Monday, December 31, 2018

Arctic Grails

The "Erebus Chalice" at the Chapel of the Snows
In celebration of Sir Michael Palin's knighthood in this year's New Years Honours, I thought it might be an ideal moment to talk about Arctic Grails -- real ones, as opposed to the metaphorical ones that are the subject of books such as Pierre Berton's. Well, "real," in the sense of really existing in the physical world, although -- as with Grail castles, beacons, and secret caves, the magic of these cups is in the eye of their beholders. Perhaps the most notable example is the "Erebus chalice," which may be seen at the Chapel of the Snows at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. There, the visitor is informed, is an ornate silver chalice that was aboard HMS Erebus during James Clark Ross's Antarctic voyage -- only, in fact, it wasn't. During a cleaning in 2006 at the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch New Zealand, the silversmith's hallmarks and date marks were examined, and it was discovered that the chalice was made in 1910 -- about seventy years too late for it to have accompanied Ross. It seems that Betty Bird, a descendant of Lieutenant Edward Bird  --who some years previous had gifted an actual Erebus plate to the same museum -- had made the claim that the chalice, too, had been aboard, and the museum didn't choose at the time to investigate its provenance.

Fitzjames's cup
There are other vessels, though, whose association with the polar regions are more secure -- among them the lovely ornate silver cup presented to James Fitzjames by the City of Liverpool in recognition of his having saved a man from drowning there, as well the extraordinarily ornate silver bowl -- including a model of the "Fox" -- presented by Lady Franklin to Leopold McClintock. The bowl remains in family hands, but Fitzjames's cup can be seen today at the Mystic Seaport Museum, where it's part of their version of the "Death in the Ice" exhibition, which runs through April of 2019.  Of course, it's more of a decorative item than a practical one -- it's entirely possible that neither Fitzjames nor anyone has drunk anything from it.

Sutton's cup
There is however, one other cup with a peculiar connection to the Franklin story. Ernest Coleman, who has trod the shores of King William Island in search of traces of the Franklin expedition, and is the author of The Royal Navy in Polar Exploration, made a bit of a splash in the local papers a few years ago when he claimed to have found the Holy Grail -- the actual one! -- in storage at Lincoln Cathedral. This silver cup was recovered from the coffin of Bishop Oliver Sutton, who died in 1299; according to Coleman, Sutton had been designated by the Knights Templar to keep and guard the Grail, and he took his secret -- literally -- to his grave. When I visited the Cathedral a couple of of years ago, I asked the docents if perhaps I could see this artifact, but they just giggled.

Among collectors, there's a term that explains as well as any the attraction of an item -- be it a rhinestone from Elvis Presley's jacket or (as a vendor in the Disney tune "Portabello Road" puts it) "the snipper that clipped old King Edward's cigars" -- we call it "association" value. Sometimes it's easily verified -- as when a book is inscribed from one author to another -- but more often, it rests on a less solid foundation. I can't, I'm sure, be the only kid to have mailed in an order for a coffin-shaped box said to contain soil from Dracula's castle -- and there are many other such things on offer, each with its certificate of authenticity. Maybe that's the most telling thing about Grails -- Arctic and otherwise -- it's where they have been, and who used them, that gives them their value, not any intrinsic worth as silver cups. And if indeed a cup from the Last Supper were to turn up someday, it's  likely to be quite a plain one -- as Indiana Jones puts it in the movie -- "this looks like the cup of a carpenter."


  1. I have read many books about the search for Franklin. The one by Elisha Kent Kane comes to my mind - temperatures way , way below zero. I just can't imagine putting a metal cup to my lips in those kind of temperatures. Frozen metal sticking to frozen lips ! Would it possible that wooden cups were made by the ship carpenters so that the men could drink safely while searching ?

    1. I think most of the cups that would have been used in those days were tin, or enameled tin -- presuming that the liquid within them was warm, it was probably not an issue, though once (for instance) Franklin's men had abandoned their ships and were sledging out on the land, some precautions may have been needed. I've never seen wooden cups from this era, though it might not have been a bad idea!