Percy's Reliques - The Dragon of Wantley.

The Dragon of Wantley.

            This humorous song (as a former Editor[ 1] has well observed) is to old metrical romances and ballads of chivalry, what Don Quixote is to prose narratives of that kind -- a lively satire on their extravagant fictions. But although the satire is thus general, the subject of this ballad is local and peculiar; so that many of the finest strokes of humour are lost for want of our knowing the minute circumstances to which they allude. Many of them can hardly now be recovered, although we have been fortunate enough to learn the general subject to which the satire referred, and shall detail the information with which we have been favoured, in a separate memoir at the end of the poem.

            In handling his subject, the author has brought in most of the common incidents which occur in romance. The description of the dragon -- his outrages -- the people flying to the knight for succour -- his care in choosing his armour -- his being dressed for fight by a young damsel -- and most of the circumstances of the battle and victory (allowing for the burlesque turn given to them) are what occur in every book of chivalry, whether in prose or verse.

            If any one piece, more than another, is more particularly levelled at, it seems to be the old rhyming legend of Sir Bevis. There a dragon is attacked from a well in a manner not very remote from this of the ballad:

There was a well, so have I wynne,
And Bevis stumbled ryght therein.
*     *     *     *     *     *     *
Than was he glad without fayle,
And rested a whyle for his avayle;
And drank of that water his fyll;
And than he lepte out, with good wyll,
And with Morglay his brande
He assayled the dragon, I understande:
On the dragon he smote so faste,
Where that he hit the scales braste:
The dragon then faynted sore,
And cast a galon and more
Out of his mouthe of venim strong,
And on Syr Bevis he it flong:
It was venymous y-wis."

This seems to be meant by the Dragon of Wantley's stink, ver. 110; as the politic knight's creeping out, and attacking the dragon, &c. seems evidently to allude to the following:

"Bevis blessed himselfe, and forth yode,
And lepte out with haste full good;
And Bevis unto the dragon gone is;
And the dragon also to Bevis.
Longe and harde was that fight
Betwene the dragon and that knight:
But ever whan Syr Bevis was hurt sore,
He went to the well, and washed him thore;
He was as hole as any man,
Ever freshe as whan he began.
The dragon sawe it might not avayle
Besyde the well to hold batayle;
He thought he would, with some wyle,
Out of that place Bevis begyle;
He woulde have flowen then awaye,
But Bevis lepte after with good Morglaye,
And hyt him under the wynge,
As he was in his flyenge," &c.
Sign. M. jv. L. j. &c.

            After all, perhaps the writer of this ballad was acquainted with the above incidents only through the medium of Spenser, who has assumed most of them in his Faerie Queen. At least some particulars in the description of the dragon, &c. seem evidently borrowed from the latter. See Book i. Canto ii. where the dragon's "two wynges like sayls -- huge long tayl -- with stings -- his cruel rending clawes -- and yron teeth -- his breath of smothering smoke and sulphur "-- and the duration of the fight for upwards of two days, bear a great resemblance to passages in the following ballad; though it must be confessed that these particulars are common to all old writers of romance.

            Although this ballad must have been written early in the last century, we have met with none but such as were comparatively modern copies. It is here printed from one in Roman letter, in the Pepys Collection, collated with such others as could be procured.

OLD stories tell, how Hercules
A dragon slew at Lerna,
With seven heads, and fourteen eyes,
To see and well discern-a:
But he had a club, this dragon to drub,
Or he had ne'er done it, I warrant ye:
But More of More-hall, with nothing at all,
He slew the dragon of Wantley.

This dragon had two furious wings,
Each one upon each shoulder;
With a sting in his tayl, as long as a flayl,
Which made him bolder and bolder.
He had long claws, and in his jaws
Four and forty teeth of iron;
With a hide as tough as any buff,
Which did him round environ.

Have you not heard how the Trojan horse
Held seventy men in his belly?
This dragon was not quite so big,
But very near, I'lI tell ye.
Devoured he poor children three,
That could not with him grapple;
And at one sup he eat them up,
As one would eat an apple.

All sorts of cattle this dragon did eat;
Some say he ate up trees,
And that the forests sure he would
Devour up by degrees;
For houses and churches were to him geese and turkies;
He ate all, and left none behind,
But some stones, dear Jack, that he could not crack,
Which on the hills you will find.

