The Lambton Worm

[Extracted from Jacobs, More English Fairy Tales, 1894, pp.198-203.]


A WILD young fellow was the heir of Lambton, the fine estate and hall by the side of the swift-flowing Wear. Not a Mass would he hear in Brugeford Chapel of a Sunday, but a-fishing he would go. And if he did not haul in anything, his curses could be heard by the folk as they went by to Brugeford.

Well, one Sunday morning he was fishing as usual, and not a salmon had risen to him, his basket was bare of roach or dace. And the worse his luck, the worse grew his language, till the passers-by were horrified at his words as they went to listen to the Mass-priest.

At last young Lambton felt a mighty tug at his line.

"At last," quoth he, "a bite worth having!" and he pulled and he pulled, till what should appear above the water but a head like an eft's, with nine holes on each side of its mouth. But still he pulled till he had got the thing to land, when it turned out to be a Worm of hideous shape. If he had cursed before, his curses were enough to raise the hair on your head.

"What ails thee, my son?" said a voice by his side, [p.199] "and what hast thou caught, that thou shouldst stain the Lord's Day with such foul language?"

Looking round, young Lambton saw a strange old man standing by him.

"Why, truly," he said, "I think I have caught the devil himself. Look you and see if you know him."

But the stranger shook his head, and said, "It bodes no good to thee or thine to bring such a monster to shore. Yet cast him not back into the Wear; thou hast caught him, and thou must keep him," and with that away he turned, and was seen no more.

The young heir of Lambton took up the gruesome thing, and, taking it off his hook, cast it into a well close by, and ever since that day that well has gone by the name of the Worm Well.

For some time nothing more was seen or heard of the Worm, till one day it had outgrown the size of the well, and came forth full-grown. So it came forth from the well and betook itself to the Wear. And all day long it would lie coiled round a rock in the middle of the stream, while at night it came forth from the river and harried the country side. It sucked the cow's milk, devoured the lambs, worried the cattle, and frightened all the women and girls of the district, and then it would retire for the rest of the night to the hill, still called the Worm Hill, on the north side of the Wear, about a mile and a half from Lambton Hall.

This terrible visitation brought young Lambton, of Lambton Hall, to his senses. He took upon himself the vows of the Cross, and departed for the Holy Land, in the hope that the scourge he had brought upon his district [p.200] would disappear. But the grisly Worm took no heed, except that it crossed the river and came right up to Lambton Hall itself where the old lord lived on all alone, his only son having gone to the Holy Land. What to do? The Worm was coming closer and closer to the Hall; women were shrieking, men were gathering weapons, dogs were barking and horses neighing with terror. At last the steward called out to the dairy maids, "Bring all your milk hither," and when they did so, and had brought all the milk that the nine kye of the byre had yielded, he poured it all into the long stone trough in front of the Hall.

The Worm drew nearer and nearer, till at last it came up to the trough. But when it sniffed the milk, it turned aside to the trough and swallowed all the milk up, and then slowly turned round and crossed the river Wear, and coiled its bulk three times round the Worm Hill for the night.

Henceforth the Worm would cross the river every day, and woe betide the Hall if the trough contained the milk of less than nine kye. The Worm would hiss, and would rave, and lash its tail round the trees of the park, and in its fury it would uproot the stoutest oaks and the loftiest firs. So it went on for seven years. Many tried to destroy the Worm, but all had failed, and many a knight had lost his life in fighting with the monster, which slowly crushed the life out of all that came near it.

At last the Childe of Lambton came home to his father's Hall, after seven long years spent in meditation and repentance on holy soil. Sad and desolate he found his folk: the lands untilled, the farms deserted, half the [p.201] trees of the park uprooted, for none would stay to tend the nine kye that the monster needed for his food each day.

The Childe sought his father, and begged his forgiveness for the curse he had brought on the Hall.

"Thy sin is pardoned," said his father; "but go thou to the Wise Woman of Brugeford, and find if aught can free us from this monster."

To the Wise Woman went the Childe, and asked her advice.

"Tis thy fault, O Childe, for which we suffer," she said; "be it thine to release us."

"I would give my life," said the Childe. "Mayhap thou wilt do so," said she.

