The Legend of The Three Cups

Upon an evening in December, when the wind is in the north-east and when the ocean is grey and the sky leaden, the North Sea is not attractive. When, in addition to these cheerless circumstances, it surrounded me when I was single-handed in a small yacht at night-fall, still many miles from safety, the chances of a comfortable time seemed very remote. I could not boil a kettle and the prospect of lying at anchor until daylight was purgatorial.

I had done a somewhat foolish thing in trying to bring a yacht from Lowestoft to Harwich without any assistance, but as most of the way I was to have a tow by a trawler, and as time was pressing, I thought I would risk it. With a wind like this, I could easily make the Stour when I cast off somewhere between Felixstowe and the Naze.

Everything went according to programme, but after I had let go and made sail several unrehearsed episodes caused delay. The wind had freshened considerably, and I was carrying far too much sail, but being single-handed I shirked taking in a reef. Soon the gaff carried away and I hove-to wallowing in a sea-way until I had made good. This all took time and I feared I might not make the entrance to the river before the tide was heavily against me. Late, however, as it was, I forged ahead over the ebb I could see that I was going to do it, the lights of Harwich heralding a safe anchorage.

It was slow work, wet work and heavy work, wind against tide and a short fierce sea. At last I was in and I took the mud not far from Harwich church upon that bit of shore where the "low-light" stands; that curious survival, once a lighthouse, now a shelter. I was in no mood for another night on board, so I stowed everything, put up a riding-light, threw some clothes into a bag and waded ashore, the tide having ebbed sufficiently to allow me to do so. Being the evening of December 5th, the temperature of the water although higher that I had expected to find it, was sufficiently low to make me vow to do no more single-handed winter cruising, whatever the pictorial possibilities might be.

The shore was deserted. It would not be likely that any one would be about in such cold weather. Against the sky I could see the dim outline of another lighthouse, now dark like the shelter, once the "high-light" which gave a bearing for the entrance, when seen in line with the "low." The gaunt tower of the church loomed up against a rushing mass of clouds that portended snow before the morning.

I sat down in the shelter, put on my shoes and socks and took stock of my position. There were a few lights in the dark mass of houses across the green, and I judged that I was not very far from warm fires and hospitable inns.

As I approached what I thought was the opening to a road or alley, I became aware of a dark figure just in front of me. It was that of an old man in a dress that suggested a pilot. He greeted me and we spoke of the weather and of the chances of snow, and as we walked along together I asked him where he would advise me to put up for the night.

"The Three Cups," he said, stopping and pointing t a lighted window. "It is next to the church. I will show you the way."

I thanked him and again we walked along together. He was a curious figure and his white beard and venerable demeanour made me think what a good model he would make for St. Peter, the pilot of the Galilean lake, who "shook his mitred locks and stern bespake."

Through a narrow street we entered into a paved court, over which, upon a kind of trellis, there climbed a gigantic clematis. A welcome light streamed out, chequering the flagstones at our feet. Through the window I could see a roaring fire and a glimpse of warmth and comfort that made me very glad I was not still upon the sea.

I turned to thank the old man for his courtesy and to invite him to come inside, when I found that he had gone. I went back to the entrance to the courtyard, but no one was in sight. I could have sworn that he had entered the courtyard with me, but I had evidently been mistaken.

I am not superstitious, but I felt there was something strange in the sudden advent of the old man out of the darkness and his equally sudden disappearance. A hot bath, however, and the genial hospitality of mine host of "The Three Cups" soon put the incident out of my head and I began to realize as I got through a prodigious supper how wet and cold and miserable I must have been.

Although I had often been to the Continent via Harwich in the days before the war and had often been into Harwich on naval occasions during the war, I had never seen the town at all, so before turning in I went for a stroll through the quaint streets and quays of the old town. 

It was very dark. One of the two unlighted lighthouses, the tall one, dominated a street like a ghostly sentinel. Out in the river, over towards Parkeston, lay three lights under repair, and there was another alongside the quay by the Train Ferry. Both lighthouses and lightships gave darkness rather than light, and all Harwich seemed to be under a black spell. Its narrow ways were dimly discerned, its windows were for the most part unlighted and where an occasional glimmer shows ghostly images of houses, the shadows were the deeper by contrast and the silence of night was supreme, save for a moaning in the wind across the dark reaches of the Stygian Stour.

I passed three doors, the most curious three doors I should think to be found anywhere (I have sketched them on page 113) and then a place labelled "Naval Yard," though it was a ghostly place not known to the Navy of to-day. A slipway was overgrown with clematis, anchors were buried in weeds and a bell, gaunt and neglected-looking, never summoned any one to work.

Time was when this was a place of ship-building and naval activity, now leased I believe from the Admiralty, who still own it, by a firm for the purpose f repairing lightships and other vessels, but the resuscitation of so small a part of the activities of such a place serves to make it more desolate than ever. In the daytime, across a wilderness of decay and grass-grown litter, hammering proceeds and ghostly noises suggesting that a few of the old-time workers have been dug up and are still doomed to do something and to potter about amidst the ruins.

At the corner, on the waterside, standing away from the yard by some fifty feet, is a bulk, and by this, half in the water and half out, is another derelict adding to the desolate look of the foreshore.

The shed on the quay contains a double wheel worked by man-power, for working the crane. It is a very rare survival. As far as I now there are only two examples of this "machine" in England - one which I have sketched in Unknown Kent, at Great Culand Farm, Burham, near Rochester, the other in Carisbrooke Castle. These two are wheels for the purpose of drawing water.

Regaining the light and cheerful fireside of "The Three Cups" I sat and talked with mine host for a while, and he tells me, what I much want to know, what he considers is the origin of the sign and how "The Three Cups" came to be.

