Sockburn village now comprises of a ruined church, a farmhouse and a mansion called Sockburn Hall (built in 1834) all positioned within a loop in the River Tees known locally as Sockburn Peninsula. Sockburn has an amazing secret history though, as it is a place where bishops were crowned, a dragon was killed and some of our greatest writers fell in love. The tale of the dragon slaying also inspired the writing of some iconic pieces.
The Bishop of Lindisfarne, Higbald was crowned in Sockburn circa 780AD. Though not much is known about Higbald, he did write a graphic account of the 8 June 793AD Viking raid on Lindisfarne, in which many of his monks perished. In 796AD Eanwald, Archbishop of York is said to have also been crowned in Sockburn.
According to legend, around the time of the Norman Conquest, a huge man-eating dragon with poisonous breath, sometimes described as a worm, wyvern or flying serpent was terrorising the Sockburn area (known before 1066 as Storkburn). Sir John Conyers took up the challenge to slay the beast. Before heading out he visited a church in his full armour and offered the life of his only son to the Holy Ghost. After killing the dragon he buried under a large stone which is supposed to still be visible today.
“Sr Jo Conyers of Storkburn Knt who slew ye monstrous venoms and poysons wiverms Ask or worme which overthrew and Devourd many people in fight, for the scent of poyson was soo strong, that no person was able to abide it, yet he by the providence of god overthrew it and lyes buried at Storkburn before the Conquest, but before he did enterprise it (having but one sonne) he went to the Church in compleat armour and offered up his sonne to the holy ghost, which monument is yet to see, and the place where the serpent lay is called Graystone.”
(From British Museum MS Harleian No. 2118, fo. 39, circa 1625-49)
The Conyers family, which may have come over to England from France during the Conquest was granted the manor of Sockburn in the 12th Century, which according to legend was due to the heroism of Sir John.
The sword which Sir John used to kill the Dragon was a type known as a falchion. This weapon, the Conyers Falchion would be ceremonially presented by the Lord of the Manor to each newly elected Bishop of Durham, in the middle of the River Tees as they entered the diocese at Croft-on-Tees Bridge or a nearby ford for the first time.
“My Lord Bishop. I hereby present you with the falchion wherewith the champion Conyers slew the worm, dragon or fiery flying serpent which destroyed man, woman and child; in memory of which the king then reigning gave him the manor of Sockburn, to hold by this tenure, that upon the first entrance of every bishop into the county the falchion should be presented.”
The tradition stopped around the start of the 19th century (1771 or 1826 depending upon which source you use), though it was rekindled in 1984 for Bishop David Edward Jenkins. The Mayor of Darlington played the role of the Lord of the Manor in this ceremony.
The Conyers Falchion has a total length of 89cm long and weighs 2.86lbs. The blade itself is 73.4cm long. The bronze pommel is decorated with three lions on one side a black eagle on the other, which helps to date the sword. The three lions first appeared on the Royal English crest in 1194, so it is assumed that the sword could not have been decorated earlier than the 13th Century and given its design it is speculated that it dates from around 1260. Though the sword is very, very old, the Conyers Falchion is 200 years too young to have been used by Sir John Conyers.
The Blackett family who were industrialists from Newcastle took over the Sockburn estate when the Conyers moved their family seat in the 16th century with the marriage of Richard Conyers and the heiress of the Horden estate near Peterlee, Durham. (On 14 July 1628 for John Conyers of Horden, The Baronetcy of Conyers of Horden was created and the family died out in 1810). Henry Collingwood Blackett (son of Sir William Blackett, 5th Baronet) built Sockburn Hall (Grade II listed building) in 1834 and Sockburn Church of All Saints (Grade I listed building) was closed left to go to ruin.
In 1799 a farmhouse was built and occupied by Tom Hutchinson and his two sisters, Mary Hutchinson and Sara Hutchinson. They were distantly related to William Wordsworth who visted them with his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge. William fell in love with Mary and they eventually married in 1802. The already married Coleridge fell in love with Sara and this became an inspiration for his poem entitled ‘Love’ in which makes reference to both the church and the story of the dragon.
Apparently Tom Hutchinson once bred a seventeen and a half stone sheep.
Lewis Carroll’s father was the rector at Croft-on-Tees and it is likely that the Sockburn worm legend inspired his famous poem Jabberwocky.