"But hear me, and mark me well. Thou, and thou alone, canst kill the Worm. But, to this end, thou go to the smithy and have thy armour studded with spear-heads. Then go to the Worm's Rock in the Wear, and station thyself there. Then, when the Worm comes to the Rock at dawn of day, try thy prowess on him, and God gi'e thee a good deliverance."

"And this I will do," said Childe Lambton.

"But one thing more," said the Wise Woman, going back to her cell. "If thou slay the Worm, swear that thou wilt put to death the first thing that meets thee as thou crossest again the threshold of Lambton Hall. Do this, and all will be well with thee and thine. Fulfil not thy vow, and none of the Lambtons, for generations three times three, shall die in his bed. Swear, and fail not."

The Childe swore as the Wise Woman bid, and went his way to the stithy. There he had his armour studded [p.202] with spear-heads all over. Then he passed his vigils in Brugeford Chapel, and at dawn of day took his post on the Worm's Rock in the River Wear.

As dawn broke, the Worm uncoiled its snaky twine from around the hill, and came to its rock in the river. When it perceived the Childe waiting for it, it lashed the waters in its fury and wound its coils round the Childe, and then attempted to crush him to death. But the more it pressed, the deeper dug the spear-heads into its sides. Still it pressed and pressed, till all the water around was crimsoned with its blood. Then the Worm unwound itself, and left the Childe free to use his sword. He raised it, brought it down, and cut the Worm in two. One half fell into the river, and was carried swiftly away. Once more the head and the remainder of the body encircled the Childe, but with less force, and the spear-heads did their work. At last the Worm uncoiled itself, snorted its last foam of blood and fire, and rolled dying into the river, and was never seen more.

The Childe of Lambton swam ashore, and, raising his bugle to his lips, sounded its note thrice. This was the signal to the Hall, where the servants and the old lord had shut themselves in to pray for the Childe's success. When the third sound of the bugle was heard, they were to release Boris, the Childe's favourite hound. But such was their joy at learning of the Childe's safety and the Worm's defeat, that they forgot orders, and when the Childe reached the threshold of the Hall his old father rushed out to meet him, and would have clasped him to his breast.

"The vow! the vow!" called out the Childe of Lamb- [p.203] ton, and blew still another blast upon his horn. This time the servants remembered, and released Boris, who came bounding to his young master. The Childe raised his shining sword, and severed the head of his faithful hound.

But the vow was broken, and for nine generations of men none of the Lambtons died in his bed. The last of the Lambtons died in his carriage as he was crossing Brugeford Bridge, one hundred and thirty years ago.

Notes and References

Source.Henderson's Folk-Lore of Northern Counties, pp. 287-9 [see below], I have re-written, as the original was rather high falutin'.

Parallels.Worms or dragons form the subject of the whole of the eighth chapter of Henderson. "The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh" (No. xxxiii.) also requires the milk of nine kye for its daily rations, and cow's milk is the ordinary provender of such kittle cattle (Grimm's Teut. Myth, 687), the mythological explanation being that cows = the clouds and the dragon = the storm. Jephtha vows are also frequent in folk-tales: Miss Cox gives many examples in her Cinderella, p. 511.

Remarks.Nine generations back from the last of the Lambtons, Henry Lambton, M.P., ob. 1761, reaches Sir John Lambton, Knight of Rhodes, and several instances of violent death occur in the interim. Dragons are possibly survivals into historic times of antediluvian monsters, or reminiscences of classical legend (Perseus, etc.). Who shall say which is which, as Mr. Lang would observe.

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The Lambton Worm

[Extracted from Henderson's Folk-Lore of Northern Counties, 1879, pp.198-203.]


The Lambton Worm, partly from the romantic character of its history, partly because it relates to a family of note in the county, seems to have taken deep hold of the popular mind in Durham, and it is peculiarly fortunate in a chronicler. About thirty years ago, Sir Cuthbert Sharpe, the friend of Mr. Surtees, and his assistant in the History of the Palatinate, collected every particular respecting this Worm from old residents in the neighbourhood of Lambton, and placed the whole in the Bishoprick Garland, a collection of legends, songs, ballads, &c., relating to the county of Durham. As only one hundred and fifty copies of this little work were printed, and it is now extremely scarce, free use has been made of it in the following account of the Worm of Lambton:

The park and manor-house of Lambton, belonging to a family of the same name, lie on the banks of the Wear, to the north of Lumley. The family is a very ancient one, much older, it is believed, than the twelfth century, to which date its pedigree extends. The old castle was dismantled in 1797, when a site was adopted for the present mansion on the north bank of the swiftly-flowing Wear, in a situation of exceeding beauty. The park [p.288] also contains the ruins of a chapel, called Brugeford or Bridgeford, close to one of the bridges which span the Wear.

