Welcome back to the Richmond Read-along! Today’s short story is a folk legend from Northumbria, retold by Jean and John Lang. Jean Lang wrote collections of fairytales, myths and legends. She wrote popular retellings of classic myths as well as one of Beowulf and a retelling of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. She wrote the book this story is from with her husband, John Lang. “Stories of the Border Marches” is a retelling of several folk tales and legends from the border of Scotland and England. The story we are reading today is one of a number from Northumbria, a kingdom spanning the North of England and South East of Scotland.

The story is one of several British legends featuring worms. Worms are often described as legless dragons – they are large snake like creatures, often venoumous in some way, that have ferocious appetites and long lives. Most of the best known worm tales come from around the Northumbria area. Possibly the most popular worm legend is the Lambton Worm, which has had several adaptations including a Bram Stoker novel and a 1988 film (based on that novel) starring Hugh Grant and Peter Capaldi. One feature of worm legends is that the worm has often been cursed, as opposed to being born one of a number of worm-like creatures.

The Laidley Worm of Spindleston-Heugh

In a land where fairy tales die hard, it is sometimes no easy task to discriminate between what is solid historical fact, what is fact, moss-grown and flower-covered, like an old, old tomb, and what is mere fantasy, the innocent fancy of a nation in its childhood, turned at last into stone—a lasting stalactite—from the countless droppings of belief bestowed upon it by countless generations.

Scientists nowadays crushingly hold prehistoric beasts, or still existent marsh gas, accountable for dragons and serpents and other fauna of legendary history; but in certain country districts there are some animals that no amount of Board School information, nor countless Science Siftings from penny papers can ever destroy, and to this invulnerable class belongs the Laidley Worm of Spindleston-Heugh.

High above the yellow sand that borders the fierce North Sea on the extreme north of the Northumbrian coast still stands the castle of Bamborough. Many a fierce invasion has it withstood during the thousand odd years since first King Ida placed his stronghold there. Many a cruel storm has it weathered, while lordly ships and little fishing cobles have been driven to destruction by the lashing waves on the rocks down below. And there it was that, once on a day, there lived a King who, when his fair wife died and left to him the care of her handsome, fearless boy, and her beautiful, gentle daughter, did, as is the fashion of every King of fairy tale, wed again, and wed a wicked wife. To the south land he went, while his son sailed the seas in search of high adventure, and his daughter acted as chatelaine in the castle by the sea, and there he met the woman who came to Bamborough all those many years ago, and who, they say, remains there still.

As the dawn rose over the grey sea, making even the dark rocks of the Farnes like a garden where only pink roses grew, the Princess Margaret would be on the battlements looking out, always looking out, for her father and brother to return. At sunset, when the sea was golden and the plain stretched purple away to the south, landward and seaward her eyes would still gaze. And at night, when the silver moon made a path on the sea, the Princess would listen longingly to the lap of the waves, and strain her beautiful eyes through the darkness for the sails of the ship that should bring the two that she loved safe home again. But when the day came when the King, her father, returned, and led through the gate the lady who was his bride, there were many who knew that it would have been well for the Princess had she still been left in her loneliness. Gracious indeed was her welcome to her mother’s supplanter, for she loved her father, and this was the wife of his choice.

“Oh! welcome, father,” she said, and handed to him the keys of the castle of which she had kept such faithful ward, and, holding up a face as fresh and fragrant as a wild rose at the dawn of a June day, she kissed her step-mother.

“Welcome, my step-mother,” she said, “for all that’s here is yours.”

Many a gallant Northumbrian lord was there that day, and many a lord from the southern land was in the King’s noble retinue. One of them it was who spoke what the others thought, and to the handsome Queen who had listened already overmuch to the praises her husband sang of his daughter, the Princess Margaret, the words were as acid in a wound. “Meseemeth,” said he, “that in all the north country there is no lady so fair, nor none so good as this most beautiful Princess.”

Proudly the Queen drew herself up, and from under drooped eyelids, with the look of a hawk as it swoops for its prey, she made answer to the lord from the south.

“I am the Queen,” she said; “ye might have excepted me.” Then, turning swift, like a texel that strikes its quarry, she said to the Princess: “A laidley worm shalt thou be, crawling amongst the rocks; a laidley worm shalt thou stay until thy brother, Wynd, comes home again.”

