On Myths and Misinformation at Nanteos

by The Curious Scribbler

Nanteos Mansion, seat of the Powells

Nanteos Mansion, seat of the Powells

I’ve been re reading Juliette Woods article ” Nibbling Pilgrims and the Nanteos Cup: A Cardiganshire Legend” which was published in  Nanteos – A Welsh house and its Families, Ed. Gerald Morgan (2001). In it the author carefully enumerates the written and the oral record to compare it with the fully fledged early 20th century legend of the Nanteos Cup.  At its most florid, this damaged fragment of a wooden drinking vessel is believed to be the Holy Grail, brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea, cherished by the monks at Glastonbury, some of whom, at the dissolution of their monastery, fled with it to Strata Florida Abbey in Cardiganshire, from whence it passed into the hands of the Stedman Family of that community, and thus, by marriage to the Powells of Nanteos. In modern tradition the cup has spectacular healing powers, and its last custodian at Nanteos, Margaret Powell discretely massaged its reputation with testimonials from the healed. The cup is also sometimes alleged to be fashioned out of a fragment of the true cross – though this would not fit with the Holy Grail story in which Joseph of Arimathea caught Christ’s blood in the cup at the crucifixion.

Juliette Woods gives a lot of attention to the common mechanisms by which such local legends are invented and augmented over time, but in essence her conclusions are that there is no written evidence  of its importance and apparent healing powers until the mid 19th Century, and no indication of the Grail story until the early 20th.  The cup first came under public scrutiny in 1878 when George Powell, a keen aesthete and antiquarian, allowed it to be exhibited to The Cambrian Archaeological Association at Lampeter.  There was no allegation about the Holy Grail back then.  It and another wooden vessel owned by Thomas Thomas of Lampeter were described as “supposed to possess curative powers”.  The newly-fledged “Cambrians” as this genteel antiquarian society were generally known, were on a mission to ferret out antiquities from gentry homes and churches.

But the power of a good legend is in its ability to grow and mutate. Margaret Powell, who as a widow ruled Nanteos from 1930-1952 upheld the Grail myth, but with delicate discretion, refusing to allow the allegation to be associated with her name in print.  Journalists, travel-guide authors and religiously-inclined scholars soon put in their pennyworth, and the Nanteos Cup gained followers. The Revd Lionel Smithett Lewis, Vicar of Glastonbury in 1938-1940 was one such enthusiast, fired up by A.E. Waite’s book Hidden Church of the Holy Grail (1909) which linked the grail to early Celtic  Christianity.  Smithett Lewis  corresponded with Mrs Powell, and embellished the myth with the ‘discovery’ of a cupboard at Ozleworth Church, used by the Glastonbury monks  to house the grail overnight when benighted too far from their abbey.  Smithett Lewis wanted the Grail to be housed in a splendid reliquary  at Glastonbury.  Mrs Powell evidently did not co-operate and the correspondence ceased.

By the 1960’s the old mansion was in the hands of its first non-hereditary owner, Liverpool dealer Geoffrey Bliss, and the original cup had been transferred to a bank vault in the care of the Mrs Powell’s relative and inheritor, Mrs Mirylees.  I visited Nanteos during the Bliss family occupancy,  the house had been sold complete with most of its furnishings and portraits and despite the actual holes in the roof of one wing, it was open to the public as a stately home.  And by then there was a facsimile holy grail to be seen in a lighted glass-fronted cabinet in the anteroom to the Library on the west end of the house.  This may indeed have been the one said to have been made by a local craftsman to enable Mrs Powell to reduce wear upon the original unless its curative powers were actually required.

The ‘real’ cup meanwhile has gone from strength to strength. Throughout the 1990s you could send to America for a prayer cloth or tissue impregnated with water which has been poured from it.  Presumably, as  with homeopathy, this church in Seattle  would allege that the greater the dilution, the more powerful the effect it would have.   More recently, impregnated cloths  were available from The Rt Reverend Bishop Sean Manchester,  author of several non-fiction books, including “The Highgate Vampire”; “The Vampire Hunter’s Handbook”; “Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know”; “From Satan To Christ”; and “The Grail Church.” However the supply dried up in 2014 when the cup was apparently stolen from the home of an elderly woman in Weston-under-Penyard, in Herefordshire.

Last year there was a further flurry of notoriety when the Grail had a spot on BBC’s Crimewatch.  Muddying the history further, some news accounts showed an old photo of the missing object, ( though this was possibly a photo of Mrs Powell’s  facsimile rather than the original) while others included illustrations from the Indiana Jones film starring Harrison Ford!