Long, long ago, some say about the fourteenth century, the young heir of Lambton led a careless profane life, regardless alike of his duties to God and man, and in particular neglecting to attend mass, that he might spend his Sunday mornings in fishing. One Sunday, while thus engaged, having cast his line into the Wear many times without success, he vented his disappointment in curses loud and deep, to the great scandal of the servants and tenantry as they passed by to the chapel at Brugeford.

Soon afterwards he felt something tugging at his line, and trusting he had at last secured a fine fish, he exerted all his skill and strength to bring his prey to land But what were his horror and dismay on finding that, instead of a fish, he had only caught a worm of most unsightly appearance! He hastily tore the thing from his hook, and flung it into a well close by, which is still known by the name of the Worm Well.

The young heir had scarcely thrown his line again into the stream when a stranger of venerable appearance, passing by, asked him what sport he had met with. To which he replied, "Why, truly, I think I have caught the devil himself. Look in and judge." The stranger looked, and remarked that he had never seen the like of it before; that it resembled an eft, only it had nine holes on each side of its mouth; and, finally, that he thought it boded no good.

The worm remained unheeded in the well till it outgrew so confined a dwelling-place. It then emerged, and betook itself by day to the river, where it lay coiled round a rock in the middle of the stream, and by night to a neighbouring hill, round whose base it would twine itself; while it continued to grow so fast, that it soon could encircle the hill three times. This eminence is still called the Worm Hill. It is oval in shape, on the north side of the Wear, and about a mile and a half from old Lambton Hall.

The monster now became the terror of the whole country side. It sucked the cows' milk, worried the cattle, devoured the lambs, [p.289] and committed every sort of depredation on the helpless peasantry. Having laid waste the district on the north side of the river it crossed the stream and approached 'Lambton Hall, where the old lord was living alone and desolate. His son had repented of his evil life, and had gone to the wars in a distant country. Some authorities tell us he had embarked as a crusader for the Holy Land.

On hearing of their enemy's approach, the terrified household assembled in council. Much was said, but to little purpose, till the steward, a man of age and experience, advised that the large trough which stood in the courtyard should immediately be filled with milk. This was done without delay; the monster approached, drank the milk, and, without doing further harm, returned across the Wear to wrap his giant form around his favourite hill. The next day he was seen recrossing the river; the trough was hastily filled again, and with the same results. It was found that the milk of "nine kye" was needed to fill the trough; and if this quantity was not placed there every day, regularly and in full measure, the worm would break out into a violent rage, lashing its tail round the trees in the park, and tearing them up by the roots.

The Lambton Worm was now, in fact, the terror of the North Country. It had not been left altogether unopposed. Many a gallant knight had come out to fight with the monster, but all to no purpose; for it possessed the marvellous power of reuniting itself after being cut asunder, and thus was more than a match for the chivalry of the North. So, after many conflicts, and much loss of life and limb, the creature was left in possession of its favourite hill.

After seven long years, however, the heir of Lambton returned home, a sadder and a wiser man: returned to find the broad lands of his ancestors waste and desolate, his people oppressed and well-nigh exterminated, his father sinking into the grave overwhelmed with care and anxiety. He took no rest, we are told, till he had crossed the river and surveyed the Worm as it lay coiled round the foot of the hill; then, hearing how its former opponents had failed, he took counsel in the matter from a sybil or wise woman.

[p.290]

At first the sybil did nothing but upbraid him for having brought this scourge upon his house and neighbourhood; but when she perceived that he was indeed penitent, and desirous at any cost to remove the evil he had caused, she gave him her advice and instructions. He was to get his best suit of mail studded thickly with spear-heads, to put it on, and thus armed to take his stand on the rock in the middle of the river, there to meet his enemy, trusting the issue to Providence and his good sword. But she charged him before going to the encounter to take a vow that, if successful, he would slay the first living thing that met him on his way homewards. Should he fail to fulfil this vow, she warned him that for nine generations no lord of Lambton would die in his bed.