So impossible seemed such a threat to the Princess that her red lips parted over her white teeth, and she laughed long and merrily. But those who knew that the new Queen had studied long all manner of wicked spells and cruel magic were filled with dread, for greatly they feared that the fair Princess’s joyous days were done.

The Farne Islands were purple-black in a chill grey sea, and the waves that beat on the rocks beneath the castle seemed to have a more dolorous moan than common when next evening came. The joyous Princess, jingling her big bunch of keys and smiling a welcome to her father’s guests, had gone as completely as though she lay buried beside the drowned mariners, for whom the silting sand under the waves makes a safe graveyard all along that bleak and rugged coast; but a horror—a crawling, shapeless, loathsome thing—writhed itself along the pathway from cliff to village, and sent the terror-striken peasants shrieking into their huts and battering at the castle gates for sanctuary. The old ballad tells us that:

     “For seven miles east and seven miles west,
And seven miles north and south,
No blade of grass or corn could grow,
So venomous was her mouth.”

Like an embodied plague, the bewitched Princess preyed on the people of her father’s kingdom, who daily brought to the cave, where she coiled herself up at night to sleep, a terrified tribute of the milk of seven cows. All over the North Country spread the dread of her name, but now she was no longer the lovely Princess Margaret, but the Laidley Worm of Spindleston-Heugh.

     “Word went east, and word went west,
And word is gone over the sea,
That a Laidley Worm in Spindleston-Heughs
Would ruin the North Countrie.”

Far over the sea, with his thirty-three bold men-at-arms, the Princess’s brother, “Childe Wynd,” was carving a career for himself with his sword. Nothing on earth did Childe Wynd fear, yet ever and again, when success in battle had been his, he would have a heavy heart, dreading he knew not what, and often he longed to see again the castle on the high rock by the sea, and the fair little sister with whom so many happy days had been spent amongst the blue grass and on the yellow sand of the dunes at Bamborough. To his camp came rumour of the strange monster that was devastating his father’s lands, and down to the coast he hastened with his men, a great home-sickness dragging at his heart—home-sickness, and a terror that all was not well with Margaret. Some rough, brown-faced mariners, whose boat had not long before nearly suffered wreck on the rocks of the Northumbrian coast, were able to tell the Prince that rumour spoke truth, and that a laidley worm was laying waste his father’s kingdom. Of the Princess they could give no tidings, but the Prince needed no words from them to tell him that all was not well.

     “We have no time now here to waste,
Hence quickly let us sail:
My only sister Margaret
Something, I fear, doth ail.”

And so, with haste, they built a ship, a ship for a Prince of Faery, for its masts were made of the rowan tree, against which no evil witchcraft could prevail, and its sails were of fluttering silk. With fair winds and kindly waves the Prince and his men soon sped across the sea, and gladly they saw again the square towers of the castle King Ida had built, proudly looking down on the fields of restless water that only the bravest of the King’s husbandmen durst venture to plough. From her turret window the Queen watched the sails of the gallant ship gleaming in the sun, and knew full well that Prince Wynd was nearly home again. Speedily she summoned all the witch wives along with whom she worked her wicked magic, and set them to meet the ship, to use every spell they knew that could bring shipwreck, and disaster, and death, and to rid her of the youth whom she had always dreaded. But they returned to her despairingly. No spell was known to them that could work against a ship whose masts were made of the rowan tree. Then, casting aside magic, the Witch Queen dispatched a boat-load of armed men to meet the ship, to board it, and to slay all that they could. Little cared Wynd and his men for a boat-load of warriors, and few there were left alive in the boat, and those sore wounded, when Wynd’s ship came to anchor in the shallows under the dark cliff.