The Nanteos Cup, an ancient Holy Grail relic that has been recovered after thieves stole the wooden chalice from a woman using it for its healing powers.

The Nanteos cup, or perhaps its 20th century facsimile featured in recent coverage of its loss

In June 2015 it was revealed that the cup had been returned but that no charges were being pressed. The police photo of the object they recovered closely resembles the 1888 sketch in Archaeologia Cambrensis and the  early photos of the cup which are housed at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales rather than the picture above.  I have recently heard that its new home is to be in the National Library of Wales.

Nanteos Cup

The police photo of the recovered object looks more like the original Nanteos cup

Meanwhile new convolutions constantly develop.  At Nanteos, which is now a smart  country house hotel, there is a new garden feature in the old shrubbery adjoining the walled garden.  A labyrinth by eco-mystic woodcraftman  Bob Shaw leads on a contemplative circuit to a central sculpture which represents the Nanteos Cup, borne on a tapering plinth. The four sides of the plinth sides depict the mansion, Strata Florida, Glastonbury Tor and the Nanteos cup. Just to keep the legend alive.

sculpture in the labyrinth representing the Nanteos cup

The Sculpture by Ed Harrison at the centre of the new labyrinth at Nanteos

And Bob, who is a skilled craftsman working with traditional tools has also fashioned yet another Nanteos Cup, out of an ancient piece of timber he extracted from the Mawddach estuary.  That will fox the carbon daters, as they strive to determine which cup is which!   The wood could well be older than the true cross itself.  Bob tells me that the hotel management are only too happy to keep his handiwork in their safe, and show it to favoured guests.

Then there is a further development, in the form of a historical novel, The Shadow of Nanteos, by Jane Blank published this year by Y Lolfa.  Now I know this is fiction, but for many readers the distinction becomes blurred.   Peacocks in Paradise, by Elisabeth Inglis Jones, which dramatises the life of Thomas Johnes of Hafod, is often perceived today as a purely biographical work.  I found The Shadow of Nanteos unnerving myself because in it the very real Revd William Powell (1705-1780) who inherited on his brother Thomas’ death in 1752 is equipped with his historically correct wife, Elizabeth Owen.   The book opens as he takes possession of Nanteos, his ancestral home.  There however the resemblance ends: poor Elizabeth and William are supplied with quite different children, and a gothic storyline involving illegitimacy, adultery, leadmining, otter hunting, the death of their son, and finally the death of Elizabeth on the Nanteos kitchen table during a cesarean section to save the offspring of her steamy relationship with the bailiff.  Ah me!  What those Georgians got up to!  But to return to the cup, –  here all the components of the early 20th century fiction have been thoughtfully re-packaged to the mid 18th Century.  Fictional Elizabeth invites round the local gentry wives and daughters, the Pryses of Gogerddan,  the Lisburnes of Trawscoed and the Johnes of Hafod and they expound the whole story:  Glastonbury, Joseph of Arimathea, Strata Florida, the Steadmans,  the true cross, the Holy Grail and the nibbling pilgrims who bit pieces off the rim.  ( The author must surely have read Juliet Wood’s painstaking work).  Later in the book, driven to grief at the death of her eldest son, Elizabeth resorts to some very questionable frotteurism with the grail itself.

Nanteos seems a particular magnet for the wild assertion!  There are already a number of popular but questionable ghost stories associated with it and suggestible readers of Jane Blank’s work may soon find themselves sensing Elizabeth Powell eviscerated on the kitchen table.  And there is a steady increase in the historic characters which are claimed among its house guests.  Local historians have long been enraged by the early 20th century myth, first promulgated in a tourist guide to Aberystwyth, that Wagner stayed at Nanteos and wrote Parsifal there. There is no closer connection than that the aesthetically inclined George Powell ( 1842-1882) was an admirer of his, and planned a journey to Munich with his friend Algernon Swinburne, the poet, to witness the Ring Cycle.   Algernon Swinburne and George also shared an interest in flagellation and the works of the Marquis de Sade.  But that connection scarcely justifies the current naming of one of Nanteos’ rooms as ‘The Marquis de Sade room’, nor the recent assertion that Robert Browning stayed there too!

The hotel website  http://www.nanteos.com/news_detail.php?ID=51  reads as follows: Culture is all-pervasive at Nanteos Mansion with associations with leading European figures such as the composer Wagner and the poet Browning. It’s an easy concept to grasp, they are famous cultural figures and they both stayed at the Mansion while touring the country.