The heir, now a belted knight, made the vow in Brugeford chapel; he studded his armour with the sharpest spear-heads, and unsheathing his trusty sword took his stand on the rock in the middle of the Wear. At the accustomed hour the Worm uncoiled its "snaky twine," and wound its way towards the hall, crossing the river close by the rock on which the knight was standing eager for the combat. He struck a violent blow upon the monster's head as it passed, on which the creature, "irritated and vexed," though apparently not injured, flung its tail round him, as if to strangle him in its coils.

In the words of a local poet:

The worm shot down the middle stream
    Like a flash of living light,
And the waters kindled round his path
    In rainbow colours bright.
But when he saw the armed knight
    He gathered all his pride,
And coiled in many a radiant spire
    Rode buoyant o'er the tide.
When he darted at length his dragon strength
    An earthquake shook the rock,
And the fireflakes bright fell round the knight
    As unmoved he met the shock.
Though his heart was stout it quailed no doubt,
    His very life-blood ran cold,
As round and round the wild Worm wound,
    In many a grappling fold.

[p.291]

Now was seen the value of the sybil's advice. The closer the Worm wrapped him in its folds the more deadly were its self-inflicted wounds, till at last the river ran crimson with its gore. Its strength thus diminished, the knight was able at last with his good sword to cut the serpent in two; the severed part was immediately borne away by the swiftness of the current, and the Worm, unable to reunite itself, was utterly destroyed.

During this long and desperate conflict the household of Lambton had shut themselves within-doors to pray for their young lord, he having promised that when it was over he would, if conqueror, blow a blast on his bugle. This would assure his father of his safety, and warn them to let loose the favourite hound, which they had destined as the sacrifice on the occasion, according to the sybil's requirements and the young lord's vow. When, however, the bugle-notes were heard within the hall, the old man forgot everything but his son's safety, and rushing out of doors, ran to meet the hero and embrace him.

The heir of' Lambton was thunderstruck; what could he do? It was impossible to lift his hand against his father; yet how else to fulfil his vow? In his perplexity he blew another blast; the hound was let loose, it bounded to its master; the sword, yet reeking with the monster's gore, was plunged into its heart; but all in vain. The vow was broken, the sybil's prediction fulfilled, and the curse lay upon the house of Lambton for nine generations.

The exact date of the story is of course uncertain. Sir Cuthbert Sharpe appends to it the following entry from an old manuscript pedigree, lately in the possession of the family of Middleton, of Offerton: "John Lambton, that slewe ye worme, was knight of Rhodes and lord of Lambton, after ye dethe of fower brothers 'sans eschew malle.'" Now nine ascending generations, from a certain Henry Lambton, Esq. M.P. would exactly reach to Sir John Lambton, knight of Rhodes; and it was to that Henry Lambton that the old people of the neighbourhood used to look with great curiosity, marvelling whether the curse would "hold good to the end." He died in his carriage, [p.292] crossing the new bridge of Lambton, on the 26th of June, 1761; and popular tradition is clear and unanimous in maintaining that, during the period of the curse, no lord of Lambton ever died in his bed. I have frequently heard my mother relate how her mother used to speak of the deep and wide-spreading anxiety which prevailed during the latter years of Henry Lambton, and when tidings reached Durham of his death and the fulfilment of the prophecy the universal feeling was one of deep awe, not unmingled with a certain satisfaction in the final accomplishment of what had been looked forward to so long and so earnestly. The violent deaths of some of this fated family are recorded in history. Sir William Lambton, a colonel of a regiment of foot in the service of Charles I. was slain at Marston Moor; and his son William, as gallant a Royalist as his father, received his death-wound at Wakefield, at the head of a troop of dragoons, A.D. 1643. Surely such deaths as these show how a curse may pass into a blessing!

It may be added that two stone figures of some antiquity and tolerable workmanship existed lately at Lambton Castle. One of these was apparently an effigy of our hero studded armour, sword, and vanquished monster, all as described in the legend, except that the Worm is endowed with ears, legs, and even a pair of wings. The other figure was a female one, and marked by no very characteristic features. It might, however, have been meant for the sybil. The trough from which the Worm took its daily tribute of milk is still to be seen at Lambton Hall; and Mr. Surtees mentions that in his young days he saw there a piece of some tough substance, resembling bull's hide, which was shown him as part of the Worm's skin.