The Laidly Worm of Spindlestone Heugh

The Laidly Worm of Spindlestone Heugh

Among the most famous tales from the north-east is this one, about the time when the dramatic landscape surrounding Bamburgh Castle was terrorised by a fearsome dragon.

The castle we see today (which is by the way, always worth a visit) was built by the Normans in the 12th century. However, it is said that this highly defensible spot on the Northumberland coast has been inhabited since at least the 5th century; home to native Britons known as the Din Gaurie. This was a time of suspicions, of belief in witchcraft and magic; when the people truly believed in the fantastical creatures which so colour the many tales they passed on to us.

One of the Anglo Saxon kings who lived at Bamburgh was Ida. Ida’s queen died quite early in life, leaving Ida with two children. The elder was a boy named Childe Wynd and the younger, Margaret, a baby girl who was so beautiful that everyone loved her; from her doting father to the lowliest peasant in the fields. As she grew, Margaret grew ever lovelier; as did also her manner, for she was sweet in temperament and generous to all.

Margaret did all she could to lessen the loss of her mother, whom Ida had dearly loved. However, she could not replace the queen. At a time when the valiant Childe Wynd was adventuring overseas, Ida travelled west to find himself a bride; leaving the young but capable 18 year old Margaret in charge of the castle. Before many months had passed, Ida returned to Bamburgh with his new queen.

The lady Behoc was a stunning sight. It is said that her startling green eyes and long, dark hair bewitched Ida the very moment he saw her; and in fact, this was not far from the truth. In secret, Behoc dabbled in dark magic. Ambitious and shrewd as she was beautiful, Behoc found no conquest in the smitten northern king, whose lands and great wealth she coveted.

None of this was known to the people of Bamburgh; long bereft of a queen they welcomed Behoc with much ceremony and celebration. The young Margaret waited on the castle steps to greet her father, and to receive the lady whom she called mother. There was nothing Margaret could have done to make better welcome the new queen, and yet Behoc took an instant and deep dislike to Margaret.

For all her qualities, both fair and evil, Behoc had one flaw; that of vanity. However loudly the people cheered for the lady Behoc, the louder they cheered for Margaret. However greatly they praised the new queen’s beauty, the more they praised Margaret. The queen grew deeply jealous of Margaret, and one fateful day she lured the young girl into a cave by the water’s edge. Using terrible magics, she transformed the beautiful princess into a bloated and repulsive worm; a dragon upon which no mortal would dare gaze.

And she said to Margaret;

“I weird ye to be a Laidly Worm,
And borrowed shall ye never be,
Until Childe Wynd, the King’s own son
Come to the Heugh and thrice kiss thee;
Until the world comes to an end,
Borrowed shall ye never be.”

Laughing, the queen returned to the castle at Bamburgh, leaving Margaret to her sorry fate. In days to come the dragon would leave her cave to approach the people who once loved her. But they ran from her. They were so afraid of the beast that they left tributes of cattle and milk by the heugh at Spindlestone (or Spindleston), where the dragon was wont to linger. No one could withstand the look of the monster long enough to see that it remained peaceful here, gazing out to sea; awaiting the return of the ship which would bear home Childe Wynd.

King Ida offered great rewards to the warrior who would slay the worm, whom he believed had slain his beloved daughter Margaret. Many came to do battle. Most were repulsed by the very sight and smell of the dragon, and all were unable to defeat it. As time passed, the men who would step forward to claim the reward came no more and the king despaired.

At this time news of home reached Childe Wynd, who was travelling a distant land. Hearing the terrible dragon had slain his sister, Childe Wynd at once made preparations to return to Bamburgh to avenge her death. The heir of Bamburgh Castle had also, however, heard tales of the new queen. Rumours of her cruelty towards the people and the apparent thrall in which she held King Ida did not ring true. So he had a new ship built, with its keel made of the rowan tree; a sure protection against dark magic.

In time the ship was finished and Childe Wynd set sail for home in good haste. His ship had come within sight of the coast when the wicked queen espied it from a distance. In rage and fear she sent spirits to churn up the winds and the waters; to make the sky grow dark. The great storm battered and drove back the brave ship, but did not sink it, as Behoc wished; the evil spirits would not touch the rowan-keel.

On and on the battle between the ship and the storm raged, until at last it reached the sands at Budle Bay. Childe Wynd leapt ashore, and seeing the great worm before him, drove it across the crags at Spindlestone. His sword dealt many blows to the dragon, and yet he was amazed to see that the dragon would not strike back. Ever it ran from him until they at last came to the heugh, where it halted.

Raising his sword to deal the death blow, Childe Wynd paused, moved with pity. For in his many travels, he had never before seen a dragon cry. He gazed at the creature, who spoke to him;

“O, quit thy sword, unbend thy bow,
and give me kisses three;
For though I am a laidly worm,
no harm I’ll do to thee!”

The dragon spoke in the soft tones of his sister, whom he believed dead. Fearing witchery, Childe Wynd again raised his sword to strike it dead. But the dragon cried out once more to him;

“O, quit thy sword, unbend thy bow,
and give me kisses three,
If I’m not won ere set of sun,
won I shall ne’er be!”

So Childe Wynd sheathed his sword and stepped forward to kiss the repulsive worm, daring to hope. Once he kissed it; twice he kissed it; and on the third kiss he saw before him, not a dragon, but his sister Margaret returned to him once again. Weeping with joy, he wrapped her in his cloak and carried her up to the castle. There they were met by King Ida, who was ecstatic to have both his children returned to him once more.

But our tale does not end here. Taking up a rowan sprig, Childe Wynd searched the castle for the lady Behoc. He found her in her bower. The sorceress attempted to change his will by means of the same magic in which she had enslaved his father; but faltered in the presence of the rowan wood, which she feared above all else. Childe Wynd touched her with the sprig of rowan and she became an ugly, hissing toad. Hurrying away down the castle steps, the toad hid itself in a hidden cave below the castle.

So legend says, the enchanted witch queen still lives below the castle at Bamburgh. Once every seven years at Christmas Eve, the cave opens to permit the entrance of any man brave enough to cross the threshold and free her from her long enchantment with a kiss. Safe to say, none has done so – yet.

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