So ends the first stanza of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s translation of the Johan Ludwig Uhland “The Luck of Edenhall.” In literature and legend, the ancient drinking glass known as the Luck of Edenhall is at the center of an intriguing and mysterious story of fairies and good fortune. But contrary to the license with which the poets broke the celebrated glass in their telling, the Luck—ensconced at the Victoria and Albert Museum—is in pristine condition with its wide flaring mouth and painted red, blue, and white enamel arches and arabesque leaves, all outlined in gold leaf with impossibly fine red lines. And after over 80 years of public view, this exquisite example of medieval Syrian glassmaking is getting new buzz.
Medieval news is an oxymoron. And while the cup is remarkable in that it has survived intact since the 13th or 14th century (almost certainly attributed to its custom-tooled leather case, probably made in England in the 15th century), continued existence hardly constitutes news. Nevertheless, the Luck of Edenhall is indeed making a bit of a newsy comeback.
A little backstory for reference… We won’t be recounting the entire legend here—its Wikipedia page provides succinct coverage, and the V&A goes into even more detail. But for a quick overview, we refer to a 1791 issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine where Rev. William Mounsey of Bottesford says of the Luck:
Tradition our only guide here, says, that a party of Fairies were drinking and making merry round a well near the Hall, called St. Cuthbert’s Well; but being interrupted by the intrusion of some curious people, they were frightened, and made a hasty retreat, and left the cup in question: one of the last screaming out;
“If this cup should break or fall
Farewell the Luck of Edenhall!”
The current Visit Cumbria site has a slight variation, claiming it was the butler who did it:
The tradition respecting the Luck of Eden Hall is that the butler, going to fetch water from the well, called at St Cuthberts’s [sic] Church, which is near the hall, surprised a company of fairies who were dancing on the green, near the spring, where they had left this vessel, which the butler seized, and on his refusal to restore it, they uttered the ominous words
The Luck of Edenhall is not the only Luck to be had. A family’s fortune being tied to a particular object was apparently a bit of a Cumbrian thing. In 2008, the BBC ran a low-profile piece on Cumberland Lucks, that included The Luck of Edenhall and three other lucks with similar tales: an object, bestowed by royalty, or snatched from fairies, somehow holds the key to continued prosperity for a family or house. Said Sir Walter Scott in 1803: “it is still currently believed, that he, who has courage to rush upon a fairy festival, and snatch from them their drinking cup, or horn, shall find it prove to him a cornucopia of good fortune, if he can bear it in safety across a running stream.” He apparently went on to tell of the Luck of Edenhall and how the preservation of the cup was tied to the fortunes of the Musgrave family (George Musgrave was the watercolorist responsible for the painting above, right, 1799), which gained the estate (pictured below) via marriage in the mid-fifteenth century.
And incidentally, in 1928 the Musgrave family removed the Luck from Edenhall, loaning it to the V&A (it was given outright to the museum in 1958). One might say the family’s luck ran out only six years later when the building was demolished.
News, Part 1: a 2010 paper by Dr. Glyn Davies (of the Victoria and Albert Museum) that appeared in The Burlington Magazine (available online by subscription or purchase) opens thusly: “Nothing has hitherto been known of the object’s history in England before the eighteenth century, but new evidence sheds light on its use and provenance.” Most significantly, through new research into Musgrave family papers, Davies places the name of the cup as being called “The Luck of Edenhall” in a will from 1677 rather than merely having the cup described. The use of “Luck” in the name fortifying the age of its talismanic origins, and being the earliest known usage of the name by nearly a century.
More news, Part 2: Later in 2010, perhaps inspired by Davies’ new findings, Dr. Neil Fortey, author of Not Forgetting, a study on village life, revealed a correction to the historical record in an article posted on Bottesford Living History site, attributing the aforementioned The Gentleman’s Magazine piece as having been written by Rev. William Mounsey, not William Musgrave, as it had been mistakenly attributed. While this may seem inconsequential, that the story was reported by someone outside the Musgrave family—and Fortey goes to considerable lengths to establish Mounsey’s credibility as an antiquarian—lends more credibility to the validity of the legend as established and already-ancient in the 17th century.
Even most recent news, Part 3: We at FairyRoom are not the only people who get excited about this kind of research. Only a little over a year after Davies’ paper (and mere months after Fortey’s), James Beswick Whitehead, an English teacher based near Central Manchester, launched The Edenhall Corpus Project Online. Whitehead’s stated purpose:
An attempt to gather together in one virtual space, the scattered fragments of the literature inspired by The Luck of Edenhall. That literature is more extensive than is generally thought. The literary consequences of the glass have never before been collected, many pieces were printed once only in small editions, the writers themselves often unaware of what had gone before.
Whitehead’s project boasts timelines, an impressive aggregate of mentions in literature, and an extensive list of related historical mentions, including links to more Lucks. I spent two hours on his site!
To Mr. Whitehead, Dr. Fortey, and Dr. Davies, we at FairyRoom raise our decorated glasses. May you have much luck in to your researches.
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A few more Luck of Edenhall tidbits:
Dimensions: [Beaker] Height: 15.8 cm, Width: 11.1 cm maximum
[Case] Height: 18.1 cm with lid, Height: 16.5 cm without lid, Diameter: 12.7 cm
- Below, St. Cuthbert’s, where the glass was purported to have been snatched from the fairies.
- And in other Luck of Edenhall news, the Chicago rock/psychedelic/pop band of the same name has several shows coming up in 2012.