We like to think that Henham is famous for its dragon.
Perhaps the first sighting is described in a pamphlet published in 1669 entitled – ‘The Flying Serpent or Strange News Out of Essex,’ from which we extract the following –
“The place of his abode and where he hath been oftentimes seen, is called Henham, but most commonly Henham on the Mount, the town standing upon a hill, having many fair farms and granges belonging to it, in one of which named The Lodge, near to a wood called Birch-wood, by reason of the many birches growing there, in a pasture-ground close by the same, hath this monstrous serpent been often seen as he hath lain upon the sides of a bank, beaking and stretching himself out upon the same, at such time as Sol did parch the earth with his resulgent beams.”
The first time that he was seen was about the 27 or 28 of May last, a gentleman’s way lying by the place where this serpent keeps his station, as he rid carefully on, expecting to receive no hurt as he intended none, on a sudden this Serpent assailed his horse, affrighting the rider so much with his monstrous proportion and bold courage to give such an onset, that all in a maze he spurred his horse, who almost as much afraid as his master, with winged speed hafted away, glad that they had escaped such an eminent danger.
Being come home he acquaints his friends and neighbours with what he had seen of this monstrous serpent, especially makes it known to a neighbour in whose grounds this serpent doth lurk, wishing him to beware of his cattle, and to use his best indeavour for destroying it, least by protraction of time it might do much mischief when had I wist would be but small comfort to him for the losses he might sustain.
The pamphlet even provides an illustration of the ‘Flying Serpent’ taken from a woodcut.
Not long after two men of the same parish walking that way, espied this serpent as he lay on a hillock beaking himself again in the sun, where they beheld his full proportion, being as near as they could guess 8 or 9 foot long, the smallest part of him about the bigness of a man’s leg, on the middle as big as a man’s thigh, his eyes were very large and piercing, about the bigness of a sheep’s eye, in his mouth he had two row of teeth which appeared to their sight very white and sharp, and on his back he had two wings indifferent large, but not proportionable to the rest of his body, they judging them not to be above two handfuls long, and when spreaded, not to extend from the top of one wing to the utmost end of the other above two foot at the moll, and therefore altogether too weak to carry such an unwieldy body. These men though armed with clubs and staves, yet durst not approach to strike this serpent, neither it seems was the serpent afraid of them, for railing himself upon his breast about the heighth of two foot, he stood looking on them as daring them to the encounter.
And so the story continues telling of further sightings throughout that summer and of people watching with guns, muskets and fouling pieces for it to emerge from its lair within the woods to no avail.
All perhaps remains a mystery until the late 1990’s when Alison Barnes a freelance writer and broadcaster published booklet entitled ‘The Ingenious William Winstanley’ – poet, journalist, bookseller, historian and novelist of nearby Saffron Walden and Quendon – 1628 – 1698. He was the uncle to Henry Winstanley, the builder of the first Eddystone Lighthouse.
Her description of the William suggests that not only was he a successful and talented individual but also he was a man with a keen sense of humour. She is certain that uncle and nephew joined forces to perpetrate the Henham Dragon Hoax of 1668 when they ‘created a hollow nine-foot wood and canvas dragon or “flying serpent” activated by a man which made fleeting appearances in and around Birch Wood, Henham throughout that summer and caused great excitement and mystification in the neighbourhood.”
To spread the jest further, in January 1669, William anonymously wrote the pamphlet describing the dragon’s visit which is vouched for by a churchwarden, a constable and five other solid citizens. She states that critics of the story could not be expected to know that the seven supposedly unimpeachable witnesses were in fact close friends of both men. A close look at the woodcarving shows that all present, including the dragon and the sun, all grinning and smiling as if sharing the joke. She also surmises that the pamphlet was probably on sale in William’s Walden bookshop.
Whether the people of Henham believe her conclusions or the existence of the Henham Dragon is another matter. Our village monthly magazine is called ‘The Dragon’ and it is true that over the years many strange beings have been sighted in Henham. The fact that most of the sightings have been by people leaving The Cock late at night may cause some to doubt their authenticity, but who knows?
The pamphlet entitled ‘The Flying Serpent or Strange News our of Essex’ a copy of which can be viewed at Saffron Walden Library.
‘The Ingenious William Winstanley’ by Alison Barnes
The Story of an Essex Village by Joyce Winmill published in The Essex Review Oct 1952