Many raconteurs have considered it a necessity to weave gruesome stories around the Skull Cup which Lord Byron was wont to display before his visitors at Newstead Abbey, one writer going so far as to assert that.. Byron in his early youth ransacked the graves of his ancestors at Newstead for a skull sufficiently capacious to be fashioned into a carousing cup ! 'I Lord Byron's own account of how the cup came into its present form is quite clear: ' The gardener in digging discovered a skull that had probably belonged to some jolly friar or monk of the Abbey about the time it was demonasteried. Observing it to be of giant size and in a perfect state of preservation, a strange fancy seized me of having it set and mounted as a drinking cup. I accordingly sent it to town, and it returned to me with a very high polish and of a mottled colour like tortoiseshell.
A noted antiquarian, the late Mr. Edward Peacock, told the author that this skull and several others were exhumed by the gardener from a part of the Abbey grounds in which the bodies of strangers were buried at a period before the estate came inte the hands of the Byrons. Most of us have read the lines composed by Lord Byron shortly after he received the skull back from London as a drinking vessel, mounted upon an engrave pedestal with a silver rim round the edge :
"Start not - nor deem my spirit fled
In me behold the only skull,
From which unlike a living head,
Whatever flows is never dull.
"I lived, I loved, I quaffed like thee
I died ; let earth my bones resign
Fill up - thou canst not injure me ;
The worm has fouler lips than thine.
"Better to hold the sparkling grape,
Than nurse the earth - worm's slimy brood
And circle in the goblet's shape
The drink of Gods, than reptile's food.
"Where once my wit, perchance, hath shone,
In aid of others let me shine ;
And when, alas ! our brains are gone,
What nobler substitute than wine ? " - (1808.)
Byron refers to this cup in a letter to his publisher, Mr. John Murray, dated 9bre 12th 1820, in which he writes: "We (Mr. Matthews and himself) went down to Newstead together where we had a famous cellar and monk's dresses from a warehouse. We were a company of some seven or eight with an occasional neighbour or so for visitors, and used to sit up late in our friars' dresses, drinking burgundy, claret, champagne, and what not, out of the skull cup, buffooning all round the house in our unconventional garments.
It is many years since the author has seen Lord Byron's Skull Cup at Newstead which he believes has been buried in the grounds in an unknown spot by the late owner of Newstead (who had a great dislike to it) but the accompanying sketch is an impression of it which he still retains.
It was not altogether an original idea, for do we not read that Torrenti said, in Dekker's ' Wonder of a Kingdom,
"Would I had ten thousand soldiers' heads,
Their skulls set all in silver, to drink healths
To his confusion, who first invented war ?
It is recorded in Acta Sanctorum that the monks of Triers had encased in silver the skull of Saint Theodulf, out of which they administered fever concoctions to the sick in their charge, and we even find that the skulls of Saint Sebastian and Saint Ernhart were converted into chalices. In fact, it was an old English superstition that drinking out of skull cups had a beneficial effect in cases of poisoning, for we are informed that certain workmen employed in the minting of coins in London about i560 became ill from an unknown poison, probably arsenical poisoning, with the result that mooste of them in meltinge, fell sycke to deathe wyth the savoure, so as they were advised to drynke in a dead man's skull for theyre recure. Whereupon he with others who had thovergyht (the oversight) of that worke, procured a warrant from the counsaile to take the heads uppon London Bridge and make cuppes thereof, where of they dranke and founde some reliefe, althoughe mooste of them dyed.
Reproduced from the book:
Drinking Vessels of Bygone Days
by G. J. MONSON-FITZJOHN, B.Sc.,F.R.Hist.S.
author of Quaint Signs of Olde Inns, etc.