On January 12th this year BBC News ran a story concerning Mary Magdalene, the woman depicted as a close companion of Jesus in the New Testament. The Vatican has elevated her status amongst the saints to equal that of Jesus’ male disciples, and a major new movie about her life, staring Rooney Mara ( The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ), is soon to be released. Most people will be familiar with this biblical character thanks to novelist Dan Brown, who suggests that she was Jesus’ wife. The Church, of course, vehemently denies such a notion, and it is certainly not found anywhere in the Bible. However, since the Middle Ages, Mary’s portrayal in a different but equally illustrious role has all but been forgotten: she was guardian of the Chalice of Magdalene— a biblical artifact that may have been the original Holy Grail.
The Immortality of the Grail
Today the Holy Grail is usually considered to be the cup said to have been used by Christ at the Last Supper. According to the Bible, Jesus shared a final meal with his disciples shortly before he was arrested, tried, and condemned to death. According to legend, one of Jesus’ followers, Joseph of Arimathea, used the same cup to collect a few drops of Christ’s blood during the Crucifixion, thus bestowing it with sacred power. Those who drank from it, it was said, could be cured of all ills, and even attain immortality. The Da Vinci Code portrayed the Grail as merely a symbolic representation of Jesus’ purported bloodline through a secret marriage to Mary Magdalene, but in the original traditions the Grail was neither of these.
The Tales of King Arthur
When the Grail first appears in literature – at least the oldest surviving literature – it is in the stories of King Arthur. The earliest is in the work of the French poet Chrétien de Troyes around 1190, who describes the relic as a golden plate set with precious stones. As the story remained unfinished upon the author’s death, nothing is revealed concerning the Grail’s origins. Nevertheless, we are told that to eat from it prolongs life indefinitely. Meanwhile, in Germany, another Arthurian romance was composed by the author Wolfram von Eschenbach, in which he depicts the Grail as a magical stone that somehow both nourishes and grants wisdom to those who possess it. And in Britain, an anonymous Welsh tale called Peredur depicts the Grail as a severed head – whose, we are not told – that imparts words of wisdom. There are medieval works in which the Grail is said to be various other items, including a carving of Christ, a book, even the bones of the Virgin Mary.
The origin of the word Grail is unclear. Despite Dan Brown’s popularization of the theory that the Old French San Graal (meaning “Holy Grail”) comes from the words sang réal – “royal blood” – most literary scholars believe it to have originated with Medieval Latin word gradalis, meaning a dish or container. Whatever its origin, by the early 1200s the word had become firmly associated with any especially holy relic thought to have had links with the historical Jesus. It was only in the later Middle Ages that the Grail came to be regarded exclusively as the cup of the Last Supper, as authors increasingly followed the lead of the oldest known work to portray it as such: Joseph d’Arimathe by the Burgundian poet Robert de Boron around the year 1200.
As in other Arthurian tales, Robert has the Grail sought by Arthur’s knights in order to cure the king of an ailment that prevents him from effectively ruling Britain. Many medieval Arthurian romances have one of Arthur’s knights, usually Perceval, discovering the Grail in a chapel in a place called the White Castle, found in the White Town.
White Castle in White Town
In England, there is indeed a castle referred to during the Middle Ages by this very name. Built of light-colored stone, from which it gets its name, it is in the village of Whittington in the county of Shropshire, close to the border between England and Wales. Moreover, the name Whittington actually comes from early English, meaning, literally, White Town.
In the early 1200’s, the owner of this castle, a baron by the name of Fulk Fitz Warine, became the subject of an anonymously-composed romantic tale entitled Fulke le Fitz Waryn in which Whittington Castle is specifically associated with both the Arthurian story and the Holy Grail. Understandably, because this and other Arthurian romances reference “the White Castle in the White Town,” local tradition has long associated the place with the Grail legend. Fascinatingly, in the mid-1800’s, a direct descendant of Fulk Fitz Warine claimed that his family had owned the Grail for centuries and that he still possessed it. He was a Shropshire antiquarian named Thomas Wright. (The Fitz Warines were ancestors on his mother’s side.)
Interestingly, the Grail he claimed to possess was none of the items already mentioned, but a scent jar that had supposedly once belonged to Mary Magdalene.
According to the Bible, Mary Magdalene did possess such a jar. It was said to have been made of alabaster (Mark: 14.3), and she used it to anoint Christ’s head with precious oil as a sign she accepted him as her savior. The New Testament also tells us that Mary went to the tomb to anoint Christ’s body with spices shortly after he was buried (Mark: 16.1), as was the Jewish practice at the time, and Christian tradition holds that she took the spices in this same jar, and then used it to collect a few drops of Christ’s blood when he appeared to her after the Resurrection. (Mark’s gospel, chapter 14, verse 8, relates that Jesus had foretold that she would anoint his body in this way). The jar became a famous, but apparently lost, holy relic during the Middle Ages, and for centuries paintings of Mary Magdalene have depicted her with the item.
