The Alfred Jewel: One of The Most Significant and Mysterious Treasures from England

One of the most mysterious and celebrated treasures from Anglo-Saxon England, the Alfred Jewel is believed to be more than 1,000 years old. It was discovered in 1693 in a field at North Petherton, Somerset.

Made of enamel and quartz, this remarkable jewel was made in the reign of Alfred the Great with an inscription “AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN” which means “Alfred ordered me made.” It is an unusual example of Anglo-Saxon jewelry because it begs all kinds of questions about where the materials came from.

The front side of the Alfred Jewel. Photo Credit
espite its diminutive size, is of priceless value to England and its history.

The mysterious crystal likeness of a man can be seen in a teardrop shape enclosed within a golden dragon-headed frame. The pale figure stares at the viewer from under his mop of golden hair and clutches what appear to be two long-stemmed plants in his hands.

The intricately carved golden dragon has a long and tapering scaled snout and the corners of its snarling mouth reveal a fanged maw. Indeed, it appears the dragon may have even been included to symbolically protect the human figure it encircles like some kind of monstrous Dark Age guard dog.

It is an unusual example of Anglo-Saxon jewelry. The two-and-a-half-inch long jewel made of filigreed gold has an image of a man, which many historians believe is a picture of Christ. Shaped like a teardrop, it was once believed that this jewel was a pendant worn around the neck. However, this would mean that the image of Christ would be permanently hung upside-down.

Another theory is that it might have been the centerpiece of a royal crown but the setting seemed inappropriate for that purpose. According to Webster, the back of the jewel is a flat gold plate which is engraved with either a plant motif or an image of the Tree of Life.

The Alfred Jewel in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Photo Credit

It has been dated to the late 9th century.
Over the years, many suggestions have been made about the function of this jewel. The most common is that it was a pointer to use for reading manuscripts. It is assumed that it may have been Alfred’s gift to the abbey, which he founded at Athelney in 878 after his defeat of the Vikings.

A description of the jewel was first published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1698. Colonel Nathaniel Palmer bequeathed the jewel to Oxford University and it was on display in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. In 2015, after 297 years away, the Alfred jewel was put on display for one month at the Museum of Somerset, Taunton Castle.

19th-century illustration of the jewel.
Six similar jewels have been found that were made for the same purpose. These include the Minister Lovell Jewel, The Warminister Jewel, The Bowleaze Jewel, The Yorkshire Aestel, The Borg Aestel, and The Bidford Bobble.

In May 2008, the six jewels along with the Alfred Jewel were exhibited in Winchester Discovery Center. They were the centerpiece of an exhibition dedicated to the relics of Alfred the Great.

The Alfred Jewel was discovered in the late 17th century when it was plowed up in a field at North Petherton, in the county of Somerset. The place of its find makes the artifact even more interesting, since North Petherton is pretty close to Athelney Abbey, the refuge from which Alfred launched his counter-attack on the Great Army of the Danes. It was presented to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in 1718, and is still displayed there today.

Some of the early theories regarding its use claimed it was the centerpiece of a royal crown jewel or a pendant, but these ideas were quickly renounced. Its identification as an aestel came more recently, as it much resembled the Jewish Yad which is used in synagogues for reading the Torah.

In 1901, in honor of the millenary of King Alfred’s death, replicas of the Alfred Jewel were made, some by Elliot Stocks of London and others by Payne’s of Oxford.

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