The Alfred Jewel, one of the most celebrated treasures from Anglo-Saxon England, is returning to Somerset for the first time in nearly 300 years.
The South West Heritage Trust has announced that, through the kindness of the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, the Jewel will be displayed at the Museum of Somerset in Taunton throughout February.
The Jewel, which dates from the late 9th century, was found near North Petherton church in 1693.
It is lavishly made of gold, enamel and rock crystal and includes the image of a seated figure. It also bears a famous inscription which translates as ‘Alfred ordered me to be made’.
It has long been assumed that King Alfred the Great commissioned the Jewel, and that it may have been his gift to the abbey at Athelney which he founded in thanksgiving for his defeat of the Vikings in 878.
Tom Mayberry, Chief Executive of the South West Heritage Trust, said, “The Alfred Jewel is a unique and compelling object which goes to the heart of West Country history. It left Somerset in 1718 and has never returned, so this is a very special occasion.
“We are deeply grateful to the Ashmolean Museum for making possible the loan of one of its greatest treasures. We are also very grateful to Arts Council England who contributed to the costs of the exhibition and without whose practical support the loan could not have happened.”
David Gwyther, Chairman of the South West Heritage Trust, said, “This is a fantastic opportunity to see one of England’s undoubted national treasures. We hope as many people as possible will visit the Museum of Somerset during February to experience this unique and beautiful survival from the distant past.”
Dr Alexander Sturgis, Director of the Ashmolean Museum, said, ‘The Alfred Jewel is an iconic object of Anglo-Saxon England and one of the most popular treasures at the Ashmolean. For that reason, we rarely part with it, but it is a huge pleasure to lend the Jewel to the Museum of Somerset and thereby return it to its home county, if only for a month. I hope as many people as possible from Somerset and the region go along to see the real Jewel and learn about this extraordinary and evocative object.’
Cllr David Hall, Deputy Leader of Somerset County Council, and a trustee of the South West Heritage Trust, said: “Following the long-awaited acquisition of the St Peter’s sculpture, this has been a fantastic week in the life of the new South West Heritage Trust, which really has hit the ground running with some superb exhibits on show and Somerset stories to tell.”
The Alfred Jewel will be displayed at the Museum of Somerset, Taunton Castle, from Saturday 31 January until Saturday 28 February. Talks by two leading Anglo-Saxon experts will take place during the month – by Professor Simon Keynes of Cambridge University on 11 February, and by Leslie Webster of the British Museum on 25 February.
The Museum’s opening hours during February are 10am to 5pm on Tuesdays to Saturdays, with last entry at 4.30 pm. There will also be special late opening events on Tuesdays. Admission to the museum is free.
Notes to editors
The South West Heritage Trust, established as a new, independent organisation in November 2014, is responsible for heritage services previously run by Somerset and Devon County Councils. The new organisation is independent, but the Councils are the Trust’s main funders.
The programme of Alfred Jewel-related events for the month of February is as follows:
Saturday 31 January
Jewel goes on public display for the first time.
Tuesday 3 February
First of two special Tuesday late night openings. The museum will open from 6pm to 9pm. There will be a charge of £7.50 for these occasions, including a glass of wine and an introduction to the Jewel by a curator. The café will open for pre-booked meals for an additional charge.
Tuesday 10 February
Ordinary extended evening opening to 7pm.
Wednesday 11 February
Evening talk by Professor Simon Keynes of the University of Cambridge on the story of the Alfred Jewel. Simon Keynes is one of the country’s leading experts on the Jewel.
Tuesday 17 February
Special evening opening (as 3 February).
Tuesday 24 February
Ordinary extended evening opening to 7.00 pm.
Wednesday 25 February
Talk by Leslie Webster, formerly of the British Museum, on the sculpture of St Peter and Anglo-Saxon art. Leslie Webster is a leading authority on Anglo-Saxon art and metalwork.
Friday 27 February
‘Talk and Tea’ at the Museum of Somerset. Richard Brunning will give a talk: ‘In the soggy footsteps of King Alfred – the wetlands, the Islands and the Vikings’.
Saturday 28 February
The final opportunity to see the Alfred Jewel.
About the Alfred Jewel
The Alfred Jewel was found in an area called Parker’s Field, North Petherton, in 1693, on land belonging to Sir Thomas Wroth. By 1698 the Jewel was in the possession of his uncle and guardian, Col. Nathaniel Palmer of Fairfield, Stogursey. When Nathaniel Palmer died in 1718 the Jewel was, as he had wished, presented to the University of Oxford by his son, Thomas Palmer. It soon entered the collections of the Ashmolean Museum and has remained there ever since.
The Jewel, which is 6.4 cm long, consists of a gold frame surrounding the image of a seated figure depicted in blue, green, red and white cloisonné enamel. The figure wears a green short-sleeved tunic and holds a flowering plant in each hand. The image is covered by a piece of transparent rock crystal (quartz). The identity of the figure is uncertain, but suggestions have included Christ, St Cuthbert, St Neot and King Alfred himself. Today, most scholarly opinion believes the figure represents the sense of Sight, or Christ as the incarnation of divine wisdom.
An inscription in openwork lettering around the frame reads + AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN (‘Alfred ordered me to be made’). It is generally assumed that the person referred to is King Alfred the Great (reigned 871–899) and that the Jewel was made in his lifetime.
At the narrower end of the Jewel is a socket, through which a gold rivet passes. The socket is empty but the rivet suggests that the Jewel was originally mounted on a thin rod, presumably of wood or bone.
What was the Jewel used for? Some have suggested that it was mounted on a staff of office or worn as a pendant around the neck, or even that it was part of King Alfred’s crown.
Today the favoured view is that the Jewel and its rod served as a pointer (or aestel) for following the place when reading from a book. Alfred sent translations of Pope Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care to monasteries throughout his kingdom, and included with each book a precious aestel. It is possible, therefore, that the Alfred Jewel was his gift to the monastery he founded at Athelney, six miles from Parker’s Field.
Information about the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
Founded in 1683, the Ashmolean Museum is the most significant museum of art and archaeology in the heart of Britain and the finest university museum in the world. Its collections are large, rich and unusually diverse, ranging from archaeology to fine and decorative arts, and from numismatics to casts of classical sculpture from the great museums of Europe.
The Ashmolean is home to the best collection of Predynastic Egyptian material in Europe; the only great collection of Minoan antiquities outside Greece; the largest and most important group of Raphael drawings in the world; the greatest Anglo-Saxon collections outside the British Museum; a world renowned collection of coins and medals; and outstanding holdings of Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Islamic art.
The works and objects in these remarkable collections tell the story of civilisation and the aspirations of mankind from Nineveh and ancient Egypt, to the Renaissance, right up to the triumphs of twentieth century Europe. Admission to the Museum is free. www.ashmolean.org