A free public talk, scheduled for the evening of 5th October, will shed fresh light on the intriguing north-east legend of the Lambton Worm. Jamie Beckett will look into the medieval origins of the folk tale as well as how it has evolved, been almost forgotten and then revived through the ages. Jamie will also examine the tale’s connections with the influential Lambton family and its importance for the north east’s sense of cultural identity.
The story is centred around a young squire, Sir John Lambton, who commits the sin of going fishing on the Sabbath. Lambton catches a grotesque wormlike creature in the River Wear, and is so disgusted he hurls it down a well. Shocked into reforming his sinful behaviour, Lambton goes off on a Crusade, during which he gains the reputation of a hero. But, on returning to Durham, he is horrified to discover the wormlike creature has grown into an enormous dragon.
The dragon is fond of terrorising the local area, devouring livestock, eating children and coiling itself seven times around a hill. (Said by some to be Penshaw Hill, by others to be Worm Hill, in Fatfield, on which it’s said you can still see the marks of the worm’s body.) Brave peasants and visiting knights try to kill the worm, but are all slaughtered. Even if they manage to slice the worm up, the chopped-up bits have the magical ability to join themselves together again. John decides to have a go at slaying the beast with the help of a witch, but she warns him that even if he defeats the monster, it could curse his family for nine generations.
After the Middle Ages, it seems that the folk tale was passed down orally, but it gradually became less well-known until by 1785 the researcher Hutchinson found it only “in the memories of old women.” But in the Nineteenth century – perhaps due to the Victorian’s enthusiasm for all things medieval and folkloric – the tale got so popular that, according to Jamie, it “became a household name.” In his lecture, Jamie will investigate the reasons for this popularity and also examine why – unlike a number of other north-east worm legends – the Lambton Worm tale is still well-known today.
Jamie’s talk will also focus on the real-life Lambton family, including how in later times “the charismatic figure John George Lambton – heir to the family’s estates, colliery owner, popular radical and earnest reformer” was “central to the Lambton Worm story.”
Jamie’s talk is the final lecture in the Late Summer Lectures series, organised by Durham University’s Department of English Studies. The talk will take place on 5th October, between 17.30 and 18.30, at Alington House. Podcasts of previous talks in the series can be found at http://readdurhamenglish.wordpress.com/podcasts/