23 • A Skull Cup Reputedly Owned by Lord Byron

23 • A Skull Cup Reputedly Owned by Lord Byron

England; Middle ages with 19th century mount
16.5 cm long; Human bone & silver
Inscription on silver mount reads:
Skull drinking cup used by Lord Byron at Newstead Abbey

‘I lived, I loved, I quaff’d like thee’
Lord Byron, Lines Upon A Cup Formed From A Skull, 1808

Lord Byron (1788–1824) lived a life of disregard for material things entirely befitting his reputation and eternal legacy as one of the great Romantics. He was drawn by his love to both men and women of all ages (many of whom were relatives) leaving a trail of scandal, broken hearts and brilliant poetry in his formidable wake. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that he chose some medieval human remains from which to fashion his drinking cup of choice.

Lord Byron by Richard Westall, 1813 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Lord Byron by Richard Westall, 1813
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Once an Augustine Priory, Newstead Abbey was the ancestral home of Lord Byron, having been granted to Sir John Byron by Henry VIII in 1540. It was here that Byron came upon the skull, an account of which was given to his fellow poet Thomas Medwin (1788–1869), recounted by him in Conversations of Lord Byron published in 1824:

‘There had been found by the gardener, in digging, a skull that had probably belonged to some jolly monk or friar of the Abbey, about the time it was demonasteried. Observing it to be of great 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 a mottled colour like a tortoiseshell.’

American author Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) wrote after visiting Newstead Abbey in the 1850s that ‘the housekeeper unlocked a beautiful cabinet and took out the famous skull which Lord Byron transformed into a drinking goblet. It had a silver rim and stand, but still the ugly skull is bare and evident, and the naked inner base receives wine. I should think it would hold at least a quart – enough to overpower any living head into which this death’s head should transfer its contents; and a man must be either very drunk or very thirsty before he would taste wine out of such a goblet.’

Byron clearly disagreed. Stephen Massett recalls in his essay A Day at Newstead Abbey that ‘it was always produced after dinner when Byron had company at the abbey, and a bottle of claret poured into it.’

Perhaps the claret helped inspire the poem Byron wrote in its honour, Lines Upon a Cup Formed From a Skull, which included the following:

From which, unlike a living head, Whatever flows is never dull

Whether or not this cup is a replica we cannot know for certain, though the fabulous story it recalls is anything but dull.