Lord Byron (January 22, 1788 – April 19, 1824), née George Gordon Byron (I love that his middle name is Gordon), was a leading poet of the Romantic movement and a good friend of fellow writers Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley. He also had a flair for the macabre. Byron had a skull cup specially made that he proudly displayed at his ancestral home.
Lord Byron’s family estate was Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire. The abbey was an Augustinian priory until King Henry VIII granted it to one of Byron’s ancestors in 1540, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The grounds of Newstead Abbey had a graveyard where some of the deceased Augustinian monks had been buried centuries earlier. Some time in the early 1800’s, the gardener at Newstead found a skull from one of these ancient graves and brought it to Byron. Byron then had it turned into a chalice.
There is an account of the skull cup attributed to Byron in The Complete Works of Lord Byron, Vol. 2 (1835),
“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 a mottled color like a tortoiseshell.”
Byron was so inspired by his skull cup that he wrote a poem about it.
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 quaff’d, like thee:
I died: let earth my bones resign;
Fill up—thou canst not injure me;
The worm hath 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 reptiles’ 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?
Quaff while thou canst—another race,
When thou and thine like me are sped,
May rescue thee from earth’s embrace,
And rhyme and revel with the dead.
Why not? since through life’s little day
Our heads such sad effects produce;
Redeem’d from worms and wasting clay,
This chance is theirs, to be of use.
Byron sold Newstead Abbey in 1818 to Colonel Thomas Widman. The skull cup was reportedly left at the Abbey in the possession of Colonel Widman when Byron moved. At some point, though, the gruesome chalice disappeared.
Today, Newstead Abbey is now a museum owned by the Nottingham City Council. The Abbey commissioned jeweler Jo Pond to create a replica, which can be seen on the artist’s website.