The Alfred Jewel is an Anglo-Saxon artefact made of enamel and quartz enclosed in gold that was discovered in 1693, and is now one of the most popular exhibits at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. It has been dated from the late 9th century. It was made in the reign of Alfred the Great and is inscribed "AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN", meaning 'Alfred ordered me made'. The jewel was once attached to a rod, probably of wood, at its base. After decades of scholarly discussion, it is now "generally accepted" that the jewel's function was to be the handle for a pointer stick for following words when reading a book. It is an exceptional and unusual example of Anglo-Saxon jewellery.
Function and commission
It seems to have been one of the precious 'æstels' or staffs that Alfred is recorded as having sent to each bishopric along with a copy of his translation of Pope Gregory the Great's book Pastoral Care, saying in his preface to the book: "And I will send a copy to every bishop's see in my kingdom, and in each book there is an aestel of 50 mancusses and I command, in God's name, that no man take the staff from the book, nor the book from the church". The mancus was a term used in early medieval Europe to denote either a gold coin, with a weight of gold of 4.25g (equivalent to the Islamic dinar, and thus lighter than the Byzantine solidus), or a unit of account of thirty silver pence. This made it worth about a month's wages for a skilled worker, such as a craftsman or a soldier.
No other context is given in the preface, and no other use of the Old English word 'æstel' in the context of books is known, so it is concluded that it meant a small pointer. Other jewelled objects with a similar form have survived, all with empty sockets, such as a 9th-century example in gold and glass in the British Museum, found in Bowleaze Cove in Dorset (see below), and the yad or "Torah pointer" remains in use in Jewish practice. David M. Wilson sounded a note of caution as to the connection with Alfred, noting that "in a period when royal titles meant something, there is no royal title in the inscription". However the commissioning by Alfred and the function as a pointer handle are taken as firmly established by Leslie Webster in her survey Anglo-Saxon Art of 2012, as well as by the Ashmolean. Other functions suggested have been as an ornament for a crown, or as a pendant, though this would display the figure upside down.
The Alfred Jewel is about 2 1⁄2 inches (6.4 cm) long and was made of filigreed gold, enclosing a highly polished tear-shaped piece of clear quartz 'rock crystal', beneath which is set a cloisonné enamel plaque, with an image of a man, perhaps Christ, with ecclesiastical symbols. The figure "closely resembles the figure of Sight in the Fuller Brooch, but it is most commonly thought to represent Christ as Wisdom or Christ in Majesty", according to Wilson, although Webster considers a personification of "Sight" a likely identification, also comparing it to the Fuller Brooch. The gold links around the side of the rock crystal, between the base and the rim at the top that holds the rock crystal in place, form the inscription: "AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN", meaning 'Alfred ordered me made'.
An animal head at the base has as its snout a hollow socket, like those found in the other examples, showing that it was intended to hold a thin rod or stick. The back is a flat gold plate engraved with an acanthus-like plant motif, or Tree of Life according to Webster. Like the back of other examples, it is "suitable for sliding smoothly across the surface of a page". The use of relatively large cells of enamel to create a figurative image is an innovation in Anglo-Saxon art, following Byzantine or Carolingian examples, as is the use of rock crystal as a "see-through" cover. The rock crystal piece may be recycled from a Roman object.
The jewel was discovered in 1693 at Petherton Park, North Petherton in the English county of Somerset, on land owned by Sir Thomas Wroth (circa 1675–1721). North Petherton is about 8 miles (13 km) away from Athelney, where King Alfred founded a monastery. A description of the Alfred Jewel was first published in 1698, in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. It was bequeathed to Oxford University by Colonel Nathaniel Palmer (c. 1661-1718) and today is in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. There is a replica of the jewel in the Church of St Mary, North Petherton. Another replica is on display in the Blake Museum, Bridgwater. In February 2015 the jewel returned to Somerset for the first time in 297 years when it was displayed for a month in the Museum of Somerset, Taunton Castle.
Since the discovery of the Alfred Jewel, six similar objects have been found. All are smaller and less elaborate, but are traceable to the same period and have a socket like that on the Alfred Jewel, suggesting that they were made for the same purpose.