But here a more dangerous adversary met Prince Wynd. Threshing through the water came the horrible, writhing thing that Northumbrians knew as the Laidley Worm; and ever as they would have beached the ship, the huge serpent beat them off again, till all the sea round them was a welter of froth and slime and blood. Then Childe Wynd ordered his men to take their long oars once more and bring the ship farther down the coast and beach her on Budle sand. Down the coast they went, while the Queen eagerly watched from the battlements, and the Laidley Worm followed them fast along the shore, and all the folk of Bamborough scrambled up the cliff side, and, holding on by jagged bits of crags and tough clumps of grass and of yellow tansy, kept a precarious foothold, waiting, wide-eyed, to see what would be the outcome of the fray. As near the sandy beach of Budle as they durst venture their ship came Prince Wynd and his thirty-three men, then the rowers sat still, and the Prince leapt out, shoulder deep, into the water, and waded to the shore. Like a wounded tiger that has been baulked of its prey but gets it into its power at last, the Laidley Worm came to meet him, and all who watched thought his last hour had come. But like the white flash of a sea-bird’s wings as it dives into the blue sea, the Prince’s broad sword gleamed and fell on the loathsome monster’s flat, scaly head, and in a great voice he cried aloud on all living things to witness that if this creature of evil magic did him any harm, he would strike her dead. Then there befell a great wonder, for in human voice, but all hoarse and strange and ugly, as though almost too great were the effort for human soul to burst through brute form, the Laidley Worm spoke to her conqueror: “Oh! quit thy sword and put aside thy bow!” it moaned—so moans the sea through the crash of the waves on nights when the storm strews the beach of the North Country with wreckage—”Oh! quit thy sword, for, poisonous monster though I be, no scaith will I do thee.” Then those who heard the wonder felt sure that the Worm sought by subtilty to destroy their Prince, for still as a white, dead man he stood, and gazed at the brute that shivered before him like a whipped dog that would fain lick his master’s feet. But again it spoke, in that terrible, fearsome voice of mortal pain:

     “Oh! quit thy sword and bend thy bow,
And give me kisses three;
If I’m not won ere the sun go down,
Won I shall never be.”

Brave men, well-proved soldiers, were Childe Wynd’s three-and-thirty, but they cried out aloud to him, and some let go of their oars and sprang shoulder-deep in the sea that they might drag their lord back from this noisome horror that would destroy him. Prince Wynd’s heart gave a great stound, and back rushed the blood into his face, that had been so pale and grim, and none was quick enough to come between him and what his heart had told his mind, and what his mind most gladly willed. As though he were kissing for the first time the one he loved, and she the fairest of the land, so did he bow his head in courtly fashion, and three times kiss with loving lips the Laidley Worm of Spindleston-Heugh. And at the third kiss a great cry of wonder rose from his men, for lo, the Laidley Worm had vanished, as fades an evil dream when one awakes, and in its place there stood the fairest maid in all England, their own dear Princess Margaret. With laughter and with tears did Childe Wynd and his sister then embrace; but when the Princess had told her tale, her brother’s brow grew dark, and on his sword he vowed to destroy the vile witch who had been his gentle sister’s cruel enemy. With tears and with laughter, and with gladsome shoutings the folk of Bamborough came in haste to greet their Prince and Princess, and to speed them up to the castle, where the King, their father, welcomed them full joyously. But there were angry murmurs from the men of Northumbria, who called for vengeance on her who had so nearly ruined their dear land, and who had striven to slay both Prince and Princess. Childe Wynd held up his hand: “To me belongs the payment,” he said, and the men laughed loud when they saw his stern face, for those were days when grim and bloody deeds were gaily done, and blithe they were to think of torture for the Witch Queen. Cowering in a corner of her bower in the turret, white-faced and haggard, they found her, and dragged her out to Childe Wynd. But no speedy end by a clean sword blade was to be hers, nor any slower death by lingering torture.

“Woe be to thee, thou wicked witch!” said the Prince; and she shivered and whimpered piteously, for well she knew that in far-off lands across the sea Childe Wynd had studied magic, and that for her were designed eternal terrors.

     “Woe be to thee, thou wicked witch,
An ill death mayst thou dee;
As thou my sister hast lik’ned,
So lik’ned shalt thou be.

     I will turn you into a toad,
That on the ground doth wend;
And won, won, shalt thou never be,
Till this world hath an end.”

To the fairy days of long, long ago belong Prince Wynd and the Princess Margaret and the wicked Witch Wife. But still in the country near Bamborough, as maids go wandering in the gloaming down by the yellow sands and the rough grass where the sea-pinks grow, they will be suddenly startled by a horrible great dun-coloured thing that moves quickly towards them, as though to do them a harm. With loudly beating hearts they run home to tell that they have encountered the venomous toad that hates all virtuous maidens, who once was a queen, her who created the Laidley Worm of Spindleston-Heugh.


You can find this tale in “Stories of the Border Marches” on Project Gutenberg. Find some more information about other worm tales at the Spooky Isles blog.

Join us tomorrow for the next Richmond Read-along!