Wednesday, 19 December 2012

A Gift From a King?

Today's artefact mixes beauty, mystery and monastries...

Image taken from The Ashmolean
It is the ever impressive Alfred Jewel!  It was discovered in 1693, North Petherton, Somerset and was bequeathed to Oxford University in 1718 by Colonel Nathaniel Palmer.  It now resides in The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford and a replica is held in the North Petherton Church.  The teardrop artefact is some 6cm long and made from gold, with a cloisonn√© enamel plaque inserted in the centre and covered with a teardrop pieces of quartz.  It is sometimes suggested that the quartz was originally cut in the Roman period and happened to fit well for the purpose of Alfred's Jewel.  Its' purpose is much debated, over the years it has been suggested that it was everything from a pendant to the central piece of Alfred the Great's crown! Why Alfred the Great? Well it is inscribed with 'Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan' which translates to Alfred ordered me made.
This has always been assumed as being a royal reference, particularly due to it dating to the late 9th century AD.  This is of course possible, but, I find the lack of royal title a little unusual.  There is a fair case in favour of such theories and it goes a bit like this....
Firstly it is of course the inscribed name and the period.  Secondly is the ornate nature of the Jewel, it so beautifully made that a master craftsman would be required, the sort that royal houses employ.  So far I'm not too convinced either, but, there is some history to go with it!  Alfred the Great is renowned for his military exploits, but, he was also a cultural fellow and was very keen to develop the role of the Church within England.  He was keen to have key religious texts translated and distributed amongst the monasteries, one such text was the Pastoral Care of Pope Gregory the Great.  This text was written in c. 890 and Alfred died in c. 899 so he just about had time to get it translated and distributed across the land.  However, this text came with a little added extra, an aestel, to ensure the script was carefully followed and read in an appropriate manner.  This is furthered by the enamel plaque, the image illustrates a man, seemingly of the cloth, sometimes said to be St. Cuthbert.  Alternatively he has been likened to a silver brooch held at the British Museum, of similar date, which depicts the senses.  On this brooch, much like the Alfred Jewel, a man is depicted holding flowers in each hand which is said to represent sight...somewhat appropriate for an image upon an aestel.  This information is all well and good but how did the potential aestel get to North Petherton?  Well some 8km away is the location of one of the monasteries that Alfred the Great sent the text and aesel to way back in the 9th Century.  It is possibly an elaborate coincidence and studies are guided by the desire for it to be connected to Alfred the Great.  I am not sure myself, I think I would like to know a bit more about it and its' contexts before I make up my mind, but, it is nice to think that 9th Century royalty made a mark across their lands, with such gifts. 

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