But they didn’t.  Though hotel guests will enjoy believing that they did.

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More on Miölnir

by the Curious Scribbler

I ended my last blog wondering whether the poet Longfellow had acceded to George Powell’s somewhat histrionic request that he burn his poems the works of ‘Miölnir’ and trample the ashes into the ground.

The answer proved, in the digital age surprisingly easy to find.

From my computer I could access the Harvard library catalogue, Hollis, and typed in the author’s name Miölnir.  And there it was, Poems Miölnir [pseudo.] 2nd series published by J. Cox Aberystwyth 1861.  A second click opened the very book, online, in Google Books.  And on the title page I found the cramped dedication in George Powell’s handwriting:

George Powell’s dedication to Prof Longfellow on the title page of his book

H.W. Longfellow Esq., and Prof.  With the sincere respects of the author G Powell.

And on the second page of the volume is the bookplate marking the donation of the Longfellow Collection to Harvard College Library.

Bookplate from the Longfellow donation to Harvard Library

Gift of Miss Alice M  Longfellow, 20 Dec.1894

So Powell’s gift was not destroyed, joined the library of Longfellow, and was donated by his daughter to Harvard, where he taught.

Reeling from the public criticism in the Spectator, George, in a letter to Longfellow in 1862,  whittled down his poems in this volume to just eight which he felt possibly worthy of approval, and listed these in the letter which bewailed his treatment by the critics.  By his own reckoning his best poems were those on pages  41, 68, 95, 102, 107, 138, 140, 141

Another revelation from this piece of armchair research is that I was wrong to presume that the double volume of both Miölnir books was sent to Longfellow, or indeed to The Spectator.  Even the cover of Longfellow’s copy is reproduced online, and it is in the original cream binding lined and decorated in black and red.

The cover of Longfellow’s copy of Miolnir’s verses, Series II

The text is amended here and there for typographic errors which escaped the author’s attention in proof.  The amendments are in George’s hand.

So I must contradict my earlier post.  I now believe that Mr Chater’s copy is a unique one, bound for George some considerable time after his humiliation.  He, like, everyone else, had had the two separate books, one green, one cream,  and thus he had dedicated each of his own copies, lovingly, to himself.  It is these  which were later unbound and rebound together in green leather.

Arthur Chater’s copy of the volume by Miölnir

In the first series of poems were two pieces of comic verse which, by the time of the second series,  Powell had already repudiated in favour of his more aesthetic and gloomy style.  In the Epilogue to the second series, before he had suffered the ignominy of the Spectator review,  he wrote  ‘I have refrained in this volume from attempting any “comic strains”. They were in the last one, such a lamentable failure, were so forced and inexpressibly weak, that I shall take very good care in future – at any rate till my mind be more matured – not to let my pen compromise me so much’. Significantly these two poems have been unceremoniously ripped from this edition.

Personally I find comic verse easier to digest than works of tortured beauty and elevated sensitivity which are Powell’s predominant style.  I therefore reproduce, for the first time since 1860 one of George Powell’s youthful ‘betises’ as it appears in an undamaged copy of his first volume .

‘Agriculture by a Facetious Farmer’. A humorous verse in the first volume, which George was later to regret.

The pun never fails to entertain.

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The disappointments of George Powell of Nanteos, poet

I am startled by the brutality of reviewers writing for The Spectator in the 1860s.  I had been browsing in search of reaction to the publication of a volume of poems by George Powell, and  I soon discovered that the flavour of poetical criticism in 1861 – 1862 was stinging indeed.

In August 1861, for example, I found a long review of poems penned  by a clergyman.  “The Rev. John Graham has done a very foolish thing in ever devoting an hour from his time to writing verses. He has done an infinitely more foolish thing in venturing to print them. He ought never to write without burning all he writes as soon as it is written………..  We close Poems: Sacred, Didactic and Descriptive in bewilderment and dismay”.

Another new work, Athelstan, A Poem by Edward Moxon received similar derision “ Mr Tennyson may sleep secure. His laurels are still safe….. Whatever else he may be, the author of Athelstan is certainly not a poet, either by birth or manufacture”.

A review entitled Poetry Tearful and Tremulous discussed two new volumes: Cypress Leaves by WHCN (an Etonian) and Poems by Ingle Dew BA. “—we re-iterate our hope that these remarks may induce Mr Ingle Dew BA, and WHCN to feel heartily ashamed of their literary escapades and to attach for the future as little importance to the twitterings of their own emotions as those exceedingly few persons who will read their work are certain to attach to them.”

Aspirant poets must have retired to sob at such a drubbing.