The Minster Lovell Jewel – the most similar to the Alfred Jewel, consisting of a round gold disk that contains an enamel plaque of a floral design. It was found in Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire and is kept at the Ashmolean Museum.
The Warminster Jewel – consists of filigreed gold strips containing a white glass stone. A small blue glass stone is held in the middle of the jewel where the gold strips meet. This jewel was discovered in Warminster in Wiltshire and is held in the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum.
The Yorkshire Aestel - resembles a golden animal's head with blue glass eyes, one of which is missing. It was found in Aughton, Yorkshire, by Tim Pearson and was sold as "lot 312" in Bonhams Antiquities auction, Wednesday 15 October 2008 for ₤10,800. This is the only privately owned aestel.
The Borg Aestel – decorated with a pattern of spirals of gold wire. It was found in the ruins of a Viking Era Chieftain Hall at Borg in the Lofoten Islands in Norway, and is now in the Lofotr Viking Museum. Alfred is known to have been visited by a powerful trader called Ottar, who was native to the Lofoten Islands, so it is possible that Alfred gave him the jewel as a gift. Alternatively, and perhaps more likely, it was Viking loot, like most Anglo-Saxon finds in Scandinavia.
The Bidford Bobble – the smallest of the jewels. Its round head is made of patterned gold with blue and red enamel pieces. It was found in Bidford-on-Avon in Warwickshire and now belongs to the Warwickshire Museum Service.
The seven jewels were exhibited together for the first time in Winchester Discovery Centre between February and May 2008, as the centrepiece of an exhibition of relics of Alfred the Great.
Use in popular culture
A replica of King Alfred's jewel is given as a birthday present in chapter six of Nancy Mitford's comic novel, "The Pursuit of Love", (1945).
In The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper, one of the six Signs of the Light, the Sign of Fire, is based on the Jewel. It also is made with gold and bears the inscription "LIHT MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN", or "The Light ordered that I be made".
The jewel is referred to in Roy Harper's 19 minute song, "One Of Those Days In England (Parts 2–10)" from the album Bullinamingvase.
Masonic Lodge No. 2925 'The Somersetshire Lodge' was formed in 1906 in London by Freemasons having a connection with Somerset but living in the capital. A replica of King Alfred's Jewel features as part of the Breast Jewel (medal) worn by all Freemasons who have served as Master of the lodge.
- Webster, 154, quoted; Object
- quoted, for example, in John Earle, The Alfred Jewel, an historical essay, 1901:34; Webster, 153-154
- Grierson 2007, p.327
- Reynolds, Nigel (2 September 2006). "A month's wages in one mancus". The Telegraph.
- Object; parchment is ritually unclean for observant Jews, and the use of the scroll handles and yad avoid the need to touch it.
- Wilson, 111
- Webster, 154-156, and see Index
- Webster, 154
- Webster, 154-155
- Webster, 156
- BBC. "Alfred Jewel shown in 'home county' of Somerset". Retrieved 19 February 2015.
- "A picture is available here". Ashmolean.org. Retrieved 2012-11-17.
- "Warminster Jewel". Salisbury & South Wiltshire Museum. Retrieved 25 November 2012.
- "A picture is available here". Artfund.org. 2012-07-19. Retrieved 2012-11-17.
- "Saxon relic worth up to £15,000". BBC News. 17 September 2008.
- Bonhams auction results
- "A picture is available here". Gizmag.com. Retrieved 2012-11-17.
- "A King’s Ransom for a Bookmark". BiblioBuffet. Retrieved 10 January 2011.
- Webster, 155
- "Object", Ashmolean, "Object of the Month" page
- Webster, Leslie, Anglo-Saxon Art, 2012, British Museum Press, ISBN 9780714128092
- Wilson, David M.; Anglo-Saxon: Art From The Seventh Century To The Norman Conquest, Thames and Hudson (US edn. Overlook Press), 1984.
- Hinton, D. A., A Catalogue of the Anglo-Saxon Ornamental Metalwork 700-1100 in the Department of Antiquities, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 1974. pp 29–48.
- Hinton, D. A., The Alfred Jewel: and Other Late Anglo-Saxon Decorated Metalwork, Oxford, 2008