The Dragon Of Norwich

by | Apr 19, 2023

Did you know that Norwich has its own dragon? In fact, once a year, that dragon could be seen patrolling the streets of our city, stealing men’s caps and marking the inauguration of a new Mayor! It was affectionately known by the local people as Snap and you can still see him today, under the protection of the Norwich Museum Service. Rather than being a live, fire breathing monster, Snap is instead an integral part of Norwich’s yearly celebrations and part of a tradition that goes back to, at least, over 600 years ago!

Snap The Dragon behind the scenes at the Museum of Norwich

Why does Norwich have a dragon?

Snap the dragon, is a character or figurehead represented by a series of striking costumes over the centuries, that were first recorded as being used in the minutes of a guild assembly in 1408 AD, but could have possibly been established much earlier! Traditionally appearing during processions for either the St George’s Day feast or the inauguration of a new mayor (although the two processes have been combined in the past), Snap consists of a barrel-like costume worn over the head, with bright colours, a long tail stretching behind the wearer and, in front, a long neck with a fearsome-looking head at the end and operable, snapping jaws that the wearer could use to snap at people (hence the name), or were utilised to steal things from passers by, even their hats! 

The figure is synonymous with the story of St George and the Dragon and came about due to the Guild of St George in Norwich. The old Christian myth about St George actually came about in earlier, pagan religions involving different people but was taken by the Christians and transferred over to St George (who previously was venerated as a saint as a Roman officer who was tortured and killed for refusing to give up his Christian beliefs). In this version of the story, a dragon holds a city to ransom, demanding financial tribute every year which, when the people run out of money and can no longer pay, changes over to the sacrifice of a citizen instead of gold. One year, a Princess is selected to be sacrificed and the people become troubled. A visiting warrior to the area sees what is happening and endeavours to rescue her, riding in on horseback and striking down the dragon with his lance. The Princess is rescued and the people celebrate! St George was made the patron saint of England by King Edward III and became even more popular under Henry V who made him almost a cult hero during the Battle of Agincourt, supposedly invoking his name before the English charged. This was immortalised by William Shakespeare in his play named after the king.

Ever since the 14th Century, April 23rd has been celebrated across England as the feast of St George, a day often marked with a carnival atmosphere, drinks, feasting and a procession which, historically included someone dressed as St George, battling a ‘dragon’ in the centre of the city. That dragon became affectionately known as Snap!

Margaret The Dragon Slayer

In 1532 a third figure appeared during the procession known simply as ‘The Margaret’ or ‘The Maid’. For the purposes of the procession, she was there to represent the maiden being rescued by St George but was quite possibly based on St Margaret of Antioch, who, according to Christian mythology, was a dragon slayer herself! In her story, Margaret is captured by a Roman general who wishes to sleep with her but she has, as a Christian, chosen celibacy. Angered at her refusal to give up her faith, the general tortures her and has her thrown into a large pit. In the pit, Satan appears before her in the form of a dragon and attacks her. Margaret does everything in her power to fight the dragon off but is eventually swallowed alive. As she passes down the dragon’s gullet into its belly, Margaret pulls out her cross and begins to pray. The cross pushes against the inside of the dragon and the moment it does, with a mighty crack, the dragon’s belly splits open and Margaret tumbles free, the dragon now laying at her feet dead. Sadly, Margaret’s victory would be short-lived – as soon as she made it back up to the surface, she was taken by the Roman general and, once more refusing to give up her faith, she was beheaded. Following her death, she was martyred and became a saint, taking on the patronage of childbirth due to the metaphor of her walking free of the dragon’s belly. In St Helen’s Church in Norwich’s Great Hospital, an effigy of St Margaret bursting from the dragon can be found carved into the end of one of the pews!

The Guild of St George

The Guild of St George was founded in 1385 with religious intentions, to celebrate St George, keep his feast day and to provide alms to the poor and needy within the guild. It operated out of a small chapel in the cathedral but in 1417 King Henry V honoured the guild with a Royal Charter. (Possibly because several guild members were known to the king, having fought alongside him at the Battle of Agincourt.) This charter gave the guild a much more prestigious standing and stronger influence within Norwich. In 1452, an agreement in the city firmly linked the guild and the city’s administration. This meant that the head of the guild would be replaced by the former Mayor of the city when they stood down from their mayoral duties and the Alderman of the city automatically became members of the guild and ‘common councillors’, lesser city councillors could also become members. In 1486, the Norwich Corporation gave the guild the upper chambers of The Guildhall to use.

The Guildhall, where The Guild of St George were once based.

During the 17th Century, the puritan movement started an attack on the processions held by the Guild on St George’s Day feast, as they didn’t agree with the feasting, music or ‘idols’ being used in the celebrations that were for religious holidays. They were, after all, opposed to anything fun or enjoyable! And before, in the 16th century, during the reformation, the procession had been a matter of controversy due to the Protestant belief that we should avoid the venerations of saints. Thankfully the processions were continued after these periods but were also being used now to celebrate the inauguration of a new Mayor to the city. As such, the procession would often start on the street of residence for that new Mayor and head through the city toward the Guildhall. 

In 1835, the Municipal Corporation Reform Act saw the end of much of the pageantry in Norwich and the demise of the Guild Day Ceremony, which meant the usual appearance of Snap on a yearly basis came to an end. Although his popularity means he has appeared in ceremonies across the city since, the original use for inaugurating a new mayor and celebrating St George’s Day came to a close.

The Mock Mayoral Processions of Pockthorpe

With the end of the official mayoral processions after 1835, the poorer district of Pockthorpe just outside of Norwich started carrying on the mantle, although it was more mocking of the pompous nature of the upper classes here in Norwich. They held their own ‘mayoral elections’ where a Mayor was chosen from among the working people although it’s more likely this was symbolic and this person wouldn’t actually hold any power. The procession ceremony also had a Snap Dragon and St George but were far more raucous than the Norwich counterpart, instead of visiting various municipal buildings, the march would instead go from pub to pub. Quite often it would spill into the streets of Norwich itself and Snap was used to terrorise the locals. He would be seen chasing passers by and often the snapping jaws would be used to steal a possession such as the victim’s hat. It would then be kept just out of their reach until they relented and gave the dragon a penny, at which point it would be returned to the owner! A small rhyme would often go alongside this, sung by children and drunken adults alike, this went “Snap, snap, steal a man’s cap, give him a penny and he’ll give it back!”

Where is Snap now?

Snap the dragon will still make the odd appearance today, usually during The Lord Mayor’s Procession! However this does tend to include a more modern dragon made of papier mache. Three historical versions of Snap do still survive today, including an original civic one and two later copies. One stood in The Castle Museum but due to the work going on at the castle at the time of writing, the area he was in, inside the main keep, is not currently available to visit. It seems the historic dragons have been shared between The Castle Museum and The Museum of Norwich and, although at the moment it may be more difficult to see one on display, at least we can be safe in the knowledge that they are being looked after, ready to grace Norwich with those snapping jaws once again!

The Shoebox’s own Lisa with Snap at the Museum of Norwich!


St George

Snap in 2018 Procession

Royal Charters

Norwich Whifflers

Snap History