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VI. DESCRIPTION OF
KING ALFRED'S JEWEL, WITH SOME OBSERVATIONS
THE ART OF WORKING IN GOLD AND SILVER
AMONG THE ANGLO-SAXONS.
The beautiful gem, of which an engraving is given in this work, was accidentally found, according to Gorham's History of St Neot's, “ in 1693, at Newton Park, some distance north of the site of Athelney abbey in Somersetshire, near the junction of the Parrot and the Thone; the spot to which Alfred retired during the Danish troubles, and where he afterwards founded a monastery." It is now preserved in the Ashmolean museum at Oxford. In 1698 it was in the possession of colonel Nathaniel Palmer, of Fairfield in Somersetshire; and in 1718 it was deposited in the Ashmolean Museum, by his son Thomas Palmer, esq.
The gift of the jewel is registered among other donations as follows:
A. D. 1718. Thomas Palmer de Fairfield in agro Somerset. Arm. Vir doctrina et virtutum comitatu spectatissimus picturam senis cujusdam (sancti forsan Cuthberti) auro crystalloque munitam, inter cimelia hujusce musei reponendam transmisit. Perantiquum hoc opus magni quondam Alfredi peculium Academiæ Oxon. legavit Thomas Palmer in eodem pago Militum Tribunus.
On a slip of paper in the same Register it is said :
Perantiquum hoc opus repertum erat prope Athelney pago Somersetensi oppidum ab Ælfredo rege frequentatum.
The engraving was made to embellish a small volume, published several years ago, on the “ Coronation Service, or Consecration of the Anglo-Saxon kings, as it illustrates the origin of the Constitution, by the Rev. Thomas Silver, D. C. L. of St. John's College, Oxford; formerly Anglo-Saxon Professor. Oxford, printed by W. Baxter, for J. Parker; and J. Murray, London. 1831.” The same author,—who has allowed his engraving to be used for the present work—in a letter to the duke of Marlborough and the Right Hon. Baron Churchill, Lay-Rectors of the manor and parish of Charlbury, on the sacrilege and impolicy of the forced Commutation of Tithes, &c. Oxford 1842, has made some further observations on the subject, modifying the explanation which he had given of the Gem in the former work. The Gem has been frequently described and engraved ; but all former representations of it are infinitely inferior to the exact delineation of it which accompanies these remarks.' The main substance or setting of it is of pure gold, containing coloured stones, covered by a remarkably thick crystal, through which is seen the miniature, formed of enamelled mosaic, the compartments being let into cells of gold; the figure is that of a man, holding a fleurde-lis in each hand. Though manufactured nearly a thousand years ago, it is in perfect preservation, and only looks a little dull and dingy for the great length of time that has passed over it. The length of the Gem is about two inches, and it is about half an inch thick. Round the edge are engraved the words AlFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN Alfred had me worked, in pierced gold letters. The narrow end of the Gem, at which the first and last
(1) A loose description, by Dr Musgrave, appeared in 1698, with two figures. [Philos. Trans. Dec. 1698, No. 247, vol. xx, p. 441.]-It was noticed more at large by Dr Hickes in 1700. [Philos. Trans. No. 260, vol. xxii, p. 464.]—A very detailed but not quite accurate account was given by Dr Hickes in 1705, with engravings of the obverse, reverse, and edge, the first figure being from a drawing by sir Robert Harley. (Hickesii Ling. Vett. Septent. Thesuar. tom. i. pp. viii. 142, 143. Oxon. 1705.]—It was described by Hearne, in 1711. [Hearne's Dissertation on the word Æstel, pp. xxiv, xxv, prefixed to Leland's Itinerary, vol. vii, edit. Oxon. 1769.]—It again exercised the talents of Dr Musgrave, in 1715, in a very elegant dissertation, accompanied by three engravings. [Musgravius, De Icuncula quondam M. Regis Ælfredi. 1715.— The opinions of the two former antiquarians were reviewed by Mr Wise, in 1722, whose criticism is accompanied with a figure of the obverse only. [Wise, in Asser. De Reb. Gest. Ælfredi, App. pp. 171, 172. Oxon. 1722.]—Some criticisms by Mr Pegge, and by Dr Mills, appeared in 1765. [Archæologia, vol. ii, pp. 73, 79.]—Engravings of this gem may be seen in Wotton, Ling. Vett. Septent. Thesaur. Conspectus, p. 18, edit. 1708 ; Shelton's Translation of Wotton, with notes, p. 14, edit. 1735; Marmora Oxon. P. III. fig. cxxxvii, edit. Chandler, 1763 ; Camden's Brit. vol. I, p. 77, edit. Gibson, 1722 , and vol. i, p. 59, edit. Gough, 1789; in Life and Times of King Alfred the Great by the Rev. Dr Giles; and in Dr Pauli's Life of Alfred.-Most of these figures, however, seem to be copied from Hickes's plate, with little variation ; they are much too large, and distorted representations.