George Powell, was amongst these poets.  The son and heir of Nanteos mansion he was, like WHCN, an Etonian and by 1861 an undergraduate at Brasenose College Oxford.  He had already published in 1860, at his own or more probably his father’s  expense,  a collection of five short stories which as far as I am aware never received critical attention.

George Powell first published a small volume of 31 poems, entitled Poems of Life and Death in 1860 under the pseudonym Miölnir.  His epilogue excuses any deficiencies in the light of his own youth and inexperience.  However he leads the reader to his cause:  “First attempts are in all cases, even those of great genius, defective to a certain extent. They should be regarded as, not perfect works, but a foreshadowing of perfect works or more perfect works: as exercises not as models, as footlights not as stars”.  He signs off as Miölnir, Brussels, December 3rd 1860, and before the year was out a slim book with a dark green embossed cover was printed for the author by J Cox of Pier Street, Aberystwyth.  Perhaps it was distributed as Christmas presents.

Nanteos, portrayed in Nicholas’ Annals and Antiquities of the Counties and County Families of Wales 1872

A  second volume was  soon under way, arranged in four parts with many personal dedications, most significantly part 3 to the poet Longfellow, whom he did not know, but admired from afar.  The final poem added only in press was an elegy to the Prince Consort who had died on the 14 December 1861.  The second volume was signed off on 20 December 1861, and appeared in a cream cloth binding.

There were also some copies in which both parts were bound as a single volume.  One such copy went to The Spectator, and another was posted with the compliments of the author, Miölnir, to the poet H.W. Longfellow at Cambridge, Boston, Massachusetts.


Longfellow’s home in Cambridge Massachusetts

A third of these combined volumes has found its way via the second hand trade into the hands of Mr Arthur Chater.

Arthur Chater’s copy of the volume by Miölnir

This is a puzzling volume, for on the title pages of both the first and the second series of poems is a dedication, “GEJ Powell with the best love of the Author, Miölnir”

Poems by Miölnir, the dedication at the beginning of the first volume

and “George EJ Powell with the best love of the Author”

The handwritten dedication from Miölnir to George Powell

A comparison of the handwriting with that of George Powell’s letters to Longfellow confirms that it is in the same hand.  George Powell, perhaps in order to be able to claim close acquaintance with his alter ego, was in effect sending himself his love!

On 1 March 1862 Powell must have opened The Spectator with keen anticipation.  He read as follows;

The premature mild spring weather is bringing out the minor poets, and ere long the cuckoo will be heard in the land. The most pretentious of verse makers is Mr W.C. Kent—- Though it may not be necessary that the driver of fat oxen should himself be fat, it is at least necessary that the writer of poetry should be something of a poet – which Mr Kent decidedly is not.  A more feeble, but at the same time a far more modest versifier is one who assumes the pseudonym of Miölnir.  Indeed his only merit is the negative one of self abasement, which he carries to the extreme point of simplicity.  He is evidently an amiable and ingenuous youth, whose naïveté and genuineness of character will command many friends, too staunch to be alienated by the meagreness of his poetic faculty.”

Powell  was obviously smarting when he wrote  again to Longfellow on 14 March 1862. “ I most unwisely sent it to The Spectator for review, a thing I ought never to have done with a work printed for private circulation”.  After a prolonged account of the review and its limitations he concluded  “ I will not trouble you with a long account of my petty woes, which I have quite recovered from” .

Clearly he had not recovered his composure at all and wrote another long letter to Longfellow in June. “ being compelled to leave Oxford by continued ill health,  and perpetual gloom and low spirits, the former induced, I believe, by the damp unwholesome air, and the latter by my insurmountable distaste for members of the College by whom I found myself surrounded – I wished for as complete a change as possible so came here [to Reykavik].

The following January George was back at Nanteos but the injury was still very much on his mind. “ Six or seven months have toned down wonderfully even my limited admiration for my own poems in so much that I now look with loathing upon that last volume…..  If I had only attended to Horace’s ‘Nonum prematur in annum’ I should have been spared the mortification of exposing the weakness and folly of my mental childhood.  May I entreat you to burn the volume of Miölnir’s poems and trample its ashes underfoot.”

It is not known whether Longfellow acted upon this entreaty by the humiliated poet, but clearly George could not bring himself to burn his own personal volume, so affectionately dedicated to himself.  He published no further poetry but found a new outlet for his writing as a translator of Icelandic sagas.


Footnote: Nonum(que)  prematur in annum  translates as Let it ( your first draft) be kept back from publication until the ninth year.

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