The Bonchurch Elizabethan Communion Cup c1570
Updated: Feb 15
Standing just 138mm in height with a cup circumference of 75mm the Bonchurch Communion Cup has remarkable survived in the village since Elizabethan times.
Inside the cup.
Base of the cup.
The cup was loaned to Carisbrook Castle probably in the 1980's and the numbers you can see would have been applied at that time. Unfortunately their records don't go back that far to find out how they described the cup.
A few years ago the Church was raising funds to pay for the restoration of two of the beautiful windows in the Parish Church. Funds were needed to cover the costs and the battered small cup was at that time unrecognised. It was considered to be a potential source of income to cover some of the costs as it is small and not in use at the services. Time had eroded the memory of its history.
I offered to take a look because my first employment after graduating was working for the Sheffield Assay Office. One of my jobs there was curating and repairing the collection alongside my main job of taking care of the hallmarks in daily use. The Assay Master, Mr. Johnson wanted to create a collection for the office dating from when the Assay Office opened in 1773.
The piece was brought to the Bonchurch Parish Church for me to take a look. It was quite dark in the church and my first thoughts was that it may be an Arts and Crafts piece and that it was silver plated as there were no hallmarks. However, it was very light in weight for a plated piece. The cup was wrapped in a plastic bag and I took it away for a closer inspection in better light and to take a look with a magnifying glass.
Unwrapping the cup, I thought at first glance it had a flavour of Arts and Crafts. However, this piece had a quality of what the Arts and Crafts were imitating, it had the design simplicity of the Gothic period. The cup was also uniquely damaged in the sense that regular use from the Victorian times would have been different. I also recalled from a discussion that I had with the curator at the Goldsmiths Hall, that old silver takes on a particular look over hundreds of years, and that is 'patina'. Patina is something that can't be faked and has to be carefully preserved if any repair is made to a piece, it shouldn't be polished away.
Thank goodness for the internet. I looked up 'engraved silver chalice Pre-Renaissance'. Looking through 'images' I came across pieces of silver made during the reign of Elizabeth I. So my next search was 'engraved Elizabethan cup / chalice'. Very excitingly, I found several examples of similarly engraved cups, the engraving looked very similar and the design of the pieces also had the same shaped profile as the Bonchurch cup. Originally there would have been a Paten (a lid) to the communion cup.
These findings needed to have expert professional verification from someone knowledgable in the field to authenticate its provenance.
I've always loved the Antiques Roadshow and thought this could be a good start. I remembered that there is an expert in old silver, and made my online searches tracking him down to Dreweatts Auctioneers and Valuers in Newbury. I sent an email with photographs and asked if they could assess and value the piece for insurance purposes. They were extremely helpful and so passed all the information on to our Parish Council to take things forward.
A member of the Bonchurch Parish Council visited Dreweatts almost the next day and the piece is now verified as a silver Elizabethan Communion Cup circa 1570. It has a low valuation because there are no hallmarks. The lack of hallmarks may have saved it over the many years from either theft or from being melted down or being refashioned. This happened frequently to old silverware which is why many examples are lost.
The Bonchurch Chalice is now safe for Bonchurch and remains a most important and historic item in the village. The church would like to find a way to display the piece, however, concerns over its safety have to be addressed. The Bonchurch Chalice meanwhile is now in safe keeping.
"The majority of ecclesiastical silver in England was destroyed in the 1530's as part of the dissolution of the monasteries, ordered by King Henry VIII. This enabled him to take the wealth from the clergy to pay for the wars he had been engaged in. He also needed to secure the clergies agreement to the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, subsequently leading to the breakaway from the Catholic Church.
Crown commissioners confiscated or destroyed much of the goldsmiths' work of the medieval church. Some parishes concealed or sold their silver before the commissioners arrived, but by the early 1550s, many were left with just a single cup and paten. Some churches had no precious metal at all.
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the Protestant church became firmly established and from 1560 each parish church was furnished with a new simple communion cup for the partaking of wine by the whole congregation. During the Reformation there was a return to a simpler, more direct form of worship. Protestants rejected the Roman Catholic belief in 'transubstantiation', the transformation of bread and wine during the Mass into the body and blood of Christ, and proposed instead a symbolic service of shared communion. In this, the congregation would regularly take wine as well as bread, whereas before they had been chiefly spectators.
This cup follows the standard design for Elizabethan communion cups and is most likely to have been made from pre-reformation silver. The hatched decorative band below the top edge of the cup is typical for the period. The church authorities launched a programme from about 1560 to replace the 'old massing chalices' with 'decent' communion cups of a prescribed design.
About 2000 communion cups from the period survive." (V&A Information).