In Yorkshire, near fair Rotherham,
The place I know it well,
Some two or three miles, or thereabouts,
I vow I cannot tell;
But there is a hedge, just on the hill edge,
And Matthew's house hard by it;
O there and then was this dragon's den,
You could not chuse but spy it.

Some say, this dragon was a witch;
Some say, he was a devil,
For from his nose a smoke arose,
And with it burning snivel;
Which he cast off, when he did cough,
In a well that he did stand by;
Which made it look just like a brook
Running with burning brandy.

Hard by a furious knight there dwelt,
Of whom all towns did ring,
For he could wrestle, play at quarter-staff, kick, cuff and huff,
Call son of a whore, do any kind of thing.
By the tail and the main, with his hands twain
He swung a horse till he was dead;
And that which is stranger, he for very anger
Eat him all up but his head.

These children, as I told, being eat;
Men, women, girls, and boys,
Sighing and sobbing, came to his lodging,
And made a hideous noise:
"O save us all, More of More-hall,
Thou peerless knight of these woods;
Do but slay this dragon, who won't leave us a rag on,
We'll give thee all our goods."

"Tut, tut," quoth he, "no goods I want;
But I want, I want, in sooth,
A fair maid of sixteen, that's brisk, and keen,
With smiles about the mouth;
Hair black as sloe, skin white as snow,
With blushes her cheeks adorning;
To anoynt me o'er night, ere I go to fight,
And to dress me in the morning."

This being done, he did engage
To hew the dragon down;
But first he went, new armour to
Bespeak at Sheffield town;
With spikes all about, not within but without,
Of steel so sharp and strong,
Both behind and before, arms, legs, and all o'er,
Some five or six inches long.

Had you but seen him in this dress,
How fierce he look'd and how big,
You would have thought him for to be
Some Egyptian porcupig.
He frighted all, cats, dogs, and all,
Each cow, each horse, and each hog:
For fear they did flee, for they took him to be
Some strange, outlandish hedge-hog.

To see this fight, all people then
Got up on trees and houses;
On churches some, and chimneys too;
But these put on their trowses,
Not to spoil their hose. As soon as he rose,
To make him strong and mighty,
He drank by the tale, six pots of ale,
And a quart of aqua-vitae.

It is not strength that always wins,
For wit doth strength excell;
Which made our cunning champion
Creep down into a well,
Where he did think, this dragon would drink,
And so he did in truth;
And as he stoop'd low, he rose up and cry'd, "Boh!"
And hit him in the mouth.

"Oh," quoth the dragon, "pox take thee, come out!
Thou disturb'st me in my drink:"
And then he turn'd, and s * * * at him:
Good lack! how he did stink:
"Beshrew thy soul, thy body's foul,
Thy dung smells not like balsam;
Thou son of a whore, thou stink'st so sore,
Sure thy diet is unwholsome."

Our politic knight, on the other side,
Crept out upon the brink,
And gave the dragon such a douse,
He knew not what to think:
"By cock," quoth he, "say you so, do you see?"
And then at him he let fly
With hand and with foot, and so they went to 't;
And the word it was, Hey boys, hey!

"Your words," quoth the dragon, "I don't understand;"
Then to it they fell at all,
Like two wild boars so fierce, if I may
Compare great things with small.
Two days and a night, with this dragon did fight
Our champion on the ground;
Tho' their strength it was great, their skill it was neat,
They never had one wound.

At length the hard earth began to quake,
The dragon gave him a knock,
Which made him to reel, and straightway he thought,
To lift him as high as a rock,
And thence let him fall. But More of More-hall,
Like a valiant son of Mars,
As he came like a lout, so he turn'd him about,
And hit him a kick on the a * * *.

"Oh," quoth the dragon, with a deep sigh,
And turn'd six times together,
Sobbing and tearing, cursing and swearing
Out of his throat of leather;
"More of More-hall; O thou rascāl
Would I had seen thee never;
With the thing at thy foot,
thou hast prick'd my a * * *-gut,
And I'm quite undone for-ever.

"Murder, murder," the dragon cry'd,
"Alack, alack for grief;
Had you but mist that place, you could
Have done me no mischief."
Then his head he shak'd, trembled and quaked,
And down he laid and cry'd;
First on one knee, then on back tumbled he,
So groan'd, kickt, s * * *, and dy'd.

