The connection with Alfred
This object is made from precious materials: an enamelled image of a seated figure is protected by a piece of rock crystal and set in gold. Around the edge the gold frame has letters cut out to read AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN, ‘Alfred ordered me to be made’, in the Anglo-Saxon language of Old English.
The technical accomplishment of the maker of the object, the rich materials used and the inscription all suggest that it is to be associated with King Alfred, the son of King Æthelwulf of Wessex. The jewel was found in 1693, in a field at North Petherton, Somerset, just a few miles from Athelney, the stronghold of King Alfred and where he founded a monastery.
Alfred as king
Alfred succeeded his brother Æthelred as king of Wessex in AD 871. Wessex, like all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, was under threat of Viking invasion. After some minor defeats, Alfred paid off the Viking army in exchange for peace, which lasted for five years.
In early 878 a surprise Viking attack on Wessex drove Alfred to retreat to Athelney, in the Somerset marshes; from here he assembled his people and , defeated the Viking army at Edington, Wiltshire, in May the same year. This was an important victory; the peace settlement negotiated by Alfred and the Viking ruler Guthrum recognised the Vikings’ occupation of all land north and east of a line across England. By AD 886, after further Danish raids, the boundary appears to have been formalised and Alfred consolidated his control of the territory south and west of the border. The Viking land later became known as the Danelaw.
Alfred seems to have spent much of the beginning of his reign strengthening his army and naval defence, but his military strength was not the only reason he was accepted by the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms as king. He and his family were considered just rulers. Alfred advocated justice and order and established a code of laws. He also developed a diplomatic strategy and the marriage of his daughter Æthelflaed to the Mercian leader helped to consolidate a strong alliance between Wessex and Mercia.
Alfred’s revival of literacy and learning
There have been several ideas about the purpose of the Alfred jewel. Early theories suggested the jewel was the centrepiece of a royal headdress, or a pendant. However, at the pointed base of the jewel’s setting there is a cylindrical socket and a rivet, held in a beast’s mouth and when hung by this, the figure on the jewel would have appeared upside-down.
Recent opinion suggests that the jewel is an aestel or pointer, used to follow the text in a gospel book. The socket and rivet in the setting might have held a wood or ivory rod so that the jewel was used as the handle and the rod used to point.
Alfred believed in the importance of education; he wrote about gaining inner wisdom through the ‘eyes of the mind’ and believed literacy provided wisdom. He was taught to read Old English as a boy and learned Latin in his late thirties. Alfred arranged, and himself took part in, the translation of religious texts from Latin to Old English in order to spread wisdom more widely. When he had copies of the translated Pastoral Care of Pope Gregory the Great sent to bishops throughout England, he is said to have also sent a precious aestel with each so that it might be read with all due solemnity. The Alfred jewel may be part of one of these aestels.
Alfred Jewel at the Ashmolean Museum
King Alfred and the jewel
An audio clip and brief text about King Alfred and the jewel.
King Alfred’s reign
An overview of Anglo-Saxon England.
Bowleaze Cove jewel
The Bowleaze Cove jewel; another example of an Anglo-Saxon jewel that may be part of an aestel.
Minster Lovell jewel
The Minster Lovell jewel; another jewel with gold and enamelling that may be part of an aestel.
The Warminster jewel; which may be part of an aestel.
The Lindisfarne Gospels online. This is a magnificent manuscript written and decorated by a monk. The Latin text of the Gospels is translated into Old English; the original manuscript would probably have been read reverently using an aestel.
Anglo-Saxons and Vikings
Invisible Vikings: an Archaeology magazine article that examines the relationship between the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings.
Explore British archaeology at the Ashmolean Museum