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Lambton Worm

The Lambton Worm, partly from the romantic character of
its history, partly because it relates to a family of note in the
county, seems to have taken deep hold of the popular mind in
Durham, and it is peculiarly fortunate in a chronicler. About
thirty years ago. Sir Cuthbert Sharpe, the friend of Mr. Surtees,
and his assistant in the History of the Palatinate, collected every
particular respecting this Worm from old residents in the neigh-
bourhood of Lambton, and placed the whole in the Bishopries
Garland, a collection of legends, songs, ballads, &c., relating to
the county of Durham. As only one hundred and fifty copies
of this little work were printed, and it is now extremely scarce,
free use has been made of it in the following account of the
Worm of Lambton : —

The park and manor-house of Lambton, belonging to a family
of the same name, lie on the banks of the Wear, to the north of
Lumley. The family is a very ancient one, much older, it is
believed, than the twelfth century, to which date its pedigree
extends. The old castle was dismantled in 1797, when a site was
adopted for the present mansion on the north bank of the swiftly-
flowing Wear, in a situation of exceeding beauty. The park
also contains the ruins of a chapel, called Brugeford or Bridge-
ford, close to one of the bridges which span the Wear.

Long, long ago, some say about the fourteenth century, the
young heir of Lambton led a careless profane life, regardless
alike of his duties to God and man, and in particular neglecting
to attend mass, that he might spend his Sunday mornings in
fishing. One Sunday, while thus engaged, having cast his line
into the Wear many times without success, he vented his dis-
appointment in curses loud and deep, to the great scandal of the
servants and tenantry as they passed by to the chapel at Bruge-

Soon afterwards he felt something tugging at his line, and
trusting he had at last secured a fine fish, he exerted all his skill
and strength to bring his prey to land. But what were his
horror and dismay on finding that, instead of a fish, he had only
caught a worm of most unsightly appearance ! He hastily tore
the thing from his hook, and flung it into a well close by, which
is still known by the name of the Worm Well.

The young heir had scarcely thrown his line again into the
stream when a stranger of venerable appearance, passing by,
asked him what sport he had met with. To which he replied,
" Why, truly, I think I have caught the devil himself. Look
in and judge." The stranger looked, and remarked that he had
never seen the like of it before ; that it resembled an eft, only it
had nine holes on each side of its mouth ; and, finally, that he
thought it boded no good.

The worm remained unheeded in the well till it outgrew so
confined a dwelling-place. It then emerged, and betook itself
by day to the river, where it lay coiled round a rock in the
middle of the stream, and by night to a neighbouring hill, round
whose base it would twine itself; while it continued to grow so
fast, that it soon could encircle the hill three times. This
eminence is still called the Worm Hill. It is oval in shape, on
the north side of the Wear, and about a mile and a half from
old Lambton Hall.

The monster now became the terror of the whole country side.
It sucked the cows' milk, worried the cattle, devoured the lambs.
and committed every sort of depredation on the helpless- pea-
santry. Having laid waste the district on the north side of the
river it crossed the stream and approached Lambton Hall, where
the old lord was living alone and desolate. His son had repented
of his evil life, and had gone to the wars in a distant country.
Some authorities tell us he had embarked as a crusader for the
Holy Land.

On hearing of their enemy's approach, the terrified household
assembled in council. Much was said, but to little purpose, till
the steward, a man of age and experience, advised that the large
trough which stood in the courtyard should immediately be filled
with milk. This was done without delay ; the monster approached,
drank the milk, and, without doing further harm, returned across
the Wear to wrap his giant form around his favourite hill. The
next day he was seen recrossing the river ; the trough was hastily
filled again, and with the same results. It was found that the
milk of "nine kye" was needed to fill the trough; and if this
quantity was not placed there every day, regularly and in full
measure, the worm would break out into a violent rage, lashing
its tail round the trees in the park, and tearing them up by the roots.

The Lambton Worm was now, in fact, the terror of the North
Country. It had not been left altogether unopposed. Many a
gallant knight had come out to fight with the monster, but all
to no purpose ; for it possessed the marvellous power of reuniting
itself after being cut asunder, and thus was more than a match
for the chivalry of the North. So, after many conflicts, and much
loss of life and limb, the creature was left in possession of its
favourite hill.

After seven long years, however, the heir of Lambton returned
home, a sadder and a wiser man: returned to find the broad
lands of his ancestors waste and desolate, his people oppressed
and wellnigh exterminated, his father sinking into the grave
overwhelmed with care and anxiety. He took no rest, we are
told, till he had crossed the river and surveyed the Worm as it
lay coiled round the foot of the hill ; then, hearing how its former
opponents had failed, he took counsel in the matter from a sybil
or wise woman.

At first the sybil did nothing but upbraid him for having
brought this scourge upon his house and neighbourhood; but
when she perceived that he was indeed penitent, and desirous at
any cost to remove the evil he had caused, she gave him her
advice and instructions. He was to get his best suit of mail
studded thickly with spear-heads, to put it on, and thus armed
to take his stand on the rock in the middle of the river, there
to meet his enemy, trusting the issue to Providence and his good
sword. But she charged him before going to the encounter to
take a vow that, if successful, he would slay the first living thing
that met him on his way homewards. Should he fail to fulfil
this vow, she warned him that for nine generations no lord of
Lambton would die in his bed.

