During a recent trip to London I visited the Medieval Europe gallery at the British Museum – I thoroughly recommend it. I was particularly glad to see the Fishpool Hoard at last (even though a couple of items are currently on loan elsewhere). I was also very taken with the Tring Tiles and a striking morse from Warden Abbey. Another object that caught my eye was the Lacock Cup: a rare and precious survival with a long and intriguing story.
A fine example of late medieval craftsmanship, the Lacock Cup was made in the fifteenth century. Its first owner was almost certainly an English aristocrat – possibly one of the more prosperous members of the county gentry. While it was intended for use in a noble household, it later came into the possession of St Cyriac’s Church at Lacock, Wiltshire (hence its name). It has been displayed at the British Museum since the early 1960s, with occasional returns to Lacock, and it was officially acquired by the Museum in 2013.
The Cup is mostly made of silver, but it is also partially gilded; this involved the application of thin layers of gold. Other similar examples would have been far more expensive (one might compare it, for instance, to a gold cup made for the French duke of Berry), yet of course the Cup was an object that would have been beyond the reach of most English people. The quality of the workmanship, especially the decoration, suggests it was made by a highly skilled goldsmith. Given that many of the best goldsmiths were based in London’s Cheapside – one Italian visitor was astonished by their ‘shops so rich and full’ – it seems plausible that it might have come from there.
The Lacock Cup is of a type which would have been common in noble households of the later Middle Ages. At table it would have been filled with wine and passed from person to person; as one fifteenth-century guide to dining etiquette explained, one should ‘drink and then turn the bowl to thy neighbour, so that his lips are not placed where thine were’. Evidently cups played an important role in late medieval dining rituals – as they have done in most human societies. Moreover, whereas a lord’s guests would bring their own cutlery, he would be expected to provide cups (as well as a salt cellar). This offered a nobleman a chance to demonstrate his status, refinement and largesse. Contemporary illustrations of elite dining tables (such as the one shown below) give a prominent place to splendid drinking vessels, including depictions of silverware that strongly resemble the Lacock Cup.
Valuable cups could sometimes serve another purpose, as they could be seen as a form of investment. There are numerous examples of late medieval people using their gold or silver items as collateral for debts. In times of crisis they could even be melted down as a ready supply of bullion – a sacrifice once made by the Black Prince, for instance, in order to help fund his famous Spanish campaign. Other precious metal objects were melted down in order to make new pieces, as fashions changed.
The Lacock Cup survived, at least in part, because it became the property of the Church. Presumably it was donated to St Cyriac’s by a wealthy parishioner – perhaps one of the Baynards of Lackham, who were prominent in the area between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. Could it be significant that Sir Robert Baynard (1563-1636) inherited a ‘broad cuppe of silver parcel guilte’ from his mother, whereas he no longer seems to have owned this at the time of his death? Sir Robert was the last Baynard of Lackham to bear the name, as his estate passed to his married daughter. He might therefore have given the Cup as a way to commemorate his family at St Cyriac’s (he also commissioned splendid monuments to his father and his wife). Moreover, if Sir Robert donated the Cup towards the end of his life, the timing would fit with Archbishop Laud’s campaign to restore beauty to England’s churches, reversing some of the effects of the Reformation.
The Lacock Cup was used as a communion vessel at St Cyriac’s, albeit perhaps only on the most important occasions of the year. While it was previously restricted to the use of a noble family and their guests, it now came to serve the community as a whole. By the nineteenth century the Cup was widely recognised as an object to be treasured, although its remarkable state of conservation suggests that it has always been cherished and cared for. As part of the terms of the sale to the British Museum it was agreed that a replica should be made to be used at St Cyriac’s, thereby ensuring that its connection with Lacock will be preserved.
Lloyd de Beer and Naomi Speakman, The Lacock Cup (London, 2014)
John Cherry, Medieval Goldsmiths (London, 2011)