In the village church of Norton Fitzwarren, just outside Taunton in Somerset, there is a carving, on the rood screen, of a local legend – about a terrible dragon who laid waste to the district, and was defeated by a local hero, Fulk Fitzwarren (there are various different spellings of his surname, including FitzWaryn and Fitzwarine). The screen dates from the Fifteenth Century, and was described in a letter to The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1829:
“The animal is carved with great spirit, and is painted black with a golden stripe across his back…”
Several figures surround the dragon, and it is in the process of devouring a naked woman. Another part of the carving depicts three naked figures whose “attitudes and employment”, according to the letter writer, are “difficult to interpret”!
In fact, Fulk Fitzwarren wasn’t really local at all – though he may well have visited Somerset – for he was originally a Marcher Lord, from Shropshire, and was one of the barons who rebelled against King John and led a posse of outlaws in the early Thirteenth Century – a real-life Robin Hood. His exploits inspired a French romance, dating from the reign of Edward I (though the Tudor antiquary John Leland also mentions a poem in English alliterative verse, now lost), which greatly embroiders his adventures and throws in dragons, ogres and giants for good measure.
Perhaps because of the similarities between this tale and that of Robin Hood – there are some scenes that are almost identical – Fulk has become a much more obscure figure nowadays. Nevertheless, his story is an interesting one, and though the real-life Fulk may not have been quite as heroic as the romance which bears his name suggests, he did live through some genuinely tumultuous events in English history, and his actions helped lead to the creation of the Magna Carta in 1215.