words of this inscription meet, is formed into the head of some sea-monster, probably (says Dr Musgrave) a dolphin, or perhaps i griffin, the national emblem of the Saxons, having in its mouth a small tube, traversed by a strong rivet, to which a chain was doubtlessly attached; on the reverse of the gem, the lower jaw is wanting, and its place is supplied by a scaly flat surface.
As to the use to which this piece of jewelry was appropriated, opinion has been divided. Dr Hickes, Dr Musgrave, and the late Mr Whitaker, imagined that it must have been worn on the breast dependent from the chain that passed round the neck, in a way similar to ornaments which are still worn by kings and queens on state occasions. Some persons, however, have suggested that the rivet originally passed through some wooden stem to which it has been fixed, and which has perished.
Mr Hearne thought it probable that it was attached to the end of a cylinder, upon which a MS. was rolled, presented by the king to some monastery. Mr Wise and Mr Pegge conceived that it formed the head of a style. Possibly it was mounted upon a standard, (after the manner of the Roman eagle, or was elevated upon the summit of a staff, being carried into battle, for the purpose of animating the soldiers. This conjecture is hazarded as affording an easy solution of the fabulous narratives, which state that St Neot, after his decease, was the constant 'attendant' and 'forerunner' of Alfred ; that he accompanied' the king in his engagement with the Danes near Chippenham, 'led on the troops,' 'preceded the standards,' fought in splendor before the army, and 'gained the victory' for the Saxons. If we make some little allowance for the turgid expressions : of monkish chronicles,
(2) King Alfred sent a copy of his translation of St Gregory's Pastoral, together with an ÆSTLE, to each cathedral. The work, from three of those very MSS., will be given in the second volume of the Jubilee Edition.
(3) The following are the expressions in which these fables are recorded. “Ic be toforen fare." (Sax. Hom. on St Neot, MSS. Cott. Vesp. D. XIV, in Hist. St Neot's, p. 260.)— * Teque tuosque ducam.” “ Prædux semper extiti tuus.” Nonne videtis, Coram SPLENDIFerum nobis bellare Neotum ?” “PALMIFICUS suus Neotus.” (Vita Sci Neoti, MSS. Bodl
. 535, in Whitaker's St Nent.]—“Me (sc. Neoto) prævio gaudebis et protectore.” " In itinere tuus extiti ductor.” “ Ego ante vos ibo, in conspectu meo cadent inimici." "Gloriosus servus Christi NeotuS, SIGNIFER ET PRÆvius, regis antecedebat exercitum ; quem videns Rex Alvredus, Commilitones, inquit, nonne videtis eum qui nostros conterit hostes? si nôsse desideratis, ipse est procul dubio Neotus, Christi miles invictissimus, per quem hodie præsto EST IN MANIBUS NOSTRIS PALMA VictoRIÆ !” (Vita Sci Neoti, Mss. Cott.
(superstitiously referring ordinary occurrences to the miraculous agency of the saint whose merits it was their object to extol, these fables may be naturally traced to the simple fact that the king was accustomed to have this image of his guardian saint near his person, and that he conducted his army under its supposed tutelary influence. An inspection of the figure, holding the flowering branches in his hands, almost realizes the singular expression of the monkish historians, Neotus palmificus ;' while the supposition that this image was elevated on a military banner, affords an easy interpretation to the apparently hyperbolical terms (as applied to a deceased saint,) 'Neotus signifer et prærius Regis antecedebat exercitum.'