*** A description of the supposed scene of the foregoing ballad, which was communicated to the Editor in 1767, is here given in the words of the relater:

            "In Yorkshire, six miles from Rotherham, is a village called Wortley, the seat of the late Wortley Montague, Esq. About a mile from this village is a lodge, named Warncliff lodge, but vulgarly called Wantley: here lies the scene of the song. I was there above forty years ago; and it being a woody rocky place, my friend made me clamber over rocks and stones, not telling me to what end, till I came to a sort of a cave; then asked my opinion of the place, and pointing to one end says, Here lay the dragon killed by Moor of Moor-hall; here lay his head; here lay his tail; and the stones we came over on the hill, are those he could not crack; and yon white house you see half a mile off, is Moor-hall. I had dined at the lodge, and knew the man's name was Matthew, who was a keeper to Mr. Wortley, and, as he endeavoured to persuade me, was the same Matthew mentioned in the song: in the house is the picture of the dragon and Moor of Moor-hall; and near it a well, which, says he, is the well described in the ballad."

*** Since the former editions of this humorous old song were printed, the following key to the satire hath been communicated by Godfrey Bosville, Esq. of Thorp, near Malton, in Yorkshire; who, in the most obliging manner, gave full permission to subjoin it to the poem.

            Warncliffe-lodge, and Warncliff-wood (vulgarly pronounced Wantley), are in the parish of Penniston, in Yorkshire. The rectory of Penniston was part of the dissolved monastery of St. Stephen's, Westminster; and was granted to the Duke of Norfolk's family: who therewith endowed an hospital, which he built at Sheffield, for women. The trustees let the impropriation of the great tithes of Penniston to the Wortley family, who got a great deal by it, and wanted to get still more: for Mr. Nicholas Wortley attempted to take the tithes in kind, but Mr. Francis Bosville opposed him, and there was a decree in favour of the modus in 37th Eliz. The vicarage of Penniston did not go along with the rectory, but with the copyhold rents, and was part of a large purchase made by Ralph Bosville, Esq. from Queen Elizabeth, in the 2d year of her reign: and that part he sold in 12th Eliz. to his elder brother Godfrey, the father of Francis: who left it, with the rest of his estate, to his wife, for her life, and then to Ralph, third son of his uncle Ralph. The widow married Lyonel Rowlestone, lived eighteen years, and survived Ralph.

            This premised, the ballad apparently relates to the lawsuit carried on concerning this claim of tithes made by the Wortley, family. "Houses and Churches were to him Geese and Turkeys:" which are titheable things the Dragon chose to live on. Sir Francis Wortley, the son of Nicholas, attempted again to take the tithes in kind: but the parishioners subscribed an agreement to defend their modus. And at the head of the agreement was Lyonel Rowlestone, who is supposed to be one of "the Stones, dear Jack, which the Dragon could not crack." The agreement is still preserved in a large sheet of parchment, dated 1st of James I., and is full of names and seals, which might be meant by the coat of armour, "with spikes all about, both within and without." More of More-hall was either the attorney, or counsellor, who conducted the suit. He is not distinctly remembered, but More-hall is still extant at the very bottom of Wantley [Warncliff] wood, and lies so low, that it might be said to be in a well: as the Dragon's den [Warncliff-lodge] was at the top of the wood, "with Matthew's house hard by it." The keepers belonging to the Wortley family were named, for many generations, Matthew Northall: the last of them left this lodge, within memory, to be keeper to the Duke of Norfolk. The present owner of More-hall still attends Mr. Bosville's Manor-court, at Ox-spring, and pays a rose a-year. "More of More-hall, with nothing at all, slew the Dragon of Wantley." He gave him, instead of tithes, so small a modus, that it was in effect nothing at all, and was slaying him with a vengeance. "The poor children three," &c. cannot surely mean the three sisters of Francis Bosville, who would have been co-heiresses had he made no will? The late Mr. Bosville had a contest with the descendants of two of them, the late Sir Geo. Saville's father, and Mr. Copley, about the presentation to Penniston, they supposing Francis had not the power to give this part of the estate from the heirs at law; but it was decided against them. The Dragon (Sir Francis Wortley) succeeded better with his cousin Wordesworth, the freehold lord of the manor (for it is the copyhold manor that belongs to Mr. Bosville) having persuaded him not tooin the refractory parishioners, under a promise that he should have his tithes cheap: and now the estates of Wortley and Wordesworth are the only lands that pay tithes in the parish.

            N.B. The "two days and a night," mentioned in ver. 125, as the duration of the combat, was probably that of the trial at law.


1. Collection of Historical Ballads, in 3 vols. 1727.


Prev Next

Back to Introduction