Rare 17th century Lignum Vitae treen wassail bowl with silver rim engraved "His Most Gracious Majesty King William's Punch Bowl, the gift of the Duke of Cumberland, to Cap. John Bury, 1764"
Provenance: Oliver family, Vancouver
Exhibited: Canadian Craft Museum "Festive Treasures: Silver" Exhibition November 26-January 23, 1999
Size: 6 ½” h x 10 ¼” diameter
Wassail bowls derive their name from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Waes-hael’ which means ‘Good health”. Typically made in the 16th to early 18th centuries, they contained mulled cider and were used in drinking ceremonies which became an important part of society especially after the Reformation. The expansion of Britain’s colonial power and trade brought the introduction in the 16th century of the strong Lignum Vitae wood, considered the heaviest and hardest in the world, allowing bowls to be turned in far greater size than with English woods. Bowls made from Lignum Vitae wood, whose name is Latin for “Good Life”, were expensive and very popular. Wassailing celebrations are still practiced today to ensure that good health and community relations are nurtured for the upcoming harvest and year ahead.
Considered the heaviest and hardest wood in the world, the dense Lignum Vitae or ironwood (also called guayacan or pokhout), is from the slow-growing genus Guaiacum. Indigenous to Central America, the Caribbean and northern South America, it is the national tree of the Bahamas and the purplish-blue flower is the Jamaican national flower. Latin for ‘wood of life”, the plant was often used to treat medical conditions such as arthritis, and the wood chips to brew a contraceptive tea. Lauded for its density and strength, the tough wood was an important export to Europe from the early 16th century. The bare wood has fine texture and can be polished to a fine lustre due to high natural oil content. Able to withstand high stress and temperature, it is ideal for outdoor use and resistant to insect attack, a nd exceptional for turning on the lathe. It became the choice for outfitting sailing ships including belaying pins and sheaves of blocks, as well as for dunnage and ballast. Upon introduction to Europe it was employed for a variety of uses including treen (turned items), lawn, croquet and skittle balls, mortars and pestles, parts for clocks, and became the traditional wood for the British police truncheon. Until the introduction of modern synthetics, later uses include parts for hydro-electric plants, and the wood was instrumental in rebuilding the San Francisco railway after the 1906 earthquake and fire that followed, due to the availability of the wood in the holds of the ships in the harbour.
A rare 17thC Lignum Vitae wassail bowl 'King William's Punch Bowl'
This rare and fascinating Lignum Vitae wassail bowl is rich with interesting and historical significance. “His Most Gracious Majesty King William” was born in the Netherlands in 1650. William III, Prince of Orange, reigned as King of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1689 until his death in 1702. Perhaps one of the most significant European figures of the 17th century, he is noted for reuniting his native Netherlands and initiating a series of victories which would later lead to Great Britain’s worldwide empire. His marriage in 1677 to his cousin Mary, daughter of James II of England was a political but strong match. Mary refused the invitation to rule in 1688 without William and they were the first and only couple to rule jointly. Their finest moment is said to have been in 1689 after their Coronation when they signed the Bill of Rights which gave proper power to Parliament and established the parliamentary democracy known today in Britain.
This wassail presumably passed down through the family to Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland (1721-1765), the third and youngest son of King George II and Caroline of Ansbach. A celebrated military leader at a young age, William’s colourful career is highlighted by his command of the Government forces that defeated the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Scotland’s instability and the Jacobite Rising presented a grave threat to Cumberland’s family’s power, and his ruthlessness to crush the rebellion earned him immense popularity and the title of “Sweet William” throughout parts of Britain, but “The Butcher of Cumberland” by his opponents. While serving at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743 he was wounded below the knee, an ailment from which he never recovered. This wassail bowl was a gift to from William in 1764, the year before his death, to Captain John Bury. John Bury, identified possibly as John Bury born in 1725, an Irishman married to Catherine Sadleir and who on February 17, 1764 succeeded to the Charleville estates of his maternal uncle, the 1st Earl of Charleville. Unfortunately John Bury did not have much time to enjoy the wassail bowl as he died on August 4, 1764.
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