I have stumbled on a powerful story indeed.
It is a tale which makes real storytellers’ eyes gleam with Fagin-like avarice. It is one of those stories one does not stumble across often.
And I wasn’t even looking for it. I was looking for a nearby museum.
Sure, I had seen the pictures of this diminutive cathedral-like church fashioned from the cannibalised remains of a Roman town and an ancient and powerful abbey. But the town of Cirencester is well named. Nestling at an ancient meeting of roads, it is filled with the siren call of Roman walls and amphitheatres and museums, and buildings made of golden Cotswold stone blocks, geometric and perfect like great overblown dolls houses.
I followed my nose, into the great south porch of St John The Baptist church, a mediaeval treasure, a church with a story at every turn. It is known as the cathedral of the Cotswolds, a golden tower which rises high above the town and surrounding countryside with a ring of twelve bells. This building swells the heart.
A kind guide found me craning my neck at the fan vaulting on the ceiling in the porch, and he said: come in. We have some glorious fan vaulting inside.
His tour was a wonder. And about half way through, we found ourselves standing next to what looked much like a little glass-fronted safe box in the wall.
Inside was the most exquisite siver-gilt goblet you have ever seen. Just one goblet: with a solid ornate base rising to a stem and cup of such elegance it fair takes one’s breath away. And over it all is a cover, topped with a figure which would be more at home on a coat of arms.
The tiny figure has a history: perhaps you recognise it? A crowned white falcon standing on a tree stump. The stump is not altogether dead, for it sprouts red and white roses: and in the falcon’s talon is a crown and sceptre.
It was a masterpiece of propaganda conjured for a short time: as long as it took for a king to become infatuated, and then, as quickly, fall out of love with his queen.
The crest belongs, of course to Anne Boleyn. It was not her birthright, but fashioned to assert her right to be queen.
And the cup: it was a love-gift from Henry. A thing of rare beauty.
But Henry’s love never seemed to last long. The cup was made in 1535. By 1536 Anne was standing in a courtyard at The Tower, waiting impatiently for death to rock her asleep.
Death obliged, and the gorgeous silver cup, the symbol of Henry’s infatuation, fell to her daughter, Elizabeth.
And she, in her turn, gave it to someone else. Her physician, Richard Master, was beneficiary; and somehow, he or his descendants bequeathed it to this little cathedral-like church in the Cotswolds. He had lately bought what was left of Cirencester Abbey from the Queen.
The church first shows the cup in its records in a Vestry Book of 1614. And there it has stayed, for almost 400 years.
Some years ago, Queen Elizabeth II visited Cirencester. She was given a tour round the church, my tour guide told me.
And when she arrived at the little glass case, locals explained the background to the silver goblet which was so prized.
But Queen Elizabeth had something to add.
“Yes,” she told them: “and I have the other one!”
But of course, Henry VIII had one made for himself.
The cup was one of a pair; the other, it seems , rests at Windsor Castle, where it has been handed down from that erascible man’s clutches to the silver collections of the present day.
It remains to be seen if the two will ever achieve what their owners never did: reunion.