|There is in the Catholic Church of St Mary's
in Shifnal a silver chalice or Communion cup which has been engraved.
Underneath the foot is the inscription, 'Restore me to Sheaffnall in
Shropshire'. 'So what is there which is mysterious about this chalice,
safely held in Shifnal. It is this: quite suddenly about a century ago,
this chalice came to light about 100 miles from Shifnal, and was safely
restored to Sheaffnall'. Where did it come from? How had it reached here?
Who had taken it? And where did it come from originally?
Naturally there are stories about the chalice which try to answer these questions, the trouble is that there are too many stories. Like many another good tale, the story of the Shifnal chalice has been embellished and embroidered. There are in print at least four versions, which become more elaborate as the years pass. I thought it would be interesting if we could look at these stories and find where the truth lay.
A preliminary look at the chalice itself is interesting of course. It is very simple, like the patten which accompanies it. It has often been said to be of pre-reformation date, but I think that is a mistake. Much of the speculation which has surrounded the chalice as been due to misunderstandings about its age, its origins and its ownership. Experts in Church plate, for example Mr S A Jeavons date the chalice and pattern to about the year 1630. That is the best part of a century after the reformation.
In 1962 Mr Jeavons wrote that it was very similar to the chalice at Stoneleigh in Warwickshire. He added that 'it follows the Gothic tradition'. In other words it could easily be mistaken for a much older type of chalice.
Now if it were made about 1630, but in the pre-reformation, that is, in the Catholic tradition, it seems unlikely that it was made for St Andrew's (C 0f E) church in Shifnal. Yet everyone seems to have assumed that, in some way, it had been taken from St Andrew's Church. I think this is most unlikely.
The most remarkable feature of the chalice, it seems to me, is the inscription. We do not know who had the inscription engraved, or where, or in what circumstances. However most people seem to have assumed that the wording was put on when the chalice was new and in use at Shifnal. I should like to suggest that it could well have been inscribed at a later date when, like King Charles, it was on its travels. For it was on its travels, as in the nineteenth century it came to light as far away as Yorkshire, and from there came to Shifnal.
Here we come to the legends, and the lovely stories surrounding the return of the chalice. There are bound to be stories, for the facts are only three in number. There is a chalice dated about 1630 and now in Shifnal. The ninth Lord Stafford gave it to St Mary's, not long before 1878. He obtained it from Lord Herries of Everingham in Yorkshire.
The stories date from the 1870's to the1940's. The first in John Randall's book 'Shifnal' published in the late 1870's, 1878 probably, and the version dating from 1884 given by Jeavons, seem to me to be the real story. Jeavons other version, of 1944 and the tale in the handbook to St Andrew's Church, Shifnal, which was first printed in 1939 do not seem likely to be correct.
"There is a beautiful and ancient silver chalice in this Church which must have been in use prior to the Reformation, which was presented by Lord Shifnal. who met with it under somewhat curious circumstances in Yorkshire a few years ago.
Singularly enough on turning it up he found engraved beneath the foot the following words,' Restore me to Sheaffnall in Shropshire'.
"His Lordship was so struck with the unexpected request that he at once literally complied with it: for although it was not given to the Church from which no doubt it was taken, it was restored to Shifnal".
Jeavons gives the story of the young family taking the chalice with them to Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, and then, in1838, it was 'taken charge of by Lord Herries'.
He goes on
"There are two family versions of the subsequent history of the vessel. One a note written in 1848 by a George Young, states that Lord Herries gave it to the Lord Stafford.....who gave him another chalice and returned the vessel to Shifnal".
If we put these two accounts together it seems pretty clear that they have a good claim to be considered. What are we to make of the other accounts in print? The handbook to St Andrew's has a reference to Lord Herries's finding of the chalice in an 'old curiosity shop in London'. Sorry it is too romantic, too improbable.!
The fourth account is more interesting, but seems to me to be wrong in its timing, so that it could not in fact of happened as it is told in the story. Here is Jeavons again continuing his story:
"The second version was the result of a conversation between Arthur Young and the then Bishop of Shrewsbury in 1944. The Bishop said that he heard from his Uncle Bishop Allen of Shrewsbury, that a former Bishop Knight of Shrewsbury (1887-1895) had visited Lord Herries' house in Yorkshire and on being shown the chalice and reading the inscription, claimed it as belonging to the Diocese, so Lord Herries gave it to him".
It is when we look at the people named in this account that an insoluble problem of timing is seen. Bishop Knight was the second Bishop of Shrewsbury. He was consecrated Bishop in 1879, but did not become Bishop of Shrewsbury until 1882. Remember that Randall had already published by 1879 the account we have seen, and that he was referring back to 'a few years ago'. A few years ago at a time when the Bishop was still a Priest in the Birmingham diocese, without any idea that he would one day become Bishop of Shrewsbury. I don't think it was he, but Lord Stafford who had been at Everingham.
We can now sum up, it seems to me.
Like so many other good stories the essential core is fairly simple, but nonetheless interesting. Perhaps it would be enough to say that the chalice found its way to Everingham, and from there to Shifnal, but there would not be much apparent romance in that! So the story grows and becomes more interesting still - even after reducing the mystery to manageable proportions, at least the mystery about its return, we are really no nearer to knowing anything about its origins, except that it does not seem probable that it was ever anything but a Catholic chalice.
Copyright Dr Norman Mutton/ 1979
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