Armoral Bearings

Mary Dormer Harris, the local historian thought that the elephant had a religious symbolism. The ancient "Bestiaries" works of unnatural Natural History, treat animals as religious types, and it is from these works that many of the animals and birds in church architecture derive.

 

The elephant is seen, not only as a beast so strong that he can carry a tower--Coventry's castle--full of armed men, but also a symbol of Christ's redemption of the human race. The animal, according to one of the "Bestiary" stories, is supposed to sleep standing, leaning against a tree. Hunters sever the tree trunk, and he falls helpless to the ground, until a small elephant approaches and pulls him up with his trunk.

 

Mary Dormer Harris says that "those familiar with the curious cast of medieval thought will not be astonished that in this story was seen as a type of the fall of Adam and Eve and of Christ's redemption of the human race". The foe of the elephant was a dragon, who devoured newly-born elephants, and, like the elephant, Adam and Eve had their dragon, the tempter for their foe. They eat of the forbidden fruit and are lost. They are redeemed by Christ, as also the young elephant, "through a tree" succours those who have fallen.

 

The elephant, then, is a dragon slayer and is associated with a tree. There is now a forgotten tradition of dragon slaying in this neighborhood--and Coventry to be the birth place of St. George, who slew the dragon. In the early seals of Coventry, from which our coat-of-arms derives, are shown, on one side, the Combat between another dragon-slayer, the Archangel Michael, and the dragon. On the other is the elephant and castle.

 

Mary Dormer Harris points out that the tree has been dropped out of armorial bearings of the city, and it is a tree from which Coventry almost certainly took its name--Cofa's tree. In the medieval mind, then, the elephant suggested the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and did not merely symbolize strength.