The heir, now a belted knight, made the vow in Brugeford
chapel ; he studded his armour with the sharpest spear-heads,
and unsheathing his trusty sword took his stand on the rock in
the middle of the Wear. At the accustomed hour the Worm
uncoiled its " snaky twine," and wound its way towards the hall,
crossing the river close by the rock on which the knight was
standing eager for the combat. He struck a violent blow upon
the monster's head as it passed, on which the creature, "irritated
and vexed," though apparently not injured, flung its tail round
him, as if to strangle him in its coils.

In the words of a local poet :

The worm shot down the middle stream

Like a flash of living light.
And the waters kindled round his path

In rainbow colours bright.
But when he saw the armed knight

He gathered all his pride,
And coiled in many a radiant spire

Rode buoyant o'er the tide.
When he darted at length his dragon strength

An earthquake shook the rock,
And the fireflakes bright fell round the knight

As unmoved he met the shock.
Though his heart was stout it quailed no doubt,

His very life-blood ran cold,
As round and round the wild Worm wound
many a grappling fold.

Now was seen the value of tlie sybil's advice. The closer the
Worm wrapped him in its folds the more deadly were its self-
inflicted wounds, till at last the river ran crimson with its gore.
Its strength thus diminished, the knight was able at last with his
good sword to cut the serpent in two ; the severed part was
immediately borne away by the swiftness of the current, and the
Worm, unable to reunite itself, was utterly destroyed.

During this long and desperate conflict the household of
Lambton had shut themselves within-doors to pray for their
young lord, he having promised that when it was over he would,
if conqueror, blow a blast on his bugle. This would assure his
father of his safety, and warn them to let loose the favourite
hound, which they had destined as the sacrifice on the occasion,
according to the sybil's requirements and the young lord's vow.
When, however, the bugle-notes were heard within the hall, the
old man forgot everything but his son's safety, and rushing out
of doors, ran to meet the hero and embrace him.

The heir of Lambton was thunderstruck ; what could he do ?
It was impossible to lift his hand against his father; yet how else
to fulfil his vow ? In his perplexity he blew another blast ; the
hound was let loose, it bounded to its master ; the sword, yet
reeking with the monster's gore, was plunged into its heart ; but
all in vain. The vow was broken, the sybil's prediction fulfilled,
and the curse lay upon the house of Lambton for nine genera-

The exact date of the story is of course uncertain. Sir Cuth-
bert Sharpe appends to it the following entry from an old
manuscript pedigree, lately in the possession of the family of
Middleton, of Offerton: " John Lambton, that slewe ye worme,
was knight of Khodes and lord of Lambton, after ye dethe of
fower brothers — ' sans eschew malle.' " Now nine ascending
generations, from a certain Henry Lambton, Esq. M.P. would
exactly reach to Sir John Lambton, knight of Rhodes; and it
was to that Henry Lambton that the old people of the neighbour-
hood used to look with great curiosity, marvelling whether the
curse would " hold good to the end." He died in his carriage,
crossing the new bridge of Lambton, on the 26th of June, 1761;'
and popular tradition is clear and unanimous in maintaining
that, during the period of the curse, no lord of Lambton ever
died in his bed. I have frequently heard my mother relate how
her mother used to speak of the deep and wide- spreading anxiety
which prevailed during the latter years of Henry Lambton, and
when tidings reached Durham of his death and the fulfilment of
the prophecy the universal feeling was one of deep awe, not un-
mingled with a certain satisfaction in the final accomplishment
of what had been looked forward to so long and so earnestly.
The violent deaths of some of this fated family are recorded in
history. Sir William Lambton, a colonel of a regiment of foot
in the service of Charles I. was slain at Marston Moor; and his
son William, as gallant a Royalist as his father, received his
death- wound at Wakefield, at the head of a troop of dragoons,
A.D. 1643. Surely such deaths as these show how a curse may
pass into a blessing !

It may be added that two stone figures of some antiquity and
tolerable workmanship existed lately at Lambton Castle. One of
these was apparently an efigy of our hero — studded armour,
sword, and vanquished monster, all as described in the legend,
except that the Worm is endowed with ears, legs, and even a
pair of wings. The other figure was a female one, and marked
by no very characteristic features. It might, however, have
been meant for the sybil. The trough from which the Worm
took its daily tribute of milk is still to be seen at Lambton Hall ;
and Mr. Surtees mentions that in his young days he saw there
a piece of some tough substance, resembling bull's hide, which
was shown him as part of the Worm's skin.

From the green banks of the Wear we must pass to the stern
and rock-bound coast of Northumberland if we would make
acquaintance with the Laidley (i. e. loathly, or loathsome) Worm
of Spindleston Heugh. Its history is exceedingly popular on the

' The parish registers record that Henry Lambton was baptized at Bishops
Wearmouth, November 9, 1697, obilt csel. et intest. June 26, 1761, and was buried
on July 4 of the same year.