Bishop's Crook

On display in a glass case in the treasury of Canterbury Cathedral is a bishop's episcopal staff called The Canterbury Crozier. Made in mid Victorian times by William Burgess, it is an exquisite piece, worked in silver and ivory and encrusted with semi precious stones. The curve of the staff is carved to depict St. George fighting the dragon, with the dragon's intended princessly victim tied to the handle. The detail, in for example, St. George's armour and the ropes tying the princess Is astonishingly realistic. When this beautiful and valuable thing is not in a glass case being oohed and aahed over by tourists, it is used by the Bishop of Dover as he goes about his episcopal duties.

What interested me in it enough to ask the obliging cathedral verger to unlock the treasury and let me see it, is the fact that the first owner of this remarkable object was Henry Lascelles Jenner. In 1866 Jenner was selected by the Archbishop of Canterbury as the first Bishop of Dunedin and was duly consecrated as the same. He then spent a few years touring England raising funds to buy necessary stuff for his new see, such as, for example, a really nice crozier. While Jenner ticked all the boxes as far as the authorities in England were concerned, no one had thought to ask the people of Dunedin, and they were not so sure. Jenner was Anglo Catholic, and they were not. A period of negotiation and argument dragged on for about 5 years, at the end of which the Diocesan Synod formally rejected Jenner's claim to the kathedra, and Bishop Samuel Tarrant Neville was consecrated and installed instead.

In one of those nice little pieces of synchronicity, I found Bishop Neville's crozier just a week or two before I left for England, propped in the corner of the dean's office, looking a bit loose and dusty but nevertheless in not bad nick, all things considered, and certainly worth a trip to the cleaner's. Notwithstanding the fact that it is solid brass and weights almost as much as I do, I intend to use it. But looking at this gorgeous piece in the Canterbury treasury, I did for a moment think I might have preferred it instead. But only for a moment. The legend of St. George and the dragon is one of the silliest stories in the literary history of the church: it is, shall we say, blatantly Freudian and, although of course the symbolic links to the Gospel story are there, they do require some sophisticated ability in non literal thought to see them.

Looking at the Canterbury Crozier, I had two thoughts. Firstly, on the durability of culture. The independence of spirit and disregard for authority are characteristic of my city, my province and my diocese to this very day. Secondly, while it might be a fitting symbol in an English church ( patron saint and all that), I would be hard pressed to think of an object which could less symbolise my diocese than a piece of elephant ivory depicting a bloke fighting a dragon and a woman tied to a tree. It must have been tough on poor old Jenner but perhaps, if things had gone as originally planned, there would have been some very unhappy people in the fledgling Dunedin colony, including Henry Lascelles Jenner.

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Anonymous said…
"The legend of St. George and the dragon is one of the stupidest stories in the literary history of the English speaking peoples.."

For shame! Never mind the English, you have just offended Catalunya and the City of Moscow and the Coat of Arms of the Russian Republic, as well as every Palestinian Christian (what's left of them). Cry God for England, Harry and St George!
VenDr said…
Indeed. It's still a stupid story.
VenDr said…
I have no desire to denigrate St. George nor any of the people who venerate him. The dragon story, purely as a piece of narrative is another matter. I think you will find that while the cult of St George goes back to the 5th century, the story of the dragon is a medieval addition, and was never central.

My experience is that while almost everyone can identify George and the dragon, virtually no one knows the actual story which lies behind the pictures of the knight and the dragon and the spear. A bit like the case with the Easter bunny. The reason no one knows the story is because it is seldom told. The reason it is seldom told is that it lacks narrative tension and a coherent plot.

The story is one I have used many times in storytelling workshops as a textbook example of how NOT to structure a story. It is a piece of blatant sexual symbolism that somehow attached itself to the hagiography of St George, probably on the basis that the protagonists in both I stances wore armor.

FEBRUARY 8, 2011 12:23 PM
Anonymous said…
"The reason no one knows the story is because it is seldom told. The reason it is seldom told is that it lacks narrative tension and a coherent plot."

Or maybe because (almost) nobody reads medieval literature anymore or understands the concept of the Christian knight, which St George embodies.
As for Freudianism, well... you know the story about the shrink and the man he gave a Rorschach test to? The man kept seeing gross sexual images which was too much even for the shrink. 'Boy, you've got a dirty mind!' he said. 'Me??' said the man. 'You're the one showing me the dirty pictures!'
Anonymous said…
Quite possibly the girl would have preferred the dragon anyway.
VenDr said…
That would be a good theory except for one small detail: the story is not about knighthood, Christian or otherwise. St George puts in an appearance in the closing sentences of the tale as a mere plot device by which the Princess' prayers are answered. The story of George and the dragon, paradoxically, is not really about George at all.

The shame of it is that the older legend of St George, which is a story of a Christian soldier's amazing witness in the face of terrible cruelty, a story which has more than a passing chance of being true, is completely overshadowed.
Anonymous said…
Well, I don't really disagree with you, I just like medieval legends and don't find the story any more "stupid" than the Perseus legend I suppose it's based on. Maybe it's all in the way you tell it. Perhaps to satisfy modern canons of taste, George should have married the maiden and opened a dragon sanctuary. Crikey!
I agree that the story of the soldier-martyr from Lydda must have been very powerful in its time, for the cult of St George to spread from Spain to India. This George became a powerful symbol for the Christian armies in the Crusades, and has been especially influential in India, where many Christians are called George.
But you won't rob the English of their chainmailed George slaying the dragon du jour. After all, he shares Shakespeare's birthday/deathday as well, so he must be true as well as English.
VenDr said…
Of course. I think we are coming from very different angles. I have a particular academic interest in story, and use a very particular theory of narrative structure. This story is constructed in a way which does not conform to that theory, and therefore i think it is less than compelling when it is being told. The spontaneous reaction of most audiences is that it is a silly story, as opposed to other tales I tell such as e.g. the ancient Comanche legend of Bluebonnet (aka She Who Sits Alone) where on the face of it the content is no less "stupid" but the effect on audiences is usually that several of them are moved to tears. The difference is structure not content.

As far as the content of the story of George and the Dragon? It is a powerful and potentially redeeming insight into the human condition, as are all stories which persevere past their first telling.
Damien Hall said…
Thankyou for this post! We visited the Treasury at Canterbury today and weren't able to ask anyone the (hi)story of this lovely crozier; the photograph from this post came up in a Google Image search on "Canterbury Cathedral treasury crozier ivory", and so we were able to read about the piece from someone who I'd say would be one of the more authoritative sources we could have asked. As we have just moved to Dover and I sing in the Choir at St Mary-the-Virgin church there (the largest church in Dover, Norman in origin, with features from all the architectural periods since), we were also delighted to find that the crozier's day-job is to support the Bishop of Dover in his pastoral doings!