Enticed by rumours of a mythical creature haunting the Blackwater marshes in Essex, England, recently widowed Cora Seaborne (Claire Danes) leaves London for the village of Aldwinter. Cora is chasing her dream of becoming an amateur palaeontologist and believes that science can explain the creature while also allaying the fears of the superstitious locals.
Set at the tail end of the Victorian age, the novel draws on the history of a period when many scientific discoveries were being made, which were often in conflict with the prevailing religious beliefs and folklore of the time.
The Essex Serpent might seem at first like a classic Victorian gothic tale, but the show’s themes and characters are firmly rooted in the dark myths and history of Essex.
Essex has had a long history of water-serpent myths. The number of these stories may be because it boasts the longest coastline in England (350 miles), indented with hundreds of water inlets and estuaries.
The region, on the east coast of England, is tidal, meaning that the acres of salt marsh, swampy and unstable ground, fill with water twice a day and shift constantly. It is easy to get lost, caught by the tide and mishear and see things in the low mist.
The local industry in the Victorian era was fishing, including serpent-like eels, and it is possible that fishermen and local pirates, of which there were many smuggling rum across the land from Mersea Island, met unknown objects in the water.
One legend from the period has it that a dragon emerged from an ancient lake near the village of Bures in Essex, terrorising villagers and eating the sheep. The nearby village of Wormingford is named after “Wyrm” the medieval word for serpent or dragon.
A 1950’s stained-glass window in Wormingford’s church shows a version of the myth where a crocodile given to King Richard I escapes the Tower of London. The crocodile brought evil to the community, killing sheep and demanding to be fed virgins.
In Wissington village church, a medieval mural of a water dragon remains today and was probably an inspiration for the serpent wood carving in Aldwinter church.
In The Essex Serpent, villagers believe that the “Blackwater Beast” was released by an earthquake. This probably references to a destructive earthquake that happened in Essex around that time in 1884. It remains the most powerful earthquake in England’s history, damaging hundreds of homes and churches. The earthquake was felt strongly in Peldon, a village in the area in which the novel is set.
Women are central to the plot and many historical references are made to connect Cora and others to defiant women of the past, from queens to witches.
Cora is an intelligent, independent and physically strong woman. With these traits and her auburn hair, she is told that she looks like Boudicca, queen of the British East Anglian Iceni tribe.
Boudicca led an uprising against the Roman Empire in AD60 after she and her daughters suffered physical and sexual abuse at their hands. Boudicca is a significant figure in Essex and there is a statue dedicated to her in Colchester, a major city in Essex and once the capital of Roman Britain.
At the time, the local tribes had been subjected to repression and humiliation by their Roman occupiers. Boudicca gathered all the tribes in East Anglia and the south east of England and successfully retook Colchester, the first city of England.
The links between Cora and Boudicca are clear – neither women become victims of the abuse of men and both head out into Essex with a strong will – a will that is feared by men.
The story is also set in locations relevant to Boudicca, like Colchester castle, where Cora conducts some of her research. This castle was once a major Roman temple, which Boudicca burned so violently that she turned the whole city to clay.
Colchester castle was also where the prisoners, mostly unmarried women like Cora, were held during the 16th and 17th century Essex witchhunt trials. During this time, women who didn’t fit in with social norms were often accused of making deals with the devil and causing crops to fail or people to die in their communities.
When a child is found dead near Aldwinter, the villagers quickly turn to superstition and become hysterical. They believe that her death is the work of the devil and the sea monster. Much of this is stoked by the vicar’s assistant, Matthew. His name may be a reference to Matthew Hopkins, the witchfinder-general, who brutally executed hundreds of people in Essex, who were held in Colchester Castle prison.
We see that the locals still hold such superstitions in The Essex Serpent as Cora is accused of witchcraft by the locals for her beliefs in science. She’s not helped when a group of children she is trying to explain her scientific theory of what the serpent might be fall into a mass fit, which she is blamed for.
By subtly interweaving layer upon layer of myth and history from this deeply misunderstood and historical county into a popular and compelling tale, writer Sarah Perry (from Essex herself) is challenging the national stereotype of Essex. In this tale, the country isn’t a banal, flat and urban land with little historical and cultural richness. Perhaps making Sarah Perry the most contemporary unruly Essex girl of them all.
Elelia Ferro does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.