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The Holy Grail and the Mystery of the Nanteos Cup

There is perhaps no greater search than that of for the Holy Grail of biblical mystery. The Holy Grail itself perhaps needs no introduction, but for those who are not sure, it is the fabled cup from which Jesus Christ is said to have drunk from at the last supper, and also according to lore was used to catch his blood by Joseph of Arimathea as he was dying on the crucifix. The grail then sort of vanished into history, and has been the subject of many searches and much debate ever since. Indeed, the Holy Grail is so evasive that its name has become synonymous with unattainable or elusive discoveries, and over the centuries has managed to baffle all who would seek it. There have of course been many chalices and cups that have been put forward and claimed to be the real Holy Grail over the centuries, but perhaps there is none as promising or as mysterious as a humble looking cup that has been locked away and once forgotten at Nanteos Manshion in Wales for centuries.

The cup itself is fairly nondescript and not much to look at. It is merely a simple hardwood shallow bowl, no handles, no decorations, and worn down, chipped and heavily damaged from centuries of wear and tear. Yet this nondescript little wooden cup has generated its fair share of mystery and has a long and troubled history, beginning with the mission of King Henry VIII in the 16th century to separate England’s rule from the Catholic church and absolve the Pope of his absolute authority in matters of faith. To this end he went about having all public and ecclesiastical officials renounce the authority of the Pope in 1536, and went out destroying rebels and ferreting out any pockets of resistance and confiscating artifacts that were considered assets to the Catholics, all of which brought him to the doorstep of the Abbey of Glastonbury, which had failed to denounce Papal authority.

Somehow the Abbot caught wind of this, probably from informers and locals, and went about hiding as much as they could, including a simple cup they had long believed to be the actual Holy Grail and which had been in their possession for centuries. The Abbot and some select monks fled to the Abbey Strata Florida in Cardiganshire, where the cup was hidden away under some floorboards in the main chapel. However, this was not meant to last, as they learned that the King’s men were on their trail. This is when they would go on the lam yet again, and approached the Powell family, who lived at the mansion in Nanteos, where the monks found a safe haven.

The Nanteos Mansion

The cup fell into the possession of the powerful Powell family to keep safe when the last of these monks died and bequeathed it to them on his deathbed, mentioning that it was the true Holy Grail, and there it would remain at the mansion, escaping the King’s commissioners and being handed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years. It was during their possession of the cup that the Powells claimed that it possessed potent healing abilities, able to cure injuries and sicknesses of those who drank from it, and it became the family’s prized possession, being called “The Tregaron Healing Cup”, or “The Nanteos Healing Cup.” In 1878, one of the descendants of the original Powells and inheritor of the Nanteos estate, George Ernest John Powell, would put the cup on display, and a member of the Cambrian Archaeological Society would say of it:

It was supposed to possess healing power, which could only be called miraculous. It was sent for to the house of a sick man, and some valuable object was left as a pledge to ensure its safe return. The patient had to drink wine or some liquor out of it. Not content with this, he sometimes nibbled a piece from its edge: hence its present unshapely condition. The source of its alleged virtues were supposed to lie in its having formed a portion of the True Cross. I think there can be little doubt that so much of its pedigree is true as traces it to the possession of the Cistercians at Strata Florida. Nothing is more probable than that it was preserved in their church as a relic to which thaumaturgic powers were ascribed. The veneration accorded to it in the neighbourhood, and, still more decidedly, a regard for their own health and that of their families, would prompt the country-people to bring some pressure to bear on those who would otherwise have destroyed it, to secure this valuable relic. Probably the new lords of Strata Florida had some belief in its efficacy. If this account of the matter is true, the relic is extremely interesting, as an example of the survival of medieval belief, and even of medieval practice, down to our own day, in a country in which the popular religious sentiments are certainly not tinged with medievalism.

Indeed, the cup gained quite the reputation for its healing abilities, and pilgrims from all over began to file in seeking to drink from it, with many of them reporting miraculous effects. There were variously claims that it had cured cancer, leprosy, blindness, and allowed cripples to walk again, and as these stories of the cup trickled out it became a major contender for the title of the true Holy Grail. In the meantime, the last of the Powell descendants died in 1952 and the cup passed into the hands of the Mirylees family, who whisked it off to to Herefordshire and deposited this it at a Lloyd’s Bank safety deposit box and refusing to exhibit it or show it to anyone. Over the years the Mirylees family would be extremely private about the cup, jealously guarding it from the outside world and only giving very brief interviews about it, only putting it on display once in 1977 at the National Library of Wales, and again briefly in 2001.

The Nanteos Cup

The family would occasionally lend out the cup to those they deemed especially in need, and it was during one of these times that it would go missing in 2014, after it had been lent out to a sickly elderly person residing in Weston under Penyard, Herefordshire. It was reported that as the woman was in the hospital, thieves broke into her home and stole the cup, instigating a £2,000 reward for its safe return. The cup would return to its owners in 2015 on neutral ground in a pre-arranged meeting, but no arrests were made in relation to the theft. The cup would subsequently be put on permanent public display in 2016, where it has remained ever since.

In recent years there has been much talk about whether the Nanteos Cup is the real deal, and whether it is really the Holy Grail of legend. Welsh historian Juliet Woods has poked holes in the theory by saying that there is no record of such a cup mentioned in any inventories or records of the Strata Florida Abbey nor the Powell family, but it seems that with such an object that was being kept off the radar this should be expected. Is this damaged, disintegrating cup the true Holy Grail? Does it really harbor the powers attributed to it? It is hard to say, the Nanteos Cup has remained under tight wraps, and the answers we seek continue to be evasive.