Of cups and plate, Pt 1

This is the story behind the recent acquisition by Fairlynch Museum of the beautiful replica of a 16th century communion cup from which Sir Walter Ralegh may have drunk.   It is hoped to exhibit the original silver chalice and paten, currently in storage, at Exeter Cathedral. Crafted by one of the city’s celebrated goldsmiths, they are among the treasures of All Saints Church, East Budleigh, birthplace of Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite courtier.  In 2018 we will be marking the 400th anniversary of his wrongful trial and execution. 

Promotional poster of 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade' by artist Drew Struzan 
Image credit: Paramount Pictures via Wikipedia

“You have chosen wisely,” the Grail knight tells the hero in the film 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.'  Terrible things befall those who choose poorly and drink from the wrong communion cup.

And so it was during the turbulent years of religious wars brought about by the Reformation in Europe. 

A chalice with the inscription: 'My blood truly is a libation', made in 1549 for the church of St John the Baptist in Salinas, Spain.  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This chalice, held at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, USA,  is decorated with images of saints and scenes from the life of Christ,  Its stem and cup were probably made in Germany c.1500 and are later than the base, which has been attributed to Bohemia or Austria and dated c.1400. The enamels contain an image of the apostle Andrew (holding the X-shaped cross on which he died), to whom the church where the chalice was used was probably dedicated. Around it are the Annunciation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension (with Christ disappearing in the clouds). The last scene shows St. Martin (316-97), bishop of Tours (France), celebrating mass as divine flames descend upon an altar with a chalice upon it

Countries which embraced Protestantism rejected the decorative, sometimes bejewelled chalices which were characteristic of the Roman Catholic tradition.

The name of Exeter's Goldsmith Street in the city's main shopping centre stands as a reminder of its traditional crafts

In the West Country, up to and including the 16th century, silversmiths relied heavily upon the Church for business. Two notable Exeter goldsmiths of the 16th century were John Jones and Richard Hilliard, father of Nicholas the famous miniaturist. 

St Petrock's Church, Exeter   Image credit: Robert Cutts

One of the most productive goldsmiths of his age, John Jones (d.1583-84) was a Bailiff of the city in 1567 and Churchwarden at St. Petrock's in 1570.

The goldsmiths  benefited enormously  from changes brought about by English Reformation.  Much church treasure was confiscated by Henry VIII, with plate being melted down and reworked to conform to the new Protestant liturgy.  The process was even more marked in the 1550s, which saw the seizure of most church gold and silver ornaments by officials of Edward VI’s government.  

'The murder of Zwingli' by the 19th century Swiss artist Karl Jauslin   Image credit: Wikipedia

In Europe, the most extreme example of the tendency to reject such Catholic practices was seen as early as April 1525 when the reformer Ulrich Zwingli celebrated Maundy Thursday with wooden rather than silver cups. 

Was such Protestant extremism seen in English parishes? “It is hard to be sure what was happening, especially since there was such variation on the ground,” says Dr Laura Sangha, of the University of Exeter’s Department of History. 

“We do know from churchwarden accounts that many parishes either sold their communion chalices during Edward VI's reign, or they had them confiscated by the authorities. There is also evidence that some parishes bought wooden cups at around the same time, so certainly they were in use in some places.”

Queen Elizabeth I, by the Exeter artist Nicholas Hilliard

The brief period of Mary Tudor’s reign saw a return to Catholic practices. But by 1559 when her half-sister Elizabeth ascended the throne England was ready to ready to accept compromises in matters of religion.

The young Walter Ralegh had seen at first-hand a country torn apart by sectarianism while fighting as a teenager for the Huguenots in the French Wars of Religion between 1569 and 1572. “The greatest and most grievous calamity that can come to any state is civil war,” he would later conclude in his  History of the World.   

The new queen evidently shared his view. “Away with those torches, for we see very well,” she is supposed to have exclaimed at her coronation, when greeted by the Abbot of Westminster and his monks. 

Elizabeth’s apparent rejection of the Catholic practice of lighted candles, a relic from the previous reign, would have been interpreted by Protestants as a sign of her reformist tendencies.

Equally, the queen wanted to reassure Catholics that she respected elements of the old tradition. “The coronation was a typical Elizabethan compromise with something to confuse and offend everyone,” concludes Professor Richard McCoy in his study of the ceremony, keenly watched by contemporaries for hints of the government’s religious policy in the new reign.

The paten of the original 16th century silver chalice made by John Jones

The Elizabethan Settlement deliberately encompassed a range of preferences when it came to religious worship, and this included more decoration and ceremonial that would have been tolerated during the Edwardian regime, writes Laura Sangha.  

A close-up showing detail, carefully copied in the pewter replica

Fairlynch Museum’s recently commissioned copy of the 1570s chalice made by John Jones is a perfect example. More than a hundred of the Exeter goldsmith’s communion cups have survived. They made his fortune; churchwarden accounts of St Petrock’s church in Exeter show that Jones was paid £1 15s 5d in 1572 for ‘converting’ a communion cup to make it suitable for Protestant worship, melting down its medieval predecessor in the process. 

The original chalice  on which the Fairlynch replica is modelled is one of All Saints Church’s most treasured possessions. Sir Walter Ralegh himself may have drunk from it.

Beautifully crafted by Birmingham pewterers A.E. Williams – probably the oldest firm of its kind in the world -  our moderately decorated 21st century version reflects the new spirit of compromise which characterized the Virgin Queen’s reign.  Replica it may be, but the latest acquisition at the Museum  tells a fascinating story from a crucial period in British history.


For more examples of A.E. Williams' work click on http://www.pewtergiftware.com/

This post continues at http://budleighbrewsterunited.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/of-cups-and-plate-pt-2.html


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