Fashioned from a human skull, the cup going to auction at Charterhouse Auctioneers and Valuers in Sherborne, England, has a metal rim with these words: “SKULL DRINKING CUP USED BY LORD BYRON AT NEWSTEAD ABBEY.” Whether or not the skull was indeed employed by the famed Romantic poet to sip wine, the object, part of a two-day auction October 19 and 20, recalls the macabre practice of turning a fellow human’s head into a drinking vessel.
Kristina Killgrove wrote on Forbes that there is “a surprisingly long tradition of using skullcaps as bowls or cups,” with the earliest known cups dating back to the 13th millennium BCE. They were found in Somerset, England, on the same landmass where, so the story goes, Lord Byron transformed some skeletal bits unearthed at his Newstead Abbey estate. In a 2016 post, Strange Remains shared this account attributed to Byron:
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.
Stephen Massett, in his detailed essay on “A Day at Newstead Abbey,” wrote that it “was always produced after dinner when Byron had company at the abbey, and a bottle of claret poured into it.” The ever–flamboyant Byron was even moved to write a poem, called “Lines Inscribed Upon a Cup Formed from a Skull,” in which he mused that becoming a skull cup would be more noble than rotting beneath the ground:
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.
Newstead Abbey now has a replica by artist Jo Pond, as the exact fate of Byron’s cup is obscure. “Lord Byron died in 1824 aged 36 years old,” Charterhouse auctioneer Richard Bromell stated in a release. “The engraving to the skull cup appears to be of a later date, probably towards the end of the 19th century. Although I am not a leading expert in skulls, I think you have to take this at face value and either believe the inscription or not. For me, I think the legend on the cup does hold some water.”
The skull drinking cup will be featured in the tw0-day Charterhouse Auctioneers and Valuers auction October 19-20 in Sherborne, England.