In discovering the Anglo-Saxon world, archaeologists have made a number of excavations that provided a fruitful insight into the treasuries of this eminent historical period. One of the most significant, yet mysterious, treasures that has been discovered from this period is the Alfred Jewel–a 9th century object commissioned by King Alfred which, presumably, was used as a pointer to aid the reading of Bibles and other religious texts that were copied, by hand, and distributed around the kingdom upon Alfred’s order.
According to historical records, this goldsmith’s marvel was made by a craftsman who was operating under the patronage of the West Saxon court. The jewel’s base takes the form of a dragon-like head with a socket in its mouth, within which a pointer would have been held in a specific spot by a rivet. The body depicts an enameled image of a seated figure, which is protected under a teardrop-shaped highly polished quartz crystal and set in a gold frame.
The figure was initially interpreted as St. Cuthbert, an English saint who lived before Alfred. However, today the figure is considered either to represent Sight, or is a depiction of Christ as Wisdom. The edge is trimmed by a golden frame which has carved letters that read AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN, meaning “Alfred ordered me to be made,” in Old English.
The technological achievements of the Anglo-Saxon period, as well as the selection of high-priced materials, suggest a strong association with King Alfred, son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex. History remembers Alfred as one of England’s greatest king warriors and a proponent of justice, learning, and civilization.
The reign of King Alfred as king of Wessex commenced in 871, when he succeeded his brother Æthelred. The frequent Viking attacks on Wessex challenged Alfred’s competency as a ruler, but he soon proved himself as a great leader. By 886, he had formalized boundaries and consolidated his control of the territory south and west of the border, unifying southern England. His ruling strategies were diplomatic enough to provide a strong alliance with the neighboring kingdom of Mercia, after he gave the hand of his daughter Æthelflaed to the Mercian leader.
In addition to his well-maneuvered leadership, Alfred was a believer in the power and importance of education, knowing that wisdom and literacy are inseparable. He died in 899 after a devastating battle against Scandinavian warriors.
King Alfred learned to read Old English as a young man, advancing to Latin in his late thirties. His engagement in educational work led him to arrange and actively participate in the translation of Latin religious texts to Old English, aiming to spread wisdom further.
Reportedly, King Alfred sent out to each “episcopal see” (the equivalent of a diocese) in his kingdom a copy of Pastoral Care, written by Pope Gregory the Great, along with an aestel–a pointer designed for the reading of manuscripts–of great value, which was to kept with the book and used as a reading aid. Presumably, the Alfred Jewel was one of these aestels.
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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Later, the Ashmolean’s conservation department also created a few replicas of this Anglo-Saxon treasure. Regardless, the encrypted mystery of the Alfred Jewel is a testimony of its creator’s achievements, which were as much cultural as military, enlightening and enforcing the Anglo-Saxon identity through the use of its vernacular.