North Devon in 100 Objects: 10. The Instow Communion Cup

An engraved silver communion cup with matching lid.

In the museum we look after a number of church communion cups dating from the late 16th century.  Many of them are rather similar:  a “decent” Protestant communion cup in a conical shape with a foot and a band of simple ornament.   But they vary quite a lot in size.  Why is this?

At the beginning of Henry VIII’s reign, churchgoing in England was a colourful, sensory experience, rich in ceremony.  The Reformation of the Church, and the break with Rome in 1537, was partly driven by Henry’s marital difficulties, but it was well received by English Reformers, including in North Devon, who wanted to return to a simpler, more direct form of worship.

They rejected the Roman Catholic belief in ‘transubstantiation’, in which the bread and wine are miraculously transformed during the mass into the body and blood of Christ. They proposed instead a symbolic service of shared communion, where the congregation would take wine as well as bread, whereas before they had been chiefly spectators.  Elaborately decorated chalices, together with much interior church decoration, were seen as “monuments of superstition”.

In the diocese of Exeter, the change from chalices to plain cups took place between 1575 and 1577. Individual parishes sent their existing silverware to be remade according to the approved style, the size depending on the amount of silver available.  The goldsmith John Jones of Exeter, who created the Instow cup, is known to have created at least 130 others.  He did very well out of the Reformation.

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