Somerset

Alfred Jewel shown in 'home county' of Somerset

Alfred Jewel Image copyright other
Image caption The Alfred Jewel was found in North Petherton in 1693

A priceless piece of jewellery believed to be made for the first King of England has returned to Somerset for the first time in nearly 300 years.

Linked to Alfred the Great, the Alfred Jewel was found in 1693 in North Petherton, Somerset.

It was donated to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in 1718 where it has remained part of the permanent collection.

Believed to be over 1,000 years old, the jewel has been loaned to the Museum of Somerset for a month-long display.

Head of the museum Steve Minnitt, said: "The Alfred Jewel is the most famous and celebrated archaeological object to have survived from Anglo-Saxon England.

"Its return to Somerset for the first time in 297 years is a very special occasion.

"The jewel is one of the most prized objects in the Ashmolean Museum and we are enormously grateful to them for so willingly and enthusiastically agreeing to its loan."

The jewel was found by Sir Thomas Wroth on his Petherton Park estate in an area known as Parker's Field.

But it later came into the possession of Sir Thomas's guardian and uncle, Colonel Nathaniel Palmer of Stogursey.

For the next 25 years it remained in Somerset, but was given to Oxford University and later became part of the collection at the Ashmolean Museum, on the dying wish of Col Palmer.

Image copyright Private collection
Image caption The Alfred Jewel was found by Sir Thomas Wroth of Petherton Park in 1693
Image copyright Private collection
Image caption When Colonel Nathaniel Palmer died in 1718, his dying wish was for the Alfred Jewel to go to Oxford University
Image copyright South West Heritage Trust
Image caption The Alfred Jewel stayed in Somerset for 25 years at Fairfield House, Stogursey before being taken to Oxford

The jewel is linked to Alfred the Great for a number of reasons.

Professor of Anglo-Saxon History at Cambridge University, Simon Keynes, said the place where it was discovered was "quite close to a place with very, very strong Alfredian associations with Athelney Abbey in Somerset".

"It's a place where there was a fort and where he subsequently founded an abbey," he said.

"The fact this object was found within a few miles of Athelney certainly starts one thinking about who the Alfred named in the inscription [on the Alfred Jewel] was.

"The obvious and natural interpretation that this is a reference to King Alfred and that his Kingship is taken for granted."

Mysterious figure

However, the identity of the male figure remains a mystery with suggestions ranging from King Alfred himself to Christ, St Cuthbert or St Neot.

The inscription around the side of the jewel translates as "Alfred ordered me to be made", but it is difficult to say when it was made.

"It's extremely difficult to date... a historian might be inclined to date it later in Alfred's reign than earlier.

"In the 870s he is fighting fairly hard for his survival and for the survival of his people against repeated Viking invasions of the kingdom of the West Saxon.

"But following his victory at the battle of Edington in Wiltshire in 878 and following other developments in other kingdoms, he was enjoying a greater period of peace and reconstruction in the 880s.

"It's in that period we would see the beginnings of the context in which this object would make the most sense," explained Prof Keynes.

Image copyright Ashmolean Museum
Image caption The inscription on the side of the jewel reads: 'Alfred ordered me to be made'
Image copyright Ashmolean Museum
Image caption The back of the jewel has a tree-like design

The jewel is made out of a tear-drop shaped piece of rock crystal, encased gold and enamel, and decorated with fine engravings.

The most popular theory is that it was used as a pointer to help read books.

King Alfred was passionate about learning and reviving religious life and learning - particularly after the Vikings destruction of monasteries in England.

"The assumption is that such an object could have been distributed by the king to religious houses which needed them in order to read books, which is entirely credible," said Professor Keynes.

It is one of a number of Anglo Saxon jewels, such as the Warminster Jewel and the Bowleaze Jewel, which have been discovered.

However, the Alfred Jewel is the most spectacular and ornate of its type.

Professor Keynes said: "The more these kind of objects are found, the more one wonders whether the function of them was slightly more commonplace than a reader, or reading aid - a jewel that one wears on a cloak or is placed on top of a staff [rod] of office.

"One wants to leave options open and allow the imagination to race."

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