King Alfred’s jewel

Teaching ideas

Show an image of the jewel to the class and ask them to examine it closely. There are photos of three sides of the jewel in For the classroom. Discuss the jewel, the materials it was made from and its complicated decoration. What kind of person would it have been made for?

Discuss the jewel’s most likely use as part of a pointer called an aestel. Ask students to choose a book that is special to them for a particular reason and design and make a tool to protect the book from finger marks or damage; or to use to read the book or examine the illustrations.

Show students the inscription on the jewel and discuss the translation. Some people think ‘Alfred’ in the inscription is King Alfred but no one is certain. Ask student to use the web and books in your library to research the main achievements of Alfred the Great – there are links in For the classroom. If the jewel was a pointer for reading religious books, is this something Alfred was interested in?

Reading, writing and religion were all important to Alfred. According to a story, young Alfred was attracted to the illustrated initial letters in a book of poetry - see the video clip in For the classroom for the story. Ask students to design their own illustrated letters, using the initials from their names. Students can incorporate Anglo-Saxon motifs, inspired by the Alfred Jewel and other Anglo-Saxon objects – there are many examples in this Object File.

The identity of the figure on the Alfred jewel is mysterious. It may be King Alfred; but the figure is not wearing a crown; and his elbows rest on the arms of a chair, not a formal throne. As the Anglo-Saxons were Christians, it has been suggested that the figure on the jewel is Jesus Christ or a saint, but there is no halo behind his head. It has also been suggested that the figure is a personification of the sense of sight. Ask students to compare the figure on the Alfred jewel to figures on other Anglo-Saxon objects: Alfred on the silver penny of Alfred the Great, the five senses on the Fuller brooch and Christ on the ivory plaque - see For the classroom. Ask students to look carefully at what the figures are wearing; what they are holding, their hair and faces and the symbols around them. Hold a class debate, asking students to present arguments for and against each possibility.

The figure on the jewel has very large eyes, and so is now widely thought to represent the sense of sight. If the jewel was an aestel used for reading, this link to sight seems appropriate. Look at and discuss examples of the personification of the senses on the Alfred jewel and the Fuller brooch – see For the classroom. Print these out or use the whiteboard and invite students to annotate the senses and how they were able to identify them.

Students could follow this up by drawing their own personifications of the senses or other aspects of life that may have been important to the Anglo-Saxons, such as the qualities of a king; strength, courage, fairness, for example. If they had to use animals to stand for these qualities, what animals would they choose?

Discuss the qualities an Anglo-Saxon king needed in order to examine why Alfred was known as ‘the Great.’ Ask students to find out about Alfred and how he measured up to the qualities they identified. You may wish to split the class in two, with one half looking at Alfred from the point of view of an Anglo-Saxon, and the other looking at him from the point of view of a Viking settler, so that they can present their findings to each other.

The Ashmolean Museum has described the Alfred jewel as a “matchless piece of goldsmith’s work by a master-craftsman… the pinnacle of Anglo-Saxon technological achievement.” Ask your students if they agree. Ask them to compare the jewel to other examples, such as those in A bigger picture. They can find out more about Anglo-Saxon jewellery and technology using the links to Museum Explorer in For the classroom.

To extend this activity, ask students to use persuasive language try to ‘sell’ the pieces of Anglo-Saxon gold work to each other; persuading their buyer by pointing out the materials or techniques used.

Discuss the events of King Alfred’s reign. Your class might like to create an illustrated timeline or a comic strip. Ask them to find out what happened next. The stories of the objects in the leaders and rulers section of Museum Explorer provide a good starting point.

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King Alfred’s jewel