Let There be Snap Dragons!
Snap the Dragon in Norwich Castle Museum - made in 1795
Dragon Plaque outside Norwich Castle Museum
Dragons have always featured in the history of England and East Anglia. April 23rd is England's National Day and commemorates St George, who according to legend, was a Roman soldier who killed a dragon and saved a princess. He was also the patron saint of the City of Norwich which has two churches dedicated to him.
The powerful Guild of St George was the major body of civic government throughout the late medieval period up until 1731. In those times a pageant was held each year to celebrate the election of a new Mayor beginning with a mass in Norwich Cathedral, a public oration, official swearing in, gunfire salute and a procession in fine regalia. There was a Corporation dinner and Snap the dragon was paraded through the streets with an attendant Fool to add fun and laughter to the otherwise serious occasion.
Whifflers or sword-bearers dressed in scarlet satin breeches, white satin jerkins and a hats decorated with cockades of feathers and ribbons, cleared the processional way through the thronging crowds with the aid of Dick Fools, who wore the traditional colours of red and yellow painted on canvas coats, their cloth caps decorated with cats' tails and small tinkling bells.
Behind the splendidly attired Mayor rode the Sheriffs dressed in violet and Aldermen in scarlet gowns. Next came a standard-bearer carrying the Standard of England as the 'City Music played them along the streets'. The standard bearer for St. George's Company followed, while the Common Councillors brought up the rear.
Rather like a 'talking newspaper' of today, short speeches about the new Mayor in English as opposed to Latin were broadcast by 'speech boys' riding horse, richly dressed and carrying small decorated shields. All the while, Snap the dragon chased about grabbing hats or caps between its jaws in return for a ransom, while children teased it by calling out 'Snap, Snap, steal a boy's cap, give him a penny and he'll give it back.'
Snap himself was made of painted canvas stretched over a wooden frame with room for a man to stand inside. Sadly, after Guild influences began to wane, the splendours of the occasion also faded and Snap the dragon made his last public appearance in 1850 . Personally I think it's a great pity he no longer features prominently in the modern Mayor's parade which still takes place each July in the centre of Norwich.
From time to time he still ventures out though and he appeared along with many other dragons in Norwich's Dragon Festival of 2009 when our City's history of the mythical beasts was celebrated.
Norwich also has the magnificent Dragon Hall originally in the heart of the bustling merchant area down on the wharf-side of the River Wensum but that I think deserves an article all to itself...