The Conyers Falchion
Last of its kind?

The Conyers falchion is well known to all students of medieval weaponry. There are countless books that use it as a prime example on the falchion sub-type of swords. As there are just about half a dozen known surviving medieval falchions, most of them seldom depicted (not counting many Renaissance specimens), many think it's how the type looked. Study of period art and surviving falchions indicates otherwise. Still, the Conyers falchion is an important weapon and one with several fascinating aspects. I'm been fortunate to have been able to take a closer look at the famous Conyers falchion in the Treasury of Durham Cathedral in England.

Dragonslayer  - the "Jabberwocky" connection

"Sr Jo Conyers of Storkburn Knt who slew ye monstrous venoms and poysons wiverms Ask or worme which overthrew and Devourd many people in fight, for the scent of poyson was soo strong, that no person was able to abide it, yet he by the providence of god overthrew it and lyes buried at Storkburn before the Conquest, but before he did enterprise it (having but one sonne) he went to the Church in compleat armour and offered up his sonne to the holy ghost, which monument is yet to see, and the place where the serpent lay is called Graystone."

(From British Museum MS Harleian No. 2118, fo. 39, circa 1625-49)

There's a legend surrounding the Conyers falchion, where the sword is said to have been wielded by Sir John Conyers when he slew the Sockburn Worm in 1063. The Conyers family probably came from France to England around the time of the Norman Conquest (1066 and all that). They were granted the manor Sockburn-on-Tees (formerly known as Storkburn) in County Durham in the 12th century, according to the legend because of Sir John's slaying of the dragon. The sword was later presented to the Cathedral of Durham and from that day on each new Prince-Bishop of Durham was presented with the sword upon entering their new Bishopric for the first time in the middle of the River Tees. The senior Conyers offered the falchion to the Prince-Bishop as a sign that he recognized the Bishop as his overlord, and then the falchion was returned to him and he was quit of all services. It lapsed after 1771, and wasn't performed in over 200 years. The falchion was kept at Sockburn Hall, but in 1947, it was presented to the Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral by Mr. Arthur Edward Blackett. The ceremony was revived in 1994, when the new bishop took office. It includes the following presentation speech, traditionally made by the Lord of Sockburn;

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

The Sockburn Worm itself was almost certainly immortalized by Lewis Carroll in his famous nonsense rhyme, "Jabberwocky", as he lived in Croft on Tees as a boy and it was there he wrote the first verse of the rhyme. There's a theory that the legend has its roots in the slaying of some marauding Viking chieftain, who made their raids using dragon-headed longships, but that would be a too mundane an explanation…

The falchion

The falchion is kept in the Treasury of Durham Cathedral. It is on display in a case in a dimly lit chamber, which makes close study a bit harder. Fortunately, the case stands in the middle of the floor, making observation from all sides possible. The overall length is 890 mm (35.04"). It weighs 1300 gram (2.86 lbs.).

The hilt

The handsome hilt consists of three parts: pommel, grip and cross. The beveled wheel pommel is made of bronze, featuring heraldic arms on both sides. It has a diameter of 42 mm (1.65") and a thickness of 20 mm (0.79"). On the outward-facing side (assuming the falchion is held in the right hand), there's a black eagle with spread wings, while on the other side the three lions of England are found. The 95 mm (3.74") wooden grip is made from ash. Like the pommel, the 168 mm (6.6") wide cross is also made of bronze. It is decorated with dragon motifs and is slightly asymmetrical.

The blade

The blade is 734 mm long (28.9"). It has a straight, blunt back and a curved edge. There is a shallow fuller close to the back, running about 75% of the blade's length. A narrow groove runs along it, curling slightly upwards by the end. There's some slight pitting and corrosion, as well as signs of wear and sharpening. The blade is about 39 mm (1.53") wide at the base, widening to a maximum of 109 mm (4.3") about 140 mm (5.5") from the point. One thing that strikes the viewer is how thin the blade is. It is about 6 mm thick at the base, but the distal taper is rather abrupt; at the widest point of the blade, the thickness is just about 1.2 mm (0.047"), tapering to about 1 mm near the point. This makes the edge very thin, making the falchion a wicked cutting sword. When viewed edge-wise, there's a slight but noticeable warp to the left at the broadest part of the blade. This might due to a tempering flaw or something that has been caused by the thinness of the blade combined with hard use. Another flaw is a fracture, c. 50 mm (2") long and about 25 mm (1") from the point.

How old is it?

The legend gives no clue to the real age of the falchion, but fortunately the heraldic arms on the pommel gives us some definite hints. The three lions ("leopards") indicate that the pommel was decorated no earlier than 1194, when the three lions in the royal arms of England appeared. A similar falchion could be seen in a wall fresco (destroyed in a fire in the 19th century) dated to the later part of the 13th century in the Painted Chamber in Westminster Cathedral (right). Together with other depictions, it is safe to assume that the falchion was made in the 13th century. Study of the heraldic devices, together with general stylistic evidence, has placed making of the Conyers falchion in the years 1260-70, some 200 years after its alleged use in the slaying of the Worm. It is possible that it is a replacement for an older weapon, which perhaps was more like the Norse single-edged long-sax, but this is just speculation on my part.

The Conyers falchion - one of a kind?

I have made a small survey of about 25 falchions, both surviving specimens and swords found in contemporary art. Based on this, I think the Conyers falchion is not a typical representative for the general type, forming a small sub-class instead. The hilt is very much in the style encountered in other falchions and double-edged swords from that time, but the blade differs quite a bit. The majority of falchions had curved backs where that of the Conyers falchion is straight. The shape is different in other aspects, too. Many falchions had clipped or concave points, but the Conyers falchion has this straight back and very wide forward part, with a deeply curved edge meeting the back in a defined point. I haven't encountered this shape in neither archaeological material nor in medieval art, with a couple of exceptions: a German archaeological find from Hamburg shows a startling similarity to the Conyers falchion, and the falchion in the Painted Chamber (albeit with a slightly curved back). Still, it is apparent that it is of a style not typical for the absolute majority of falchions.

A typical falchion: the Thorpe falchion from Norwich, mid-14th C.

Falchion found in Hamburg.

Author's thanks

I would like to express my thanks to Mr. Roger Norris, M.A., Deputy Chapter Librarian of Durham Cathedral for finding the Durham Archaeological Journal article and the kindness shown me on my visit to Durham. Special thanks to Peter Johnsson and Patrik Djurfeldt for supplying some vital stats. Thanks also to Ulf Karlsson for sharing information on little-known falchion.

Sources and bibliography

Edge, David and Paddock, John M.: Arms & Armor of the Medieval Knight, Bison Books, Greenwich 1988

Hawkins, Quentin: The Meat Cleaver, Military Illustrated #112, September 1997

Laking, Sir Guy Francis: A Record of European Armour and Arms Through Seven Centuries, G. Bell and Sons Ltd., London 1920

McPeak, William J: The Falchion - Short Sword that Made Good, Command #41, January 1997

Oakeshott, Ewart: The Archaeology of Weapons, Lutterworth, London 1960

Oakeshott, Ewart: The Sword in the Age of Chivalry, Boydell & Brewer, Woodbridge 1964, 1994

Seitz, Heribert: Blankwaffen, vol. 1, Klinkhardt und Biermann, Braunschweig 1965

Ullman, K: Dolchmesser, Dolche und Kurzwehren des 15. und 16. Jahrhunderts, Waffen- und Kostümkunde 1961 Heft 2, München & Berlin 1961

Wall, John: The Conyers Falchion, Durham Archaeological Journal 2, Durham 1986

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