As I have mentioned in a previous article, Archbishop Hubert Walter (died 1205), is a firm favourite with the Inventory Administrators. He led a colourful and exciting life and laid down some of the diplomatic and bureaucratic groundwork that his successor Stephen Langton would take up in the lead up to Magna Carta. Walter was able to wield uncommon power in England due to being Archbishop of Canterbury and King’s Justiciar, then Chancellor, at the same time. During Richard I’s absence in the Holy Land, Walter was almost able to run the country in his stead. Some of his notable actions included putting down the rebellion of the King’s brother John, raising the gigantic ransom for King Richard when imprisoned in Austria, making an ordinance in 1195 to promote order and peace in the kingdom, installing justices who would lessen the power of the sheriffs and instating the rule of keeping copies of all charters and agreements reached in the royal courts and government. On his death he was entombed in the Trinity Chapel in the Cathedral.
When Hubert Walter was disinterred in 1890 due to some doubt as to whether Walter or Theobald occupied the tomb, many beautiful objects were revealed, including some silver items. A Romanesque chalice and paten were amongst them, dating from the middle of the 12th century according to Neil Stratford. The chalice has a lip, characteristic of many European chalices of the time, but unlike any other English chalice found so far. It is perhaps the first of its kind to exhibit a number of gothic qualities. Could Walter have acquired it as he travelled through Germany? The bowl of the chalice is engraved with a pattern of intersecting arches. The vessel is very strong and functional, despite its great age. When it was removed from the tomb, one report recorded that remains of dried wine were found in the base.
The paten is richly decorated. The centre is engraved with the Lamb of God, and around it is inscribed “AGNUS DEI QUI TOLLIS PECCATA MUNDI MISERERE NOBIS” (Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us). Round the rim is a couplet which is otherwise known from continental sources.
Both beautiful and functional, the set has stood the test of time well, although there are some small signs of wear. In 1968, silver replicas of the chalice and paten were made by Hennell, Fraser & Haws which are still used regularly in services.
An unusual ring was found on the index finger of Walter’s right hand. It is of gold and set with a green plasma (Jasper) stone, cut en cabochon and somewhat crudely engraved with an erect serpent with an irradiated head. Beside it is carved the name XNVPHIC/XNYΦIΣ. There have been some interpretations as to why such a high profile man of the Church might be wearing such an outwardly ‘pagan’ device.
The established interpretation (based mostly on Neil Stratford in Archbishop Hubert Walter’s Tomb and its Furnishings) is that in Egyptian mythology, Xnuphic was God of the universe and therefore presumably a suitable subject, by transference of ideas, for a Christian bishop to wear on his ring. The gem may be much older than the ring itself. In the 12th century antique gems were admired as precious and exotic survivals.
After researching with Cathedral Guide Chris Maude, who has been trying to accurately translate the lettering on the stone, much of which is crudely carved and worn from age, my own interpretation is that the inscription translates to CHNUPHIS, a Gnostic solar icon (Stratford mentions Chnuphis as a Graeco-Egyptian device, variously spelt Chnoubis). The Gnostics were an early Christian group who based their practices heavily on mysticism and symbolism. They adopted imagery and ideas from earlier ‘pagan’ and classical cultures and mythologies. The serpent is a ward against poison and disease. The seven plumes on its head are rays of the sun, and represent the seven planets, seven Greek vowels and the seven colours of the spectrum. Usually carved with a lion’s head, the head represents the solar forces and enlightenment, while the serpent body represents the lower impulses and the earth. These icons on semi-precious gems date from the 1st century onwards and one date given for the stone is 150CE.
There have been various ideas about how Archbishop Walter would have come to possess such a ring. Some Cathedral Guides have suggested the ring was placed on his finger after death by a well-wisher. But Walter had also been a warrior for God, and had served in the Crusade in 1190 alongside King Richard I. In fact, Walter was instrumental in securing a peace treaty with Saladin, first Sultan of Egypt and Syria, and was entertained by the great man himself. Guides have also theorised that Saladin gave Walter his ring as a token of gratitude (although this seems like speculation). Their mutual admiration is shown when Hubert allegedly told Saladin “This I affirm, that if you, my lord, were converted from your unbelief, there would not be two such princes in the whole world as King Richard and yourself.” However, Stratford suggests there may have been no more to Walter’s possession of the ring than an appreciation for precious stones of mysterious origins.
Hubert Walter came to his ecclesiastical career through the request of the King, and lacked a formal education. And yet he became one of the most powerful and influential men of his time, and an outstanding government minister. A man of his time, the dichotomy of his nature as soldier and cleric is expressed well during his time in the Holy Land. His interests and talents seem far reaching, so perhaps we shouldn’t wonder at the discovery of the treasures he was buried with.
Babington, M.A., The Romance of Canterbury Cathedral (3rd ed.), 1939, Raphael Tuck & Sons Ltd.
Sparks, Margaret., Handbook for Cathedral Guides, 2014, Canterbury Cathedral Visits Dept.
Stratford, N. Archbishop Hubert Walter’s Tomb and its Furnishings, 1982, in Medieval Art and Architecture at Canterbury before 1220, The British Archaeological Association with The Kent Archaeological Society.
https://www.britishmuseum.org/pdf/1b%20rev%20order.pdf – for Martin Henig’s interpretation.