On the trail of the golden dragon of Wessex….
The Golden Dragon of Burford in Oxfordshire isn’t a takeaway! It’s the pagan banner of the Anglo-Saxon King of Mercia, Aethelbert, who was defeated at the Battle of Burford in AD 752 by Cuthbert, King of the West Saxons. Aethelbert’s golden–dragon banner was taken, and for centuries the outcome of this battle was celebrated in the town by a procession and much festivity. In the 1979 parade, 25 local schoolchildren provided the legs of a 50’ dragon!
My first port of call for the (completely unassociated!) information I was actually looking for, happened to take me to this site , where I found:-
“Malmesbury and other chroniclers record a battle between the West Saxons and Mercians at Burford in AD 752. In the end Æthelhum, the Mercian standard-bearer who carried the flag with a golden dragon on it, was killed by the lance of his Saxon rival. The Anglo-Saxon Chronical records “A.D 752. This year Cuthred [Cuthbert], king of the West Saxons, in the 12th year of his reign, fought at Burford, against Aethelbaldof the Mercians , and put him to flight.”
Aethelhum/Erle Adellum the standard-bearer turned up elsewhere.
We read also y’ Cuthred, King of y”^ West Saxons, encountring King Ethelbald,
had y” standard of y” golden Dragon borne before him by Earle Adellum. \_Ro. Hoveden,
- 234, No. 20, jf 740.]
The historian William Camden (1551–1623) wrote
“… in Saxon Beorgford [i.e. Burford], where Cuthred, king of the West Saxons, then tributary to the Mercians, not being able to endure any longer the cruelty and base exactions of King Æthelbald, met him in the open field with an army and beat him, taking his standard, which was a portraiture of a golden dragon.”
The origin of the golden dragon standard is attributed to Uther Pendragon, the father of King Arthur, of whom Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote:-
“[Uther Pendragon] “… ordered two dragons to be fashioned in gold, in the likeness of the one which he had seen in the ray which shone from that star. As soon as the Dragons had been completed this with the most marvellous craftsmanship – he made a present of one of them to the congregation of the cathedral church of the see of Winchester. The second one he kept for himself, so that he could carry it around to his wars.”
In the late 16th or early 17th century the people of Burford still celebrated the anniversary of the battle. Camden wrote: “There has been a custom in the town of making a great dragon yearly, and carrying it up and down the streets in great jollity on St John’s Eve.” The field traditionally claimed to be that of the battle is still called Battle Edge.
Next I was led to this site
“. . . The Battle of Burford took place in 752AD and the King of Mercia, Aethelbald was defeated by King Cuthred, the King of the West Saxons. King Cuthrd won the battle and took the standard, a golden dragon. The field where the Battle took place was called Battle-Edge located beside Sheep St and Tanners Lane. There are houses there now but one of the houses is called Battle House. In 1852 some men were making a road from Burford to Barrington and discovered a large stone weighing nearly three tons which was found to contain the remains of a human body with remnants of a leather cuirass studded with metal nails. The coffin is still preserved in the Burford church. Apparently, in years gone past, there was a street parade through Burford, with the dragon as its focus. . .”
By now quite interested in the golden dragon and the mystery burial at Burford, I found:-
According to Reverend Francis Knollis’ description of the discovery, “On 21 November 1814 a large freestone sarcophagus discovered near Battle Edge 3 feet (0.91 m) below ground, weighing 16 long hundredweight (1,800 lb; 810 kg) with the feet pointing almost due south. The interior is 6 feet (1.8 m) long and 2 feet 2 inches (0.66 m) wide. It was found to contain the remains of a human body, with portions of a leather cuirass studded with metal nails. The skeleton was found in near perfect state due to the exclusion of air from the sarcophagus.” The coffin is now preserved in Burford churchyard, near the west gate.
“Whose fame is in that dark green tomb? Four stones with their heads of moss stand there. They mark the narrow house of death. Some chief of fame is here! Raise the songs of old! Awake their memory in the tomb.” – Ossian
The coffin is no longer inside the church, but outside. If, indeed, it ever was inside:-
This says: A stone coffin was found in 1814 a mile from Burford, on a new road being constructed from Upton to Little Barrington. The coffin contained a human skeleton and pieces of metal studded leather – possibly hobnail shoes or sandals. The coffin and its contents were dated as Roman. The remains were removed to the British Museum and the coffin was recorded as being placed in Burford Church in an aisle called ‘Sylvesters’.
However, a recent visit to the church, and information gathered from the Verger, revealed that in fact the coffin was never inside the church. It sits by the churchyard wall to the north-west side with other large stones. The verger explained that the second large stone coffin was probably medieval, the stone (half) sitting on top of it was reported to be part of the top of the Roman coffin, and the large stone leaning against the wall was the top of the medieval coffin. One of the other stones, seen in the photographs, could be the other half of the Roman top.
So, was the 1814 Roman, and therefore nothing to do with the battle of AD792? Or was the medieval coffin more relevant? It depends, of course, upon what one means by “medieval”. It would be interesting anyway to learn to whom such a striking burial (the one in 1814) belonged. A stone sarcophagus weighing almost three tons, buried three feet underground? With four marker stones topped with moss? And there was a perfect skeleton inside? If it had anything to do with the battle, it could not be the unfortunate Aethelbert, who was “put to flight”, not killed. Maybe it was Erle Adellum, the bearer of the golden dragon standard? Or was he another Sir John Cheyne, and lost the standard, but lived to tell the tale. Or not tell it, probably, since Cheyne was a giant and was unhorsed by the much smaller Richard III with a broken lance. (Oh, I love that story!) Whoever he was, his skeleton seems to have disappeared now, or is stored somewhere in a box. Hmm, sound familiar?
In Britain, the golden dragon is definitely associated with Uther Pendragon, and thus, presumably, with King Arthur himself. Being able to claim such famous ancestors was a great thing for royalty and nobles in the medieval period, and so heraldic golden dragons have turned up a number of times. Harold Godwinson carried the golden dragon, and there is a school of thought that believes (because he carried it, and was the final Saxon king) the golden dragon was the last truly authentic flag of England.
At least one of the Plantagenets used it too. “By 1300, a banner of St Edmund was displayed in Westminster Abbey alongside banners of St George and St Edward and a special standard bearing a golden dragon commissioned by Henry III.”
It was also used by Owain Glyndŵr, and purloined in a red form by the Tudors. But sometimes Elizabeth I was known to have substituted the red dragon supporter for a golden one (see top picture above). And the golden dragon still crops up in present-day county coats-of-arms, e.g. Dorset. Mostly, of course, those counties that are in what was once the Kingdom of the West Saxons.
So, how important should the golden dragon still be to the heraldry of this country? But, I suppose, it would only go the same way as the red dragon of Wales. . .and be omitted from the Union Jack.