Recently Jane Ashe, the daughter of Peter Brett who lived at Cliff Cottage contacted me to ask if I would like his records that he had gathered about Bonchurch. I am currently working through them to share via the Village Blog.
I spotted that an illustration of the cup appears on the first page of the Bonchurch Village booklet written by Peter and it is discussed at the bottom of the second page! The booklet is for sale in the old church and is a highly recommended.
I had missed this reference when I was doing my research.
The informative booklet was written by Peter Brett and all the illustrations are by Kath Johnstone, former artist resident of Bonchurch. The sales of the booklet with its copyright was a gift to the Bonchurch Parochial Church Council from Peter to raise funds for the upkeep of the churches.
The text describes the 'ancient 'Communion Cup' as having belonged to the church since time immemorial and as being only one of three examples' [made].However, I am not sure of the context as this information is now lost.
Perhaps this refers to its small size?
It also states that at the time of the Reformation the term 'Chalice' was abandoned in favour of 'Communion Cup'.
I had also looked at Henry De Vere Stacpoole's booklet hoping to find a good reference. To my surprise I discovered that an early edition of the booklet supplied by Jane Ashe has a photograph of the cup. The photograph is now missing in the current edition available in the church. The 'Chalice' can be now be accurately dated to 16th Century.
This booklet is also still available to buy at the old church.
The earliest reference I can find to a chalice is in Whitehead's authoritative 'The Undercliff of the Isle of Wight Past and Present', 1911.
"1553 One chalice double gilt which was taken away of the French men"
A chalice was taken from the French? The dates are not right for 'The battle of Bonchurch' that was 1545 when legend has it that Chevalier D'Aux was killed during the French 'attack'(1 ) on Bonchurch and was buried at the church (Oglander). Elizabeth was on the throne 1558 - 1603 and the Bonchurch Cup is circa 1570. Perhaps the confiscated French chalice was refashioned into the Bonchurch Communion Cup?
Hunting for references for the chalice / cup I also found this in Whitehead;
"1803 The alter table in the private chapel was used by the Bowdler Family. The ‘service of plate’ was given by Thomas Bowdler of St Boniface House' (now the site of the allotments)." Thomas Bowdler was renowned for ‘Bowdlerising’ Shakespeare ie.taking out all the bits that well brought up ladies shouldn’t read. In other words he was responsible for the puritanical Victorian ethic! Now theres a Bonchurch claim to fame!!
"The cross of Flemish design in black oak, a rare memorial said to have been brought from an old Norman Abbey (Lyra?) and placed there in the year 1820 by Mr. Surman of the East Dene estate."
The reference I found in the Stacpoole booklet talks about Stacpoole’s friend, John Martin-Harvey (a very famous actor of the day) donating plate to the church shortly before he died in 1944, "gave to his beloved Bonchurch the silver Candlesticks and Chalice which he took with him on his world tours for stage use."
So there is another mystery or two to solve...
It has been an absolute privilege to have the opportunity to go on a real treasure hunt. Since my early interest in archaeology, taking part in digs and my love of museums, the idea of finding treasure was a lovely idea but not really something that I would ever do. This has been a treasure hunt that has rediscovered a long 'lost' treasure that we can all enjoy.
The first UK Assay Office was Goldsmiths' Hall, founded around 1300, and where the term "hallmarking" originates. Since then, there have been ten Assay Offices in the UK.
There are just four Assay Offices operating in the UK today.
The Assay Office was established to ensure that precious metal items are of a particular quality of metal and to prevent forgery.
The Bonchurch Communion Cup could have been sent to one of the following Assay Offices, some of which are now closed. Chester, opened in the 15th Century. Exeter opened in the 16th Century. Norwich opened in the 16th Century. York opened in the 16th Century. It could also have been sent to London Assay Office.
Perhaps the risk of theft sending an item away from the island for hallmarking away meant that this piece didn't get marked.
(1 ) Chevalier D'Aux was a senior French commander who, while leading a foraging party into the Isle of Wight to search for sources of clean water to replenish the stocks of a French fleet, which had just been forced to retire from Portsmouth, was attacked and killed in July 1545 by a group of the local Isle of Wight militia, at Bonchurch.
His body is reputed to be buried at the local cemetery, and when the war between England and France was concluded, his body was exhumed and conveyed back to his home country in 1548. This event occurred shortly after a French attempt to capture the Isle of Wight, an invasion which was concluded by the English victory at the Battle of Bonchurch. This time, however, as stated, it was not another attempt by the French to try and conquer the island, but to try and collect water for the return journey home. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chevalier_D%27Aux)
The sea battle of 1545 was when the famous ship, the Mary Rose went down.