It took a few months of living in the vicinity before I became aware of the Somerset dragon. I’ll probably risk being thrown out of the county for saying this, but initially, when we lived just across the border in Devon, I thought there must be a lot of Welsh people living in Somerset.
Then we moved into Somerset and spotted the dragon rampant more and more – on documents from Somerset Council, on flags, on the cricket team’s emblem. In February 2023, a rather striking dragon sculpture was unveiled on Taunton High Street.
This got me wondering what the connection between the dragon and Somerset was.
The Somerset dragon – the romanticised story
According to local folklore, a mighty dragon once terrorised the people of Somerset, milkmaids especially apparently, its huge, winged frame darkening the skies between Wells, Dinder, and Shepton Mallet as it patrolled the land, barbecuing villagers with its fiery breath.
The Bishop of Wells eventually rid Somerset of the fearsome creature, single-handed detaching its scaly head from its body with a hefty swing of his sword. Bishops back in the day must have been a different breed.
The Somerset dragon – the more likely story
The roots of the Somerset dragon seem to go back to the days of the Celtic tribes when images of dragon-like creatures regularly featured on military ensigns. When the Romans invaded, they adopted the emblem, and so it was passed on between Romans, Celts, and Saxons. But when Alfred the Great defended Wessex (Hampshire, Dorset, Wiltshire, and Somerset), the last kingdom, against the marauding Vikings, the banner his army carried into battle featured a dragon, so the dragon became the emblem of Wessex and, by association, Somerset.
The dragon on the Somerset flag
The dragon on the flag of Somerset is only a relatively recent development, having been officially adopted following a competition in 2013. It is not without some controversy as there are those who claim it should really be a wyvern (a similar mythological creature which only has two legs as opposed to the dragon’s four) as that was the creature on Alfred the Great’s banners.
But that’s getting a bit pedantic. When a scaly, winged creature is swooping toward me, fire bellowing from its mouth, I’m not going to pause and ponder whether it’s a dragon or a wyvern.