Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Tale of the Lambton Worm

The Laws of Silence recently reported two tales of water & death: the fountain sprung from the sarcophagus of St. Fris & the haunted falls at the heart of Minneapolis. Another such tale stems from Sunderland (North East England); this tale is said to be at least 500 years older than the stories of the Loch Ness Monster.

Our story starts with Young John Lambton, heir of the Lambton estate, a rich young punk who shirked his duty and smirked at misdeeds. Skipping church one Sunday to fish the River Wear (rhymes with “near”), he pulled out a hideous open-gilled eel; disgusted, he tossed the foul thing into the peasants’ well (one can picture the jerk taking a piss in the waters right after)—echoic of the French tales of Gargantua, living in a well where people tossed stones at his head.

But the weight of duty cannot be escaped so easily: shrugged from young John’s shoulders, it weighed upon his heart, a burden of guilt. After a restless Sunday night, a weary Monday morning found Lambton at church, where the priest sent him to the Crusades in penance.

Nine battle-weary years later, Lambton found his homelands in the grips of terror. First the well had grown foul; soon nearby sheep and cattle were vanishing in the night. A ring of terror and death spanned outward from the well, a navel with the umbilical worm grown gargantuan in John’s absence A few brave souls challenged the beast, but whenever it was hacked by swords it healed itself, rejoining its cleaved halves and smothering its would-be killers in a constricting embrace before devouring their lifeless bodies. John’s weary old father surrendered into truce, leaving nightly offerings for the beast outside his castle: a trough filled with milk from nine cows seemed to satiate the dragon’s ravenous hunger ("worm" stems from older words meaning "dragon"). The once proud ruler was emasculated, reduced to a wet nurse for his son’s worm.

John Lambton had turned to a priest when guilt engulfed his heart, but he turned to a witch when the worm engulfed his lands. The witch gave John a plan of attack but told him that once the serpent was defeated he was required to kill the first living thing he saw; should he fail, shirking from this duty, the Lambtons would be cursed—for nine generations, none would die in bed. (This type of deal is know as Jephthah’s Vow in reference to a similar bargain related in Old Testament, Judges 11:30-35.)

Lambton followed the witch’s plans: he crafted razor-spiked armor, waited for river-swelling rains, and rowed a boat to a rocky stand in the Wear. The Lambton worm sensed the challenge and rushed forth to kill its former captor. It coiled round the Crusader and constricted; but the tighter it gripped, the more the armor cut into its flesh. John stood fast as the serpent cleaved itself, its severed flesh rushing off in the roaring waters which prevented it from rejoining itself.

John rowed back to shore and trumpeted victory with his hunting horn, the prearranged signal to his father who was supposed to release a hound for John’s required sacrifice. But the elder Lambton, overcome with joy and relief, tottered out of the castle, arms held out wide for his son—he was the first living thing to fall under John’s horrified gaze. All John had to do was meet his father’s embrace; the razor-sharp armor would do the rest—but he could not fulfill his duty. He shouted for a hound and killed it in desperation.

History shows that nine generations of Lambtons died a violent death.

As an interesting side note, Lewis Carroll spent lots of time in Sunderland. Was Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole inspired in part by this tale of a beast in a well?

We leave you a few final questions: Why are death & water so often linked? Is it simply that water is associated with life and the desecration of water therefore a harbinger of death? Then why the River Styx? And why is slipping into the earth so often associated with surrealist adventures? Our recently posted examination of the desecration of the Mississippi suggests that these are not just the stuff of European tales of yore: elemental water and earth continue to hold sway in the shadowy realm of ... imagination?

Recommended for further reading on the Lambton Worm:

  • Mason & Dixon, Thomas Pynchon, chapter 60
  • Alice in Sunderland, Bryan Talbot
  • The Bishoprick Garland, Sir Cuthbert Sharpe gathered 30-some versions of this tale in 1834. There were a couple reprints, but it’s still an uncommon work. We would be incredibly grateful to anyone who could supply us with a scan of the relevant pages in the The Bishoprick Garland.


  1. "...no Lambtons for nine generations died in their beds. However, they may well have died in someone else's: by clear implication, the Worm is a promin­ent and permanent part of sinful human nature."


    "ALICE is not a story at all. It's a documentary within which I tell, literally, dozens of stories, some short, some longer (the longest being the 18-page retelling of THE LEGEND OF THE LAMBTON WORM)."


  2. Maybe the water and death link was so strong because for so long in human history drinking water was also associated with the risk of catching some deadly disease (eg. cholera, typhoid, polio).

  3. That's an interesting idea you have, Ivy*. Perhaps legends equating desecration of water with death stem back to ancient cautionary tales of defecation of water & death!

    Curiously, England seems to have forgotten this lesson. The cholera outbreak in the 1800s started in Sunderland (!) a major port with a real cesspool of drinking system. Medical doctors wanted to quarantine the entire city, but business interests prevailed & cholera spread through England killing thousands. Eventually, a clever doctor determined that bad water was the cause (you can read about his ingeniously "simple" reasoning in "Ghost Map").
    * poison ivy socks -- "PIS" is such an unfortunate acronym :) may I call you Ivy for short?

