Alfred Jewel

Description

The Alfred Jewel is one of the most celebrated objects surviving from Anglo-Saxon England. Inscribed +ÆFLRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN (‘Alfred ordered me to be made’), it was found in 1693 at North Petherton, a few miles from King Alfred’s fortress and monastery at Athelney, in Somerset. Given its quality, find spot and inscription, it is hard to resist the assumption that it was commissioned by Alfred the Great.

In his Life of King Alfred, Asser alluded rhetorically to ‘the treasures incomparably fashioned in gold and silver at the king’s instigation’, and refers to income which Alfred gave ‘to his craftsmen, who were skilled in every earthly craft, and whom he had assembled and commissioned in almost countless numbers from many races’.

The enamelled figure on the front of the jewel, set beneath a rock crystal, has prominent eyes and holds two floriate stems; the decoration incised on the gold plate on the reverse is thought to be a Tree of Life. The figure on the front may represent sentient man; or the king, with his commitment to Christian learning; or Christ, who sees all.

The animal-head socket at the lower end suggests that the jewel was formerly the handle of a small rod, perhaps of wood or ivory. The Alfred Jewel is one of at least nine other ‘unidentified socketed objects’ found in England and Norway. All appear to have had a similar purpose, perhaps as the decorative or weighted end of a small pointer, used for following the line when reading. This suggestion comes from King Alfred’s preface to the Old English Pastoral Care, which reveals that an æstel or pointer worth fifity gold coins was included with each copy of the book.

Full title:
The Alfred Jewel
Created:
Late 9th century
Format:
Jewellery
Held by
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Shelfmark:
Ashmolean Museum AN1836 p.135.371

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