Treasure of the month


Durham Cathedral has acquired an internationally renowned collection of manuscripts and historic artefacts over the centuries. Each month we feature one of these objects as 'Treasure of the Month' on our website.

Some items from the Cathedral's collections are on display in Open Treasure, a new world-class visitor experience at the heart of the Cathedral's medieval monastic buildings. 

Treasure of the Month: JuLY - THE CONYERS FALCHION

 

“My Lord Bishop, I hereby present you with the falchion wherewith the champion Conyers slew the worm, dragon or fiery 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 first entrance of every bishop into the county the falchion should be presented.”

Those are the words spoken at the bridge at Croft-on-Tees whenever a new Bishop of Durham enters the diocese for the first time.  But what is the truth behind them?

There are some facts of which we are sure. The Conyers Falchion is a medieval sword: 89cm long and less than three pounds in weight, it consists of a bronze pommel and cross and a handle made of ash.  The dragon motif featured on the cross has led some to suggest that the legend of the Worm, and Sir John Conyers’ slaying of it, came after the creation of the falchion.  The pommel, meanwhile, has three lions on one side (a design that did not enter use until 1154 under King Henry II) and a winged eagled on the other.  There are two theories behind the eagle: the first that it was a design commonly used by the King of the Romans, a title held by Richard of Cornwall, the younger brother of King Henry III in 1257.  But a similar design was also given to Morcar, a Saxon Earl of Northumbria who died in 1087 which might suggest that the falchion was a copy of an earlier sword.

The Conyers family – from whom the falchion is named – most likely arrived in England with William the Conqueror, and were first granted lands in the area around the North East between 1099 and 1133.  It is around this time that John Conyers supposedly slayed the Sockburn Worm.

The falchion itself isn’t mentioned, however, until 1396, when it is noted that another Sir John Conyers “by the service of showing to the Lord Bishop a falchion” acknowledged the Bishop as the temporal and spiritual ruler in the area.  Stylistic evidence suggests it was produced between 1260 & 1270 – in which case it couldn’t have been the sword the slayed the Worm.

The earliest description we have of the legend of the Worm comes from a manuscript dated to the time of King Charles I (1625-49) which tells of a “monstrous venoms and poysons wiverms…which overthrew and Devourd many people in fight, for the scent of the poison was soo strong”.

The Falchion came to further prominence when, in 1855, Lewis Carroll published the first verse of the nonsense poem that would become Jabberwocky.  While most of the poem was written at Whitburn, near Sunderland, one verse was written at Croft-on-Tees.  It is likely that the Jabberwock creature was inspired by the Sockburn and Lambton Worms and it’s very possible that the falchion was the inspiration for the Vorpal blade used to kill the beast.

In 1947 the falchion was given to Durham Cathedral by Arthur Edward Blackett, where it was displayed for many years in the old Treasury museum. It has been used by each Bishop at his installation since 1984 in the revived ceremony at Croft-on-Tees. It is still symbolic of the fealty shown to the Bishop of Durham by local residents.

The Conyers Falchion will be on permanent display in the Great Kitchen, part of Open Treasure, from Saturday 29 July. Also on display will be the original 12th-century Sanctuary Ring and the Treasures of St Cuthbert, some of the most significant surviving Anglo-Saxon artefacts in the UK. 

Visit www.durhamcathedral.co.uk/open-treasure to book tickets in advance.