I decided my career path whilst sitting in a theatre with my dad. I think I was 9. I have always had a fascination with inter-war adventure films, and so we were watching Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. As Harrison Ford raced through the jungle with an artifact under his arm, being pursued by armed thugs, I turned to my dad and said that was what I wanted to do. My dad said, ‘Okay.’ That’s how it was with him; he never told me I couldn’t do something, or that it was impossible.
My current research is focused on formerly monastic lands, particularly those belonging at one point to Strata Florida Abbey in Wales. Last year I stumbled across a reference to a relic once held there, which has been called the Holy Grail. This immediately fascinated me.
So, the story of the Strata Florida Grail, or Nanteos Cup, is as follows:
During the Dissolution of the Monasteries at the hands of Henry VIII in the 1530s, supposedly a small number of monks from Strata Florida slipped away from the king’s men in the dark of night with this relic, to arrive at the door of a local lord, at a great house called Nanteos, seeking refuge.
It has been said that this cup was the actual Holy Grail.
It has also been said that the cup possesses healing powers, and that those who drank from it would be cured of their ailments. Apparently they also chewed bits off and swallowed them, hoping for prolonged healing. There is not much left of the mighty Cup these days.
Is it really the Holy Grail?
The medieval world was awash in relics thought to hold supernatural means of healing the ill. Some relics were bones of saints or martyrs, and some were items like the shroud of Turin, powerful for having been in contact with the aforementioned religious person. Believers, or pilgrims, would travel great distances to look upon or touch these relics, to pay homage to the items or in hopes of relief from their sicknesses. Of course the popularity of the pilgrimages led to the miraculous discovery of yet more relics, items with magical properties and dubious provenance, which increased pilgrimage traffic yet more. Visitors purchased souvenirs and badges, churches were constructed to accommodate the throngs of people passing through to view their sacred items, and local economies depended heavily on the tourist trade, so were therefore keen to have a good relic that would draw a steady crowd. The Knights Hospitaller were often established on pilgrim routes to offer safe places for weary travelers to rest. (This was true for the case of Strata Florida Abbey, which was a popular stop on the pilgrim routes. The Hospitallers had a nearby estate along that route to house pilgrims on their way.)
The Nanteos Cup remains in the possession of descendants of that sixteenth century lord whose door the monks ran to in desperation as their abbey was ransacked. It is currently on display at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, where I happened to be doing some research just over a week ago.
Determining whether the Nanteos Cup really is, or is not, the Holy Grail is not part of my research. I don’t keep a Grail diary as the elder Doctor Jones did, though I do in fact have a small notebook I carry around and fill with…notes. And some of them are indeed about the Cup. Some day it might be important. If it’s good enough for Sean Connery, it’s good enough for me.