To the medieval mind dragons stood as a metaphor for the devil and all his works, the origin of pestilence and plague. The concept of a dragon could have evolved from travellers’ tales about fabulous beasts or even fossils. In one incarnation, dragons were represented as giant worms – indeed, the Old English for dragon is wyrm (or Old High German, wurm). A beautiful manifestation of the worm-like dragon is to be seen on the C13th infirmary doors from Norwich Cathedral, now in Norwich Castle.
The more familiar version is of a four-legged, bat-winged creature usually seen writhing at the end of St George’s lance or St Michael’s sword. The fable of St George and the Dragon is thought to have originated in the east and brought back to this country following the crusades. St George is usually represented as a knight on horseback as can still (just about) be seen in this C14th carving from Ragusa, Sicily.
Dragons feature strongly in Norwich’s history. St George is the city’s patron and the Guild of St George, founded in 1385 , became a prominent social institution, celebrating the saint’s feast day and performing acts of charity for its members and the needy. In 1417 the power of the guild was greatly enhanced when it was granted a Royal Charter by Henry V, perhaps in recognition of its members who fought alongside him at Agincourt. In 1548 the guild lost its religious basis, transforming itself into the secular Company of St George that celebrated the arrival of the new mayor. However, the dragon still took part in non-religious processions; it was first mentioned as taking part in 1408, it survived Puritanism then became a civic player, performing in annual guild days when the mayor was inaugurated.
Taunted by the chanting crowd the dragon would grab caps in its jaws, ransoming the headwear for a penny.
“Snap, Snap, steal a boy’s cap, give him a penny and he’ll give it back”
This C19th engraving gives a sense of the raucous nature of the guild day.
Although much of the pageantry disappeared after the passing of the Municipal Corporation Reform Act of 1835 it survived in mock pageants held in the district of Pockthorpe and in the nearby village of Costessey . This 1887 photograph of the Costessey guild day nicely captures the flummery that accompanied the election of the ‘mayor’.
In 1951, Snap the Dragon was still being used in civic parades and is seen here accompanied by two whifflers (from Old English wifel for battle-axe) who, historically, carried weapons to clear the way through the crowd. The photograph is believed to be of the Pockthorpe Dragon, now stored by Norfolk Museums Service Until the mid C20th another version of Snap was displayed in Back’s wine merchants in Haymarket, once known as the medieval Curat’s House , now landlocked behind a modern frontage (currently Fatface). During renovations the owner of a nearby shop discovered paperwork showing that Back’s used ‘Old Snap’ in their advertising.
Probably the most famous Norwich dragon is to be found in Dragon Hall. In ca 1427, on the site of a previous building, wealthy textile merchant Robert Toppes  constructed a trading hall then known by the wonderful name, Splytts. Three-times mayor Toppes was member of the St George’s Guild, a fact celebrated in the beautifully-carved winged dragon in a roof spandrel.
Three pairs of dragons are to be found in the refectory roof of the Great Hospital, near the cathedral. The hospital has continuously provided for the needy since 1249, when it was built by Bishop Walter de Suffield to care for poor clergy, and is now a residential care home.
Also in the Great Hospital, in St Helen’s Church, is a fine example of the devil as the dragon. The dragon is said to have swallowed St Margaret of Antioch but her cross irritated the dragon, allowing her to break free. Here she is shown on a medieval pew end emerging from the dragon’s belly, illustrating her role as the patron saint of pregnancy and childbirth.
On St Ethelbert’s Gate of the nearby cathedral is another spandrel dragon, restored in the C19th. The dragon, facing an armed man/saint on the opposite side of the arch, may allude to a bloody C13th conflict between clergy and citizens for which 30 rioters were hanged 
Norwich Cathedral contains over 1100 roof bosses carved in stone: this boss is from the cloisters . The swordsman’s nonchalant gaze could almost come from a piece-to-camera on how to kill a dragon.
Only yards away a rampant dragon appears amongst a series of coats of arms painted in the arches of the cloisters (restored in the 1930s). These represent the worthies who entertained Queen Elizabeth I during her progress to Norwich in 1578. The arms below belong to the queen herself and incorporate the lion of England and the dragon of Wales derived from her grandfather Henry Tudor.
The city’s allegiance to the Tudors is also expressed in the first two of these exuberantly-carved bench ends in the Mayor’s Court of the Guildhall. The greyhound (lower left), with jewelled collar around its neck, represents the Beaufort line of Henry VII’s mother Margaret while the Welsh dragon (centre) refers to Henry Tudor’s Celtic father. And because of its imagination and skill I couldn’t resist adding (right) the greedy dragon from St Agnes Cawston (although the beast would be more frightening if its head were less like a labrador’s).
Visitors to King’s College Chapel Cambridge will be familiar with the dragon and greyhound from the numerous Royal Coat of Arms that Henry Tudor displayed to impress his entitlement to the throne.
St George Tombland contains more dragons than any other Norwich church with the beast rendered in cast bronze, a C16th Germanic relief plaque, a weather vane as a font cover, and even some Snap-the-Dragons. The stained glass window of St George and the Dragon is by CC Powell 1907.
Here is one of Norfolk’s treasures, St George wielding a sword to vanquish the dragon; from the rood screen at St Helen Ranworth (late C15th).
… and demonstrating that dragons are still alive in the city of dragons.
Should twenty thousand dragons rise, I’d fight them all before your eyes!
Thanks to David Kingsley for the Back’s ‘Snap’ advertisement, to Clare Everitt of Picture Norfolk at Norfolk County Council for permission to use images, the staff of Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery for showing me their dragons, and Jumara Mulcahy of Norwich BID.
The Norwich Society helps people enjoy and appreciate the history and character of Norwich. Visit: www.thenorwichsociety.org.uk
- Rose, Martial and Hedgecoe, Julia (1997). Stories in Stone: The medieval roof carvings of Norwich Cathedral. Herbert Press.
Read about Norwich’s dragons in http://www.heritagecity.org/events-festivals/norwich-dragon-festival/norwichs-dragons.htm