A sip of history

PUBLISHED: 11:40 06 February 2014 | UPDATED: 11:40 06 February 2014

King John Cup

King John Cup


Norfolk and Suffolk have given up so many treasures and such a wealth of creativity that it must have been harder to know what to leave out than what to include in the fascinating Masterpieces: Art and East Anglia exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich at present.

External director of the exhibition, Ian Collins has written an award-winning book to accompany it, featuring the wonderful pieces in the words of guest writers of note. This month we look at the King John Cup, discussed by Dr Simon Thurley, the leading architectural historian, broadcaster on TV and radio and chief executive of English Heritage.

The King John Cup should really be known as the King’s Lynn Cup, as there is no evidence that King John had anything to do with it. The cup is first recorded in the town records in 1548 and had presumably been a gift from a rich merchant in whose family it had perhaps been for two centuries.

Lynn is one of the most perfect medieval towns in England. Its main streets now present a smooth Georgian façade to the world but, as so often, red brick and sash windows conceal ancient origins. This was a town built for trade and in the 14th century it became one of the largest ports of its day. Its merchants became rich: They built large houses, they bought property in the surrounding area and set up as landowners, and they spent lavishly on luxury goods. In St Margaret’s Church there are two great memorial brasses of exquisite quality dating from the 14th century. One shows the merchants of Lynn, in their finery, feasting at table. It is very likely that the King’s Lynn Cup would have graced such a table and its extraordinary quality proclaims the wealth and sophistication of Lynn’s mercantile life.

The cup is of silver with 31 panels of enamel, made separately and attached to its body. Figures of men and women are shown dressed in the fashionable style of the day, their garments drawn together at the waist. The men have long sleeves and embroidered collars; the ladies have bare heads with thick plaits round their ears. All are engaged in some sort of hunting – one woman has a bow and arrow and a dog, one man is sounding a hunting horn. These images confirm that it is not an ecclesiastical piece and, as such, is a very rare glimpse into the world of fine secular silverwork.

It is also a glimpse into the lives of the 14th century Lynn merchants, who presumably saw themselves on the sides of the cup. The hunters are not mounted in aristocratic fashion and so perhaps represent merchant families on their local lands. The bowl detaches from the stem of the cup, enabling it to be used as a beaker. Perhaps this was so that this precious possession could be used in the field.

King John Cup

Circa 1325

Unknown maker

Silver, gilt, enamel

Height 38.8cm

Borough Council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk

Not to be missed

The Masterpieces: Art and East Anglia exhibition is at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich, NR4 7TJ, until February 24. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-8pm; Sunday 10am-5pm; closed Mondays.

Tickets: Adults £8, concessions £6, family ticket £20. Advance bookings 01603 593199. For details of talks and events linked to Masterpieces, see www.scva.ac.uk

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