The Church of St. Nicholas and "The Three Cups" often, he says, go together. And he tells me that the usual explanation of the sign is that it is a corruption of "The Three Purses," which is one of the most common symbols of St. Nicholas. He maintains that it is held by most that these purses (golden bags tied at the neck) have been turned upside down - hence the present sign.

I take this with a grain of salt, as it seems very strange that this mistake can have been made in so many cases, but I am bound to admit that no one seems to have any other explanation of the association of the three cups with the saint who is no less than our old friend Santa Claus, the patron saint of travellers, sailors, children and dowerless maidens. The purses appeared in this way. Santa Claus or St. Nicholas was a real person, Bishop of Myra, in Asia Minor.

A certain nobleman, it is recorded, had fallen upon evil days, and had become so impoverished that he had no dowry for his three daughters and it looked as if they would come to dire misfortune. The good bishop hears of their distress, however, and goes secretly to the nobleman's house, placing  a purse of gold into an open window. Suitors are immediately forthcoming and one of the daughters marries "well." Again St. Nicholas places another purse of gold in the open window and a second daughter marries. On the occasion, however, of placing the third purse at the window, to enable the third daughter to marry, he is seen and the story of his good works spreads throughout the land. Thus the three purses became the chief symbol of St. Nicholas.

And so to bed, mine host lighting the way. "You see," he says, "your room contains a portrait of St. Nicholas," and he pointed to a curious old picture not unlike an ikon. "You are in luck to-night for to-morrow is the feast of St. Nicholas. Good night and may the Saint preserve you."

I bade him good night and then when he had gone took a candle and looked again at the picture. The face was familiar, St. Nicholas according to the artist was not at all unlike the old pilot who had shown me the way to "The Three Cups."

I suppose I soon dropped off to sleep. From my bed I could see the part f the overshadowing tower of the Church of St. Nicholas. A thin layer of fine snow was outlining cornices, and the tracery of a window; I noted the chime at half-past ten.

It was three o'clock. I hear the hour strike. Darkness had given place to light. White roofs and glittering gables gleam under the moon riding high in cloudless blue.

The whole town seemed to be awake. There were lights in the windows and lights in the streets. I laped out of bed and went to the window - the window that looks out upon the church. There was a light upon the roof - a man with a lantern standing upon the parapet looking towards the river and waving it to and fro as if to signal. It was a familiar figure, the old pilot of last night and St. Nicholas, good St. Nicholas, the friend of sailors.

And I saw three ships come sailing in, upon the flood tide, into the Stour and into the harbour of Harwich.

I was soon dressed and running up the street towards the quay. The river, so dark and dead last night, was alive with craft. The lightships were blazing and revolving, the lighthouses shining their beams across the water. In every window of every house lamps were lit and tapers fair, as if to welcome guests of honour as they pass through the streets.

And the people looked out of the windows but all was silent, for a great light came from the harbour where the three ships lay. And there came three Kings and each carried a golden cup and they went through the streets till they came to the Church of St. Nicholas. And the first of the King's wore a vesture of white, and the second of the King's wore a vesture of gold and the third of the King's wore a vesture of red, and they ha crowns upon their heads and carried the golden cups before them. And they stood before the door of the church and entered in.

Now when they knelt before the altar to worship Him, who is the King of Kings, and to share the Sacred Feast, the priest who was before the altar took the golden chalice and with it touched the cups of the Kings.

And the three Kings bowed ow and went forth from the church and into the inn. And in the cup of the first King was poured forth wine to all who should receive it. And the wine of that cup was white as crystal. And in the cup of the second King was poured forth wine to all who should receive it. And the wine of that cup was golden. And then in the cup of the third King was poured forth wine to all who should receive it. And the wine of that cup was red. And the people of the inn and of the town drank of the wine and made merry, and rejoiced because the Kings had come to Harwich.

And I sought the Pilot and beseeched him thathe would interpret to me the mystery of the cups, and he made clear the parable.

"In the cups are the Wine of Life. And that which is white is Truth, and that which is golden is Power, and that which is red is Love. And because the Kings have come to Bethlehem the wine which they carry has become precious and because their cups have touched the sacred Cup upon the altar all wine in the inns of the town and of this land has become sacred to men of good will. And he who drinks of the wine that is white, shall know the Truth. And he who drinks of the wine that is golden, shall know of Power. And he who drinks of the wine that is red, shall know of Love. For the King has come, that we shall have life, and have it more abundantly."

But these were difficult sayings, nd I besought the Pilot that he should tell me how came the Kings of the East to Harwich, for Harwich lies not upon the way to Bethlehem; and why do they come so far?

Then the Piolot smiled and said: "Know you not that all places are upon the Way to Bethlehem?"

The I understood the saying, and I knew who were the Kings. For they that seek shall find, and they that are true men are become priests and kings in the City of God.

The clock struck nine, I awoke and looked out of the window, a cloak of snow was over everything in Harwich. I was soon out and walking down the road towards the harbour. The I remembered my dream, suddenly, for it had gone from me.

There were the lightships out in the river, a cluster of them dark and forsaken; and there was the tall lighthouse, seen down the street, showing no signs of having shown a light for many a long year, and the low light equally dark and of no account to navigation, looking out upon the water like a blind man who sits beside the highway. A few turns brought me back to the road by the church, and there before me was the scene of my vision of last night, the very place where I had seen the Three Kings, vested in white and gold and red, entering the church. And there - I had not noticed them before - upon the parapet of the hotel were the three cups each with a foaming top of snow.

So now, whoever you may be, when you go to Harwich and see this sign, think of good St. Nicholas and learn to drink well and wisely of the wine of life.

Maxwell, Donald Unknown Essex, The Legend of "The Three Cups," London & New York, 1925, p.103-117.