Many – or perhaps most – lovers of early medieval history will probably have heard of The Alfred Jewel. As a writer of novels set in the mid-late 9th century during the lifetime of Alfred the Great, it stands to reason that I should mention this fabulous jewel at some stage. That mention comes in the last chapter of the final book of the Sons of Kings series: King of the Anglo Saxons.
So what is this jewel, why it is of special interest and why it has been linked to King Alfred, shown in images below?
The Alfred Jewel is a rare and magnificent piece of filigreed gold enclosing a tear-shaped slice of clear quartz over a cloisonné* enamel plaque of green and blue. It is about 2.5 inches long and 1.2 inches wide, its purpose being to hold a pointer that could be attached to a page of a manuscript and moved down to facilitate reading of the text. Such implements were referred to aestels in Anglo-Saxon times. Several others have been found, all fabulous finds, but none as exquisite, or colourful, as the Alfred Jewel.
The image on the plaque of the Alfred Jewel is of a man with prominent eyes, holding two floriate stems. It could be a picture of Alfred himself, the pope, one of the saints, a figure of Sentient Man or Christ Incarnate. Modern thought favours the last two. The back of the enclosing gold is flattened for smooth sliding over a page (as with all aestels) and is decorated with an intricate design, thought to represent the Tree of Life.
The gold thickens at the base of the ‘tear-drop’ to become a dragon-like head. Inside the creature’s mouth is a cylindrical socket/hollow tube designed to hold a pointer. Most pointers were of wood but other materials were also used, notably ivory. The pointer was held in place by a rivet. Around the edge of the jewel is the inscription, ALFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN, which means ‘Alfred ordered me to be made’.
The jewel was ploughed up in a field on land owned by Sir Thomas Wroth at North Pemberton in Somerset in 1693. The site is a mere eight miles from Athelney, where Alfred built his stronghold in order to defend his kingdom from Guthrum, and his invading Danes in 878 (Sons of Kings, Book 3, Wyvern of Wessex). We took his photo from an information board at Athelney:
The jewel was bequeathed to Oxford University by Sir Colonel Nathaniel Palmer (1661-1718) and today it is in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford – where it has been described as ‘a matchless piece of goldsmith’s work’ by the British Archaeology Collection at the Ashmolean Museum
*Cloisonné is decorative work in which pieces of enamel, glass or gemstones are separated by strips of flattened wire placed edgeways on a metal body.