How did a rather chewed – in fact very chewed – wooden bowl come to be regarded by many people as the cup from which Christ and the Disciples drank at the Last Supper. Or else had been carved from the wood of the Cross on which He died? And how did it end up, after many moves and adventures in a library in Aberystwyth?
There are a number of relics around Christendom claiming to be the Holy Grail, which is rather odd, as there is no biblical reference to such an object, and the idea of it seems to have been created out of thin air in literary sources in the 12th Century, with virtually no previous textual references to such an object. In their first chapter, 'The Great Quest', the authors give a brief but clear summary of the various texts which form the main source of the legend.
They point out that “Almost the entire corpus of Grail literature was written between 1170 and 1225, appearing suddenly and ending almost as abruptly” adding significantly that “We can only guess at the extent of oral tradition behind their composition”, if indeed there was any at all. And even if there was clear evidence of a actual Holy Grail, and by some miracle it had been preserved, how does it leap from first-century Jerusalem to a small country house in mid-Wales in the early nineteenth century? Because it is only then that we first come across any written reference to the Nanteos Cup, And at that point we find a suggestion to the route of that journey.
This is found in a Welsh language journal, Lleuad yr Oes ['Moon of the Age']. In 1828 a correspondent to the magazine wrote “it is known to most of the residents in the neighbourhood of Aberystwyth” that a cup of “remarkable medical capacity” was held locally at Nanteos House, and that drinking water from it would cure many “diseases of the blood.” The writer introduces the idea that the cup was actually made from the wood of the Cross, the idea that it was the Grail itself is a later accretion to the story. There is very little, if anything, recorded about the history of the cup prior to its appearance as an object of local interest in the Aberystwyth area. However a fairly plausible history taking it back a few hundred years was already becoming attached to it, one which the authors say “has just enough of a reality to give one pause for thought.”
The plausible history is that it came from the remote Cistercian Abbey of Strata Florida in Cardiganshire. It is likely to have originally been a wooden 'mazer', or drinking bowl of a distinctive shape, of a type made throughout the mediaeval period. The authors speculate that such a bowl may have been used in the infirmary at the abbey and maybe gained something of a reputation for its healing powers. It was said that at some time it had been fitted with a silver rim, to prevent supplicants trying to bite small pieces off for their own use as they were drinking from it. The present state of the object certainly seems to support this idea!
At Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries, the relic, along with other items from the monastery was supposedly given to the loyally Catholic Stedman family, owners of the then remote Nanteos estate. Some stories stretch the history back earlier, claiming that the monks at Strata Florida received it for safekeeping from the Abbot of Glastonbury, in advance of the Dissolution, thinking that a Welsh location would be safer than the more vulnerable Glastonbury.
Clearer records of the Cup's misadventures can be found in the nineteenth century when its powers were widely accepted locally, and there is a collection of 'receipts' for occasions when the cup was lent out by the Stedman (and later the Powell) family. Usually some valuable item or cash was left as a surety and on its return to Nanteos House was often accompanied by a note from the grateful borrower describing how effective it had been for them. If the cup ever did have a silver rim, it had disappeared by this time, and the nibbling continued, reducing the vessel to less than half its original size, necessitating it being protected inside a glass bowl.
Well that is the plausible, if not entirely provable, history of the bowl. But the main extraordinary history of the relic as we read it today, was created entirely in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As the fame of the Cup spread from the farming communities around Nanteos to the wider world, stories and legends attached themselves to it, often to fulfil the aims of one particular group or another. The opening of University College Wales, Aberystwyth, led to a campaign for the establishment of a National Library for Wales at the same location.
One of the prominent supporters of the campaign was George Eyrie Evans (1857-1939), an antiquarian and a prominent member of a number of historical and learned societies. He had a particular interest in Strata Florida, and at a commemoration of the 700th anniversary of the founding of the Abbey delivered a speech in which he referred to “the first celebration of Holy Communion, with the chalice, known far and wide as the Healing Cup of Nanteos.” He probably meant that the Cup was used as the original chalice at the Abbey – in fact it definitely was not, as a wooden chalice would have been totally unacceptable at the time – but it would be easy for people to assume that he was referring to the cup as that used by Christ at the Last Supper – the first 'Holy Communion'.
The fame of the Cup spread, more and more groups and individuals bought into the growing legend, including hoteliers and tradespeople in Aberystwyth, who saw it as a tourist attraction for the area and included the Cup and its growing legend into guidebooks to the area. The Chautauquans were a religious education group founded in America with the aim of training Sunday School teachers and other educationalists. The organisation opened branches in Britain, often associated with Baptist Churches, and members held a number of summer camp retreats in North Wales, where the idea was promoted by local members that the Nanteos Cup was if not actually the Holy Grail, was certainly something very closely associated. This link helped spread the story internationally.
Throughout this period Nanteos House and the Cup were in the charge of the Powell family, but after the last member of the family died in 1951 there was a legal battle for the ownership of the Nanteos estate and the Cup between a number of parties, as well as campaigners who wanted the cup 'returned' to Glastonbury. Even the British Israelites got involved, in the person of Bob Danvers-Walker, who my older readers may remember as a mellifluous TV and radio 'voice' (Take Your Pick, Housewives' Choice, Dan Dare Pilot of the Future) in the 1950s.
Eventually the ownership was settled, but not before the cup was moved from place to place in a rather mysterious manner – or even more mysteriously maybe it didn't - as the mysteries of the Cup are not confined to its ancient history, its more recent history is even more debatable and confused. In 2014 the cup was mysteriously stolen, and equally mysteriously returned after a nationwide hunt, in a cloak-and-dagger meeting at a lay-by on a deserted road.
It is to the credit of the authors that they have been able to make this complex history understandable to their readers, and the three authors have each been able to bring their own special knowledge to the topic. Although very clearly written and most readable, it is a scholarly and deeply researched study of a curious historical object. But it is also an exploration of how a legend is created, and helps expose the webs of myth, rumour and exploitation that are involved in the creation of many more 'mysteries' than one rather chewed wooden cup, which now rests, permanently we hope, in the most appropriate surroundings of the National Library of Wales, alongside the nation's other legends.
- John Rimmer.