The Saffron Walden Cockatrice, Essex
Essex is a county where foul serpents were once it seems common – St Osyth , for example, has such a tale. Let us not descend to obvious (and unmerited) contemporary cultural references. The most fascinating of these is the cockatrice of Saffron Walden , most notable for its scale rather than scales: generally legends of dragons emphasize their vast size – a giant head full of huge teeth; a long tail used as a weapon; wings like the sails of a great ship; and all that sort of thing. But the cockatrice at Saffron Walden was only supposed to be a foot long, and upright rather than slithering. Again let us resist temptation.
The cockatrice needs explaining: think of it as another form of basilisk – able to kill with a look of its eye. The legend has such creatures hatched from a cock’s or duck’s egg by a toad. Though with a serpent’s body the cockatrice had the legs of a cock, and often its head too. The one which terrified Saffron Walden – according to the legend reducing its population considerably – had foul red eyes that once their glance met yours killed instantly. It was impervious to attack; indeed someone whose spear touched the beast would die the moment it made contact.
How then to rid the town of the murderous thing? Enter a knight in shining armour. Very shining armour, and very special too. For it was made of reflective glass, sometimes poetically described in the legend as a coat of crystal. When the little killer turned her (for it was indeed a she) gaze upon the valiant warrior the deadly power of her eyes bounced off the glass back upon her own form, striking the cockatrice dead on the spot.
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