I was in Oxford recently with several hours to kill, so decided to renew my friendship with the Alfred Jewel in the Ashmolean Museum. The ‘Jewel’ is a tear-shaped slice of rock crystal surrounded by intricate and exquisite goldsmith’s work. Beneath the crystal is a small plaque showing a figure made of cloisonne enamel work – the rock crystal protects this. The gold edging says ‘AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWRYCAN’, which translated means ‘Alfred ordered me to be made’. This connects the jewel with King Alfred the Great, who ruled the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex between 871-899 AD. The jewel was found in a field in Somerset at the end of the 17th Century, only a few miles from Athelney Abbey, one of Alfred’s bases in his struggle against the Viking invaders.
No one is entirely sure what the jewel was for, but the delicately moulded head, shaped like a dragon, at the base of the jewel, has a tiny cylindrical socket in which an ivory pointer could have been held in place by a rivet. Alfred commissioned translations of religious texts from Latin into Anglo-Saxon and had them distributed throughout his kingdom, accompanied by pointers, or aestels as they were called, to help the reader mark their place in the text. It is thought that the jewel may have been an aestel. The whole piece is only 6.2cms long, 3.1cms wide and 1.3cms deep.
I find it deeply moving that the Christian texts, distributed by Alfred, were considered so important that they needed to be accompanied by exquisitely beautiful and valuable objects to keep the reader’s attention focused. The figure has quite pronounced eyes too, as if saying look carefully at what you read. Of course, all religious texts, including the Bible, had to be copied by hand in Alfred’s time, they didn’t just roll of the printing press in their thousands as now, but nonetheless, it makes me quite ashamed of my rather tatty, much thumbed Bible – at least, I suppose, it means that it is read repeatedly, and the words are valued. Alfred’s ‘Jewel’ is a reminder that everything that helps us to follow the word of God and to understand the Christian message is exquisitely beautiful and should be treasured.