Naomi Speakman, curator, British Museum
As I write this post, I am drinking tea out of my favourite mug. Having a special cup or saving glasses for important occasions is something we can all recognise today. In the Middle Ages it was no different, and wonderfully ornate pieces of silverware were made for fine dining and special feasts. The Lacock Cup is such an object, and is the most recent and exciting addition to the British Museum’s Late Medieval collection that I am responsible for.
Formed of nearly 1kg of silver, this drinking cup topped with a sweeping lid was made in England in the mid-15th century and is a rare example of pre-Reformation secular silver. The survival rate for this type of object is extremely low. Fewer than 300 pieces of English silver have survived from before 1520. Why this low rate of survival? The single greatest reason is that, as tastes and fashions changed, so the silver was melted down and refashioned into more desirable objects. Silver during this time was also seen as a source of ready cash, so that when money was needed to secure credit, or to pay off a loan, it could be used quickly and easily, or melted down for its bullion value. The reason for the Lacock Cup’s survival is a unique part of its story, and something I will return to later on.
The Cup started its life as a high-status drinking vessel. It is of a type known as a ‘standing’ or ‘covered’ cup, which were popular in the late Middle Ages. The style of the Cup shows that its original role was for display on the dining table, which was as important as its function for drinking. It has a large bowl and tall trumpet-shaped foot and base, topped by a sweeping lid. With such exaggerated style, and standing at 35cm in height, the Cup was designed to be seen across the hall, making an elegant statement at the nobleman’s table. The design of the lid demonstrates this, it is almost as tall as the cup itself and when placed on top the Cup nearly doubles in height.
Drinking cups were popular with all levels of society, with the style filtering down through the court and the nobility. In Room 40, the Paul and Jill Ruddock Gallery 1050-1500 we can chart the types of vessels used by different members of Medieval society across Continental Europe through three objects. Firstly, the Royal Gold Cup may have been a drinking cup for a royal diner, King Charles VI of France (reigned 1380-1422). Judging by its style and material the Lacock Cup is believed to have been used by an English nobleman or member of the gentry. Finally, a mazer bowl with enamelled silver mounts from mid-14th century Flanders shows another popular type of drinking vessel more widely used.
The Lacock Cup was definitely a showpiece. It was firmly connected to the host of the feast, since cups were provided by them, and were shared around the table during dining (although it was the guests’ responsibility to bring their own cutlery, as illustrated by a collapsible spoon and travelling case also displayed in Room 40 which is a wonderfully playful and beautiful example).
Clearly a secular object, the Cup takes on a different role after the religious tumult of the English Reformation of the 1530s. At some point in its life after the Reformation the Cup became the communion chalice of the parishioners of St Cyriac’s church in the village of Lacock in Wiltshire, which lends the Cup its name. This new position as a sacred vessel, the cup is under divine protection, much less likely to be destroyed compared to its secular counterparts.
Although we don’t know exactly when the Cup was donated, or by who, it is likely to have been after the middle of the 16th century. Since the Cup bears no religious imagery, it was perfectly suited to its new function as a chalice in a post-Reformation church. Its size could also have been its saving grace: after the Reformation the whole congregation would drink from the same cup. Two possible donors are William Sharington, the first lay resident of Lacock Abbey after it had been suppressed in the Reformation, and Robert Baynard a local nobleman who lived in the 17th century. Both of these men held positions of local importance and have monuments within Saint Cyriac’s and a record of involvement with the church.
Whoever the original donor was, we do know that the Cup was used and treasured by the congregation for centuries. It was not until the 20th century that the importance of the Cup became known nationally and internationally. In 1962 a loan was agreed with the church for the Cup to come to the British Museum. There was a surprising clause to the loan. It was agreed that the Cup would travel back to Lacock from Paddington to be met by a ‘responsible person of the parish’ for liturgical use four times a year at Christmas, Easter, Whitsun and Harvest. We can assume that the Cup was historically linked to these festivals, as a report to the Trustees of the British Museum dated 26 September 1962 notes that ‘the parish is accustomed to using the Cup as a communion chalice on four occasions during the year and would wish to continue to do so’.
At the end of 2013 the British Museum and the Wiltshire Museum jointly acquired the Lacock Cup for the nation. As a mark of recognition of the importance of the Cup to the history and community of St Cyriac’s, the British Museum has commissioned a facsimile, made by an expert at the Museum, which will continue to have a role in the life of the church into the twenty-first century. 2015 will also see the story of the Lacock Cup continue as it goes on tour across the UK. The tour will open on 31 January at The Salisbury Museum, then onto the Palace Green Library, Durham, Norwich Castle Keep, Nottingham Castle and finishing at Wiltshire Museum in Devizes.
The Lacock Cup was acquired by the British Museum and the Wiltshire Museum with the support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, John Studzinski, the Art Fund, the American Friends of the British Museum, the British Museum Friends, the Jean Sibley Bequest, the Charity Fund of International Partners Limited in memory of Melvin R Seiden, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson, the Headley Trust and individual contributions.
Naomi Speakman and Lloyd De Beer are authors of the latest volume in the Objects in Focus series: The Lacock Cup.