  4. iceland apparently has a quite a history of water "worms" as i learned from this: http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/02/13/10399530-icelands-monster-unmasked

    1. I wonder if the "Lagarfljót Worm" is related to the Lambton Worm? Also, although this seems to be explainable, I wonder if these legends have some basis in fact. When I was looking at the wolf stuff I read that wolves were much bigger in th Middle Ages and have since been hunetd into extinction. I wonder if there were some now-extinct creatures which grew very large and gave rise to these legends. I know in France they introduced the siluris into the rivers (illegaly) for sport fishing and without natural predators, have become a problem, growing veeerry large: Yikes

  5. As a County Durham lass myself and brought up with the legend of The Lambton Worm, I have a tendency to get a wee bit annoyed when I hear people referring to the Lambton Worm as from Sunderland. Sunderland is on the stretch of the Wear as it reaches the sea. The Lambton Worm was caught more inland, probably nearer to Chester-Le-Street. Nor is Penshaw Hill in Sunderland. You will find Penshaw Hill nearer to Houghton-le-Spring. If people are going to write about the legend of the Lambton Worm they might at least get the location correct.

    1. In the historic counties, Sunderland was part of Durham County, but was excluded in the 1888 reorganization, no? Why do so many people in Sunderland claim the worm?

      For the benefit of others who may read this, Sunderland and Chester-le-Street are 9.8 miles apart.

      Also, this post makes no mention of Penshaw Hill.

      Thanks for the clarification though.

    2. Thanks for the comment, Anonymous County Durham Lass. It's great to hear from a local! May I ask you a few questions?

      1. Does "Sunderland" always just mean the actual town (if "town" is the right word) and not the entire borough (i.e., the City of Sunderland)? I spent several hours trying to straighten this out today, but I have to confess that I just ended up more confused than ever. Wikipedia seems to use "Sunderland" both ways: sometimes Wikipedia means the borough; other times it means the town.

      2. Do people from North East England generally think that the Worm was captured at Penshaw Hill or Worm Hill? I'd like to think it was Worm Hill even though Penshaw Hill is closer to the Lambton Castle, but I'm curious to know if locals agree.

      3. Do you happen to know the story behind the name of Dragonville? I couldn't figure that out, but I'm intrigued!


    3. Gid: "Historical English-speaking cultures have used the (now deprecated) terms worm, Wurm, or wyrm to describe carnivorous reptiles ("serpents"), and the related mythical beasts dragons."

      I'd say there's a good chance the name of Dragonville is related to the Lambton Worm, or Dragon. Also, it might be cool to have your email summary to me posted as a comment?

      I too read up on Sunderland/County Durham and found it all rather complicated!

    4. Here's that email summary, more or less, D. This is just my attempt to sort out the geography. I'd love to hear from anyone with knowledge of the area: Did I get this right?

      Let me start by saying, "Man, this is confusing!" Sunderland is a settlement at the mouth of the River Wear. It's located within a metropolitan borough called the City of Sunderland. Wikipedia sometimes says "Sunderland" in reference to the entire City of Sunderland. I'm not sure if other people do that or not. Anyhow, the City of Sunderland is located in the larger metropolitan county of Tyne and Wear. (See: wikipedia and more wikipedia)

      In other words Sunderland is on the Wear in the City of Sunderland in Tyne and Wear.

      Let's restate that with clarification: Sunderland (a city) is on the Wear (a river) in the City of Sunderland (a borough) in Tyne and Wear (a county) ... if I've got that straight...

      Now if you really want to pin down locations, note that Penshaw Hill and Chester-le-Street are both in Tyne and Wear (county), but Lambton Castle is in County Durham. (I'm talking present day here. Everything mentioned in these comments was, I believe, part of County Durham prior to 1888--i.e., when the Worm was about.)

      Anyhow, Penshaw Hill and Chester-le-Street are in the same county but in different boroughs. Penshaw Hill is in the City of Sunderland; Chester-le-Street is in Gateshead. Wikipedia has a typo that is ironic in the context of this conversation: "Lambton Castle, located in County Durham, England, between sunderland and Chester-le-Street, is a stately home, the ancestral seat of the Lambton family, the Earls of Durham" (wikipedia). I'm not sure what that's supposed to say.

      There's one more complication. According to Wikipedia: "In some versions of the story [of the Lambton Worm,] the hill is Penshaw Hill, that on which the Penshaw Monument now stands, but locally the credit goes to the nearby Worm Hill, in Fatfield. In most versions of the story the worm is large enough to wrap itself around the hill 7 times. It is said that one can still see the marks of the worm on Worm Hill" (wikipedia).

      As for Fatfield, Wikipedia sez, "Fatfield is a village in Tyne and Wear, located in the City of Sunderland metropolitan borough, England. It formed part of the Washington new town" (wikipedia).

      More interesting geographical facts: There's a Sunderland Bridge in this general area (but further south). "Sunderland Bridge" is, according to Wikipedia, both a village and a bridge. Wikipedia says that it's in the City of Sunderland, but Google maps says that it's in County Durham. Sunderland Bridge is near some places with great names: Crimes Wood, Pity Me, and, curiously, Dragonville.

      Man, I could look at maps all frickin' day long...

  6. Can't help but add....Gid also said the tale stems from Sunderland, not that the events in tale took place in Sunderland. One could crtainly argue he's wrong about where the tale comes from, though!

    Also, why do you say the worm was "probably" caught near Chester-le-Street?

    The tale mentions the final conflict happened n a "rocky stand" in the river. Is there a unique rocky stand in the vicinity of Chester? Or is this last confrontatin said to have occurred elsewhere?


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