The monstrous serpent of St Leonard’s Forest

By Alice Millard, Research Assistant

Written accounts of serpent-like creatures, often referred to as dragons, appear throughout British history. They’re comparable to today’s sensationalist news stories about spooky big cat sightings. Both are creatures who normally cannot be accurately described – yet people have attempted to convince others of the existence of monsters for millennia. A combination of oral folklore, pitch-black nights, and the lack of knowledge of the world outside a town fueled the belief of other-worldly things.

A pen and ink drawing of a dragon's face on parchment.
Dragon iconography appear on all sorts of early documents, such as this 16th century indenture. (ChiCity/AH/4)

One particular account of a serpent creature can be read in the archive…

The text below is taken from a chapter within a book called ‘The Harleian Miscellany: A Collection of Scarce, Curious and Entertaining Pamphlets and Tracts…. Selected from the Library of Edward Harley, Second Earl of Oxford’ (Lib 16806) which we hold here in the archive.

True and Wonderfull. A Discourse relating a strange and monstrous Serpent (or Dragon) lately discovered, and yet living, to the great Annoyence and divers Slaughters both of Men and Cattell, by his strong and violent Poyson: In Sussex, two Miles from Horsam, in a Woode called St. Leonard’s Forrest, and thirtie Miles from London, this present Month of August, 1614. With the true Generation of Serpents.”

Opening text to ‘True and Wonderfull’, 1614.
The location of an original version is not known. (Lib 16806)

This chapter focuses on a full transcription of the 1614 pamphlet which describes in some detail a monster-type creature “most terrible and noisome to the inhabitants thereabouts.”. It was printed by John Trundle in London. Unfortunately, the true provenance of this pamphlet isn’t known.

These types of sensationalist publications were called chapbooks and were designed to be purchased cheaply and passed around friends and family (see images below for other examples). They usually aimed to shock and subjects would include murders, monsters, and the deviant behaviour of criminals. However, we’ll never know if this particular chapbook was just a publisher’s publicity stunt, or a creepy first-hand account!

According to this chapbook, the sightings of the serpent took place in St Leonard’s forest, an area which is described as a “vast and unfrequented place, heathie, vaultie, full of unwholesome shades, and over-growne hollowes”

The author of the 1614 pamphlet tells us that there were three witnesses that informed this written account, local residents named John Steele, Christopher Holder, and “a Widow Woman dwelling nere Faygate”.

According to these three people, “this serpent (or dragon, as some call it) is reputed to be nine feete, or rather more, in length, and shaped almost in the forme of an axletree of a cart” and it is “discovered to have large feete, but the eye may be there deceived; for some suppose that serpents have no feete, but glide upon certain ribbes and scales”.

Printed list of three witnesses who reportedly saw the serpent in St Leonard's Forest.
Witnesses to the serpent. (Lib 16806)

The narrator goes on to describe the destruction of this creature…

“He will cast his venome about four rode [rod] from him, as by woefull experience it was proved on that bodies of a man and a woman comming that way, who afterwards were found dead, being poisoned and very much swelled, but not prayed upon.”

Of course, it is impossible to substantiate any of the above claims of a monstrous serpent terrorising Horsham, but it isn’t unreasonable to believe that unfamiliar animals or unexplained events fueled the creation of these types of sightings. But for those living in Horsham, please, beware…

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