailants, or simply coiled around trees, tearing them from the ground and brandishing them like weapons.
The worm’s attacks continued for several years, during which young John was away fighting on the continent, ignorantas to the terror that had struck his hometown. Upon his return, he found his father’s estate in ruins and the worm on the rampage. Travelling to Durham, young John sought the advice of a wise woman or witch, believing her arcane knowledge to assist him in his church-skipping-demonic-worm-problem.
However, the witch had no instant solution, but reiterated to John that the worm’s very existence was his fault and his alone. As such, he would have to fight the worm in adapted armour, and in its own waters. As an ominous adage, the witch insists that following the defeat of the worm, John would have to kill the first living thing he sees, lest his family be cursed for all eternity.
John duly noted the witch’s commands and followed them closely. Wary of spying his father after killing the worm, he told his father to expect three blows of a hunting horn after the worm had been killed, then his father should release his favourite hunting dog, so that it can meet the prophecy’s grizzly fate.
Strapping spearheads to his armour and wading back into the river Wear, John fought the worm with all his might. The beast coiled around John’s body, as it had done so many times before, but cut itself to ribbons on the armours’ spikes. Chucks of the worm’s flesh fell into the river, but were washed away too quickly for the animal to reattach them. Gradually and messily, the worm was at last, defeated.
As planned, John blew the hunting horn three times, waiting for his father to release the unwitting hound. However, his father was so thrilled at the news, he ran out to meet his son, not giving a second thought to the deathly prophecy.
Understandably, John could not bring himself to kill his father, but killed the dog anyway, just in case the prophecy could be redeemed with a casual loophole. Despite this, John was too late and nine generations of the Lambton family were cursed to never die peacefully in their beds.
Looking at the Lambton family’s history, the curse held true for several generations with Lambton men dying in accidents or battle before old age had the chance to take them.
(A note on dogs: This whole story is a myth. No dogs, hunting or otherwise, were harmed in the destruction of the Satan worm. Dogs are great and should never be murdered to appease worm curses.)
The story of the Lambton Worm remains one of North East England’s most famous legends, offering inspiration for creative minds for centuries. Believed to have originated in the oral tradition (where stories are told verbally and passed down the generations), it was first published by historian Robert Surtees, who noted the traditional legend from ‘narratrix’ Elizabeth Cockburn, who is described in Sir Walter Scott’s 1847 work as ‘an old wife in Offerton’. Shortly after introducing Cockburn in his collection of traditional poems, he states that ‘she is, by her dull neighbours, supposed to be occasionally insane…’going on to say that Elizabeth also has the propensity to see spirits. It is arguably the finest introduction in the whole book.
Due to the nature of legends and the oral tradition, several variants of the tale exist; John’s age changes, the worm grows or shrinks, there are more or fewer witches and a thousand differences in-between.
The story of the worm was adapted into a song in 1867, which added several new terms and Northumbrian dialects into the story.
In 1911, Bram Stoker took cues from the legend in his book ‘The Lair of the White Worm’, where an enormous snake-like creature is found living beneath a house. Later, in 2007, Bryan Talbot introduced the legend of the worm in his fantastic ‘Alice in Sunderland’ graphic novel. Curiously, the legend of the Lambton Worm was also thought to have inspired Lewis Carroll’s infamous ‘Jabberwocky’ nonsense poem, which was first published in Alice In wonderland (1871) and remains an enduring popular children’s poem to this day.
The legend of The Lambton Worm has lasted throughout the centuries, but is not alone in British folklore. The Sockburn Worm is a similar Northumbrian legend, whereby a huge slithering beast lays waste to a village. It is also similarly frequently tipped as possible inspiration for ‘Jabberwocky’. The Worm of Linton was a variant from the Scottish borders and The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh was another Northumbrian ballad of a princess and her transformation into a hideous dragon; the aforementioned Laidly Worm.
Beware the North. Here be worms.
This site is particularly fascinating. The author has also written a modern, illustrated adaptation of the legend, which looks to be a great project.
Sir Walter Scott, The Lady of the Lake: A Poem. P 302. Google Books.