It was this jar, known as the Chalice of Magdalene, which Thomas Wright claimed to have possessed. So what happened to it? Remarkably, in the spirit of the Grail legends, he claimed to have hidden it in a secret location. Evidently, as he had no children to hand it on to, he left an elaborate trail of clues to lead to its location before his death in 1877.
Following the Clues
I first learned of this curious story when investigating the Arthurian legends, and eventually concluded that Wright probably had possessed something he personally believed to be the Holy Grail and had hidden it: he certainly went to considerable trouble to leave a series of clues to lead to something. And as it might – just possibly – have been the same artifact thought to be the Grail that had been kept at Whittington Castle in the 13th century, I decided to attempt to solve Wright’s conundrum.
Initially, however, I doubted that the hidden artifact ever had anything to do with Jesus or Mary Magdalene. The Middle Ages resound with accounts of crusader knights returning from the Holy Land with purported biblical relics, most of which were probably sold to them by local people out to make a few bucks from the gullible invaders. On the other hand, as the purported Chalice of Magdalene appears to have been in the very location the earliest Arthurian stories place the Holy Grail, and was said to have been there when these tales were composed, it might— again, just possibly— have been the artifact that initiated the Grail legend.
Wright’s clues were quite involved. They ultimately led to a stained-glass window that Wright had designed and installed, near where he lived, in St. Luke’s Church in the village of Hodnet in Shropshire. Those who read my earlier article on the Ancient Origins website will recall that a stained-glass window had been used to hold clues to where the nineteenth-century historian Jacob Cove-Jones believed Templar treasure was to be found . Significantly, perhaps, Cove-Jones and Thomas Wright not only knew one another and both belonged to the British Archaeological Association, they were related. It would seem that the custom of leaving historical clue trails as some kind of personal epitaph was something of a family tradition.
Wright’s stained-glass window depicted the four gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but the John figure was unusual. Whereas the other figures were shown holding their gospels, John was shown holding a golden chalice: the traditional depiction of the Holy Grail.
What was more remarkable is that on closer examination the figure appears to be a woman. The other gospel writers are bearded, whereas the John figure is both clean shaven and has decidedly feminine features. Moreover, the figure is wearing a woman’s gown that seems to be covering breasts. Could this chalice-holding character represent Mary Magdalene – the very person associated with the sacred relic?
Deciphering Symbols, and a Hidden Artifact
It was this image that eventually led me to the place where Thomas Wright seems to have hidden his artifact. In the window, above the figures’ heads are the customary symbols for the four gospels: a bull, a lion, an angel, and an eagle. Four statues depicting these very same symbols had been commissioned by Thomas Wright and erected in a cavern, cut into a hill called the White Cliff at Hawkstone Park, around two miles away. As the image depicted above the chalice-holding figure was the eagle, perhaps it was in Wright’s eagle statue that the item was hidden.
I was devastated when I discovered that in 1920 a local businessman named Walter Langham had tried to move the statues in order to erect them in his garden, and during the attempt the eagle statue was broken, and in its base was discovered a cavity in which was found what was described as a small stone cup.
It seemed that the object Thomas Wright and his family had for generations believed to be the Holy Grail had been found by accident and probably discarded decades ago. However, when I eventually traced Thomas Wright’s great-granddaughter to the town of Rugby in central England, I was delighted to find that she still possessed the cup. Neither she nor her family had considered it anything particularly special, having no knowledge of Tomas Wright and his elaborate clues. As far as she was concerned, it was simply an interesting oddity. They only held on to it because of the unusual circumstances in which it was found: what was it doing cemented inside a statue? I was astonished to discover that it was still in her attic, buried amongst junk accumulated over the years.
When she showed it me, I was at first disappointed. It was so small. Around one and three quarter inches high, and an inch and a half wide, it was about the size and shape of an egg cup made of green stone. In fact, because the lip was folded inwards, the Langham family had assumed it to have been an old Victorian mustard pot.
When I was allowed to take it to the British Museum for analysis everything changed. It was identified as a scent jar dating from Roman times that would once have had a lid. This was exactly what Mary Magdalene’s jar was said to be. Astonishingly, by its style, it was dated to around the 1st century AD, precisely the time Mary was said to have lived. Even more remarkable, it was found to be made from green alabaster of a variety only found in Egypt, right next to ancient Judea where the Bible places the life of Christ. It was – just as the New Testament tells us Mary Magdalene’s relic had been – an alabaster jar.
None of this was proof positive that the jar really had been belonged to Mary Magdalene or had ever held the blood of Christ, but it was from the right time and the right area, and made of the right material to have been the vessel described in the Bible. What, however, in my opinion, it certainly seems to be is the object believed to be the Grail at the time the first Arthurian romances were written. It had been kept in the very place these oldest accounts locate the sacred relic: the White Castle in the White Town. If I am right, then what I located was the object that started the original Grail legend. In effect, the long lost Holy Grail.