The Alfred Jewel is a small object, no more than 2 1/2 inches long and 1 1/2 inches wide, currently residing at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Rimmed in gold with an enamel image beneath a piece of rock crystal, the Jewel is encircled by the legend ‘Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan’ (Alfred ordered me to be made.)
It is this text which has not only lent the Jewel its name, but has also captured the imagination of generations of scholars, who associate the piece with King Alfred of Wessex–sometimes called the first king of England (he reigned from 871-99). While not certain, this identification fits with what we know both of the Jewel and of King Alfred. For one thing, the Jewel was found in a part of southwestern England associated with Alfred, and is certainly of sufficiently royal quality. Its style, too, places it around the end of the ninth century.
More interesting, however, are the links between the object’s function and Alfred’s activities. Near the base of the Jewel, where the creature’s mouth opens, there is a socket, or space, where it appears to have been attached to some now long-gone object. From this, scholars have speculated that the Jewel once capped a rod called an aestel. Probably ornate objects, aestels seem to have functioned as pointers for reading, much as we today might scan a line of text with our fingers.
The figure depicted on the Jewel is also debated. While possibly a representation of Christ, the image may also depict the personification of Sight, or even the Wisdom of God. These associations, combined with the Jewel’s probable function as the decoration for an aestel, link the Jewel quite strongly to mediaeval ideas of learning, and to Alfred.
Although he spent much of his reign defending the realm of Wessex from Viking incursion, Alfred had a love of learning and valued it highly. His contemporary biographer Asser remarked that it was “his peculiar and most characteristic habit either to read books aloud or to listen to others doing so–by day and night, amid all other mental preoccupations and physical ailments.” Asser also relates that Alfred kept a small pamphlet of his favourite passages with him, and commanded an unprecedented number of his nobles to learn to read.
His appreciation for the written word was shared by another famous king of the early Middle Ages. Charlemagne, who ruled over territory in modern day France, Germany, and Italy (ca.742-814), also strove to master the liberal arts. His biographer Einhard recorded how the king would sleep with a writing tablet under his pillow. Despite his efforts, however, Charlemagne never mastered the art of writing and listened to, rather than read, the books available at court.
The lavish Alfred Jewel, if it did originate at King Alfred’s court, illustrates the high status of learningat a time when even kings might be illiterate.
You can find the primary sources mentioned in this post in
Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge (ed. and trans.), Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources, (London, 1983).
Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/einhard.asp>
For more on the Alfred Jewel, see Keynes and Lapidge, pp.203-206.