The story of Alfred's Jewel.
My family was not particularly close. Very soon after my birth, my father moved us to Africa and I grew up without family beyond my parents and siblings. As a result, friends were closer to us than blood relatives that we never saw. I never thought about ancestors because none of us knew anything about them.
When I moved back to England at the age of 27, I discovered that my Uncle George had extensive knowledge of the family’s relatives and ancestors. It was all incredibly boring and unremarkable, apart from a possible and highly dubious connection to Guy Fawkes. I found myself unable to retain any of it.
Which left me with nothing to say when called upon to write of my ancestors. Until, that is, I realised that I already had an essay written several years ago about the man who could be said to be the ancestor of the English people. It may not be exactly what was expected but it’s all I have. So here it is.
There is a period in European history known as the Dark Ages. This lasts from the end of the Roman Empire in about 400AD until the Norman conquest of England in 1066. We often think of this period as a time of savagery and the death of civilization and we presume that this is the reason for its name. In fact, those years are called the Dark Ages merely because we knew so little about them until recently.
Much has changed. Since 1900, an enormous amount of study and archaeology has added greatly to our knowledge of the Dark Ages, in England especially. And the picture that emerges is very different from our expectations of savagery after the cultured heights of the Roman Empire. We find that the tribes that inherited the remnants of Roman culture were not the uncouth brutes of popular imagination but had their own cultural achievements that were just as impressive. Rome was a marvel of organization and civic construction; the barbarian races that replaced her were artistic and free.
In England the addition of Celtic Christianity to the barbarian mix produced a flowering of culture that has not been equaled since. Between the years 600 and 1000AD was England's only golden age in the visual arts. Continental parents sent their sons and daughters to England to learn the skills that were later to produce masterpieces of medieval art. We have all seen examples of the illustrated manuscript with its flowing designs and lively drawings; what we don't realize is that this all stems from Anglo Saxon styles of an earlier period.
The Angles and Saxons also developed the art of metalwork and jewelry to an amazing degree. Combining their own mastery of precious metals with the intricate designs of the Celts, they produced some of the most beautiful jewelry ever made. Perhaps the most famous examples of such skills were found at Sutton Hoo in East Anglia. But of even more importance for England's history is the exquisite Alfred’s Jewel.
I had seen illustrations of Alfred's Jewel many times before I saw it in reality. None do it justice. Because photographs of it are always greater than actual size, one cannot appreciate the skill involved in its making. It is tiny. And it is this that makes us understand that those Anglo Saxons were not barbarians living in an age of savagery. Such fine detail, such mastery of different materials, did not come from the hands of a brute but a master craftsman. And such artistry cannot live in a culture of savagery; it requires the support of a sophisticated and complex social organization to bear fruit.
Yet the Jewel has importance beyond its beauty. Around the edge is written Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan, Anglo Saxon for "Alfred had me made". To read those words and see how our modern English has sprung from them is to know, if we have English blood in our veins, that these were the people from whom we come, that we are essentially Anglo Saxon in our make up. The Jewel is a link to our ancestry, a powerful reminder that we are what has gone before.
But even this is not what speaks to us most immediately. It's that word Aelfred that makes us sit up and take notice. Could it be? Is it possible that this Aelfred is actually King Alfred the Great?
The Jewel was found only four miles from Athelney, the island in the Somerset marshes where Alfred wintered before his ultimate defeat of the invading Danes. It is quite likely that Alfred sent the Jewel as a gift to the monastery established at Athelney and, if so, it is a direct link with the only English king to have been honored with the title "the Great".
This is the real mystique of the Alfred Jewel; it may have been touched by the hands of our greatest ancestor. Alfred is credited with the birth of the British Navy, with the defeat of the Danish vikings and the restoration of learning in his country. These alone are sufficient to merit his being remembered. But his greatest achievement was that he made England possible. Before his time, there were several Anglo Saxon kingdoms, the greatest being Northumbria, Mercia and his own Wessex. After him there is only England and the Danelaw (that was soon to be incorporated again by his grandson, Athelstan). Without Alfred, there would have been no England.
All these things are concentrated in the little artifact we know as Alfred's Jewel. It lies in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and, if you get the chance, I recommend that you go see it for yourself. And, if you do, remember as you gaze that it may be known as Alfred's Jewel, but the man it reminds us of was really England's Jewel.
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