“ Mr Whitaker* supposes (very plausibly) that, after the victory of Chippenham, king Alfred presented this Jewel to the monastery of Athelney, in testimony of his pious gratitude to St Neot: “there, probably, it remained till the Reformation ; thence it was taken for plunder, or for preservation; and, in its removal, was accidentally lost, not far from its old depository.'”
The back of the Gem is a flat plate of gold (lying immediately upon the back of the miniature), and ornamented with a fleur de lis, branching into three stems, and traced in gold, without stones.
The front or principal face of the relic is smaller than the back, in consequence of the edge sloping inwards a little all round, so that the words engraved on it do not stand upright, a contrivance probably adopted, for the purpose of giving more effect to the front of the jewel, and making it stand out in stronger relief.
The back-ground of the picture, under the crystal, is composed of a blue stone, on which appears a human figure, formed of enamelled mosaic, the compartments being let into cells of gold. The figure is that of a man, clothed in the green Saxon military vest or tunic, and girt with a belt, from which a strap for a sword depends towards the left side. The man is seated on the throne, with a cyne-helm or crown on its head, and in either hand he holds a sceptre, branching out, over the shoulders, into fleurs de lis. Claud. A. V., in Mabillon, Acta Sanct. Sec. IV, P. II, pp. 334, 335.]—“ Præcedam ante vexilla tua." (Chronicle of the Conventual Libr. of St. Neot's, MSS. Trin. Coll. Camb. R. 7. 28. in Gale Script. XX, Tom. I, p. 167.]
(4) Whitaker's Life of St Neot, p. 273. edit. 1806.
Various have been the conjectures with regard to the figure in the obverse. Dr Hickes, in his Thesaurus, (vol. i, p. 144.]• ·xpresses his doubt whether the figure may have been intended to represent Jesus Christ, or St Cuthbert, who was a patron of king Alfred, and is said in an old legend' to have assisted him in his listress. But the author of the History of St Neot's tells us, that t was St Neot; because, as has been already remarked, he was the 'elative and the spiritual counseller of the king, and was venerated by Alfred above all other & saints. On this subject Dr Silver observes, “I thought formerly, that the figure in the Gem was a ype of Alfred's office as king; but I am now convinced, that the igure itself is that of Jesus Christ, notwithstanding that it is clothed in the military vest of the Saxons; for it was the custom of those times to draw characters in their own dresses. The position of the image is founded on a passage in the 45th Psalm, verse 3, and which is still retained in the present Coronation Service; where the bishop says, “Remember of whom it is said, Gird thyself with thy sword upon thy thigh, O thou most Mighty.'
“This is therefore our Saviour, the belt of the sword being seen surmounted with fleurs de lis. Our Saviour, as the Melchizedec, carries the double sceptre, one on each shoulder, the long sceptre representing the invisible Church in heaven, the shorter that on earth ; both are surmounted with fleur de lis, or lilies, and both sceptres meet at a given point. Alfred was the first sovereign who was crowned with the tithe inherent in it, as attached to the order of Melchizedec. As the Anglo-Saxon kings and also the Normans considered themselves as the Gospelia or messengers of Christ, or the Vicarii Christi in terra, Alfred, under these
(5) Hickes at first suggested that it was a figure of our Saviour, the lily-sceptre in each hand denoting his double reign, in heaven and in earth : Musgrave ultimately adopted the same opinion. Hickes thought it, however, not improbable that it might be intended for the pope; but at last he concluded that it represents some saint; he was led to this opinion from the inscription of a miniature of St Luke, in an ancient MS. of the Gospels, drawn in a nearly similar manner, holding a flowery cross in each hand, [Ling. Vett. Septent. Thesaur. tom. i. p. viii. fig. 5.) Wise conceived that it depicted king Alfred himself, on account of the helmet and military vest, in which (as he supposed) the figure is represented.
(6) See also Musgrave, Phil. Trans. p. 247. Gesta Brit. 1716, and Wise's Asser, Vita Alf.
(7) See Simeon in page 71 of the present work.
(8) “ Rex Alfredus, sanctorum pedibus acclivis et subditus, S. Neotum in summa veneratione habebat." Ingulphi Hist. Croyl. (Fulman, Script. p. 27.)