We all know Thomas of Walsingham. Well, not personally, of course, although sometimes it seems like it. He was a very busy fellow, and did not always record simple ‘history’, but included some strange stories as well. In the year 1344, he recorded a ‘remarkable tale’ about John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, 7th and final earl of his line.
Warenne was one of the nobles who disapproved of Piers Gaveston, but wavered about killing him and was eventually part of Edward II’s party. He and his brother-in-law, the 9th Earl of Arundel, were the last two nobles to stay loyal to the king after Isabella and Mortimer took over. When Arundel was executed, Warenne went over to the queen’s side. He had no children, and was eventually succeeded by his nephew, the 10th Earl of Arundel. He died in 1347 at the age of 61, after making strenuous efforts to produce a legitimate heir of his own! He was estranged from his first wife, kept a mistress who gave him illegitimate children, and then married again to a young wife who gave him no children at all. Well, we can’t say the earl didn’t try!
This story has often been wrongly told of Bromfield in Herefordshire, but is actually much more likely to have been Bromfield, just north-west of Ludlow in the Welsh Marches. Why? Well, for one thing the latter was held by John de Warenne, which the former was not. Bromfield in Herefordshire had been in the hands of the monks of Bromfield Priory since the time of the Confessor, and the whole strange tale I am about to relate took place on the property of John de Warenne, and purports to relate exactly how the earl became quite as rich as he was. Not that he was ever a poor man, you understand.
It seems that a Saracen doctor came to Warenne, to tell him of a terrible serpent (dragon?) that lived in a cave near Bromfield. The Saracen begged permission to kill and remove the awful creature, which was about to terrorise the entire area. The earl, naturally enough, agreed to the request. Well, wouldn’t you? I mean, who wants a pesky huge, mean-hearted serpent on the loose on your land?
The Saracen said that he would perform his task alone, and after warning everyone to stay away from the cave, which posed mortal danger to anyone who did not know what they were doing, he went secretly to slay the monstrous serpent. Later, task done (or so he said) he returned to say he had rid the area of the threat.
Now, we all know that serpents and dragons in caves are there to guard huge treasure hoards, right? Yes, indeed, and it was soon around the area that this serpent too had been guarding such a treasure. No longer afraid of the cave, some local men went to search it…and after a while found the evidence they sought.
In the meantime, however, the earl’s men got wind of what was going on, and told him. Angry to think he was being swindled out of this huge treasure, he sent his men to get the treasure, which he took into his own coffers. And that, my friends, is how John de Warenne became as dizzily rich as he reputedly was.
Now, some accounts of this story say that the Saracen continued to warn of dangers in the cave, that he knew about the treasure and even said it was there! It’s said he intended to go back for it himself. But that seems unlikely to me. If he knew there was a hoard in the cave, why not go and get it in the first place? Why invent a mighty serpent guardian? And certainly why, when he came back a lauded serpent-slayer, would he tell the locals what was hidden in the cave?
Well, to be fair, perhaps he had indeed fought, killed and disposed of the beast. Who can say? But only a daftie would let slip that there was a huge hoard of gold or whatever just waiting to be found. He’d have been trampled in the rush!
I don’t know the truth of it, of course. Maybe there is a more comprehensive version of the tale? If so, I would like to hear it. In the meantime, if anyone tells you there is a monstrous serpent guarding a cave near you, don’t believe it. Just get to that cave pdq and get the treasure before someone else does!