Rooting through Polly’s library the other day I came across this book, and judging it by its cover – as you do – I took it out and started reading. Of course I’ve heard of jewellery hoards, and particularly the Cheapside hoard, but the more I read the more I wanted to know so I started digging a bit.
I was amazed to find that the first hoard discovered and recorded in England was the Harkirk hoard discovered in Merseyside in 1611, and it consisted of about 300 Viking and Kufic (Arabian!) coins. The latest hoard to be discovered in this country was found in the Chew valley in Somerset in 2019, and is probably the largest find of Norman coins in the UK, and in between 1611 and 2019 there have been hundreds of finds, but not all of them get much press and probably go largely unnoted. Not so with the Cheapside Hoard, or London’s Lost Jewels as they’re called, which were discovered in the basement of a building in Cheapside (London) in 1912, and are without doubt the most important source of knowledge about Elizabethan and Jacobean jewellery, ever.
Of course copious amounts of research has been done on this hoard for all the obvious reasons, but the most pressing question about this collection is how did it come to be there? Was it the stock of a jeweller that had been buried for safekeeping? Was it swag, hidden till it could be sold on? Was it a private collection buried to keep it safe for the family? It had to be studied minutely to try and answer these questions, and in doing this so much information about the jewellery and the jewellery trade of that period was uncovered, and is fascinating. Back then, for instance, there was no such thing as costume jewellery made from base metals with fake stones in it and sold cheaply to the masses. All metal jewellery being sold to the relatively few who could afford it had to be made of gold that tested to a minimum of 19.2ct. You can imagine how incredibly difficult this was to police, but it was made easier by all goldsmiths and jewellers being required to work in the same area of London – Goldsmiths’ Row, Cheapside. It came as a huge surprise, then, when the Cheapside Hoard was being assayed, to find that one piece was completely fake. The red and green stones are glass, and the metal is very substandard. So what was it doing in the hoard of otherwise incredibly precious and high quality jewels? This quite likely rules out the idea that the hoard was a private collection.
Another thing that is interesting in the hoard is that almost every single piece has enamel on it, and many have more than one technique of enamelling (there are four techniques: cloisonne, champleve, painted enamel and plique a jour) It seems that enamelling was very common practice then because it not only added substance to the piece, but the bright colours of enamel were used to enchance the colour of the stones and the piece overall. A very clear detail of the fashion of that time.
The most interesting observation for this magpie, though, is the huge diversity of stones in the hoard. Remember the 1600s were a really long time ago; people couldn’t import as quickly as they do today and yet in the hoard there are incredibly high quality stones from alll round the world. There is an emerald cased watch – easily one of the most spectacular items in the hoard – and the emeralds came from Colombia; the salamander on the book cover is made from Colombian emeralds and Indian diamonds. There are cat’s eyes and moonstones from Sri Lanka, lapis lazuli probably sourced in Milan; amethysts from Ethiopia, Bohemia, Albania and Brazil (the paler ones) and from India and Sri Lanka (the highly prized dark stones). Sapphires came from Burma and India and the very best pearls came through Goa. (The gems that suffered the most from their long incarceration under the basement, of course, are the pearls. There are over 1000 settings for pearls in the jewellery and only 126 pearls survive. The majority either rotted away or were removed prior to burial – another mystery.) Rubies from India, turquoise from Persia, cornelians and agate and bloodstones and chalcedonies from India and Persia and Africa, and an enormous number of diamonds, some extremely high quality and masterfully cut, probably from India. All these stones cost a lot of money, so were they already owned by one collector or had a jeweller acquired them for his stock? There are pieces of hardstone tableware, some whole and some damaged, and there are also curiosities like a piece of highly polished and engraved agate which is probably an inlay for a casket. There are loose intaglios and cameos, a carving of a squirrel and a tiny chrysoberyl monkey, cameo lockets and blue glass plaquettes, and pieces of rock crystal many of which have been drilled for mounts which were probably stripped off for recycling. Enamelled buttons are part of the hoard, including some decorative ones that were commonly stitched onto a garment or hat for decoration. All these things could have been carefully collected for either personal reasons or by a jeweller with ideas for future pieces.
One question that can be quite accurately answered about the hoard is when was it buried? Two pieces – one a signed timepiece made by Gaultier Ferlite in 1610 and the other a heraldic badge belonging to the Viscount Stafford – narrow it down to being buried in 1640/41, perhaps during the English civil wars when the goldsmiths’ trade will have suffered, supplies of gemstones were limited and the jewellery market was understandably depressed. Worse times were to come, however, with the plague in which many goldsmiths perished, and then the great fire of London. Even though there are accounts of people taking the precaution of burying their treasures in pits or cellars, there are also many accounts of people having plenty of time to pack up their ledgers, possessions and portable stock and leave with them. After the great fire rebuilding began almost immediately and the new owners of that corner of Cheapside built over this treasure without any idea of what was beneath them.
But back to the question of stock, swag, or secret wealth… It seems unlikey that a thief would have stolen partially finished work and bags of loose stones and pearls and more unlikely still that they would have buried the loot which they would have been rid of within days. Would a jewellery collector have unfinished pieces, bits of broken tableware, loose stones and even a piece of fake work? Probably not, so that comes back to it being, in all likelihood, the stock of a jeweller, that was buried for safe keeping. But the fact that no one came back to claim it suggests that the owner died either in the plague or the fire, and left their magnificent collection for us to find – eventually.
In the 1840s a hoard was found in Canterbury. It consisted of a few coins and will have given the detectorist a huge thrill when their machine went crazy. But imagine how a detectoirst might feel in about 500 years when they discover the next Canterbury hoard… In 2008, a year after Polly went back to the bench her house was broken into and the bulk of her stock was discovered by an opportunist who was really looking for cash (we know this because he found it all). He took as much of the jewellery as he could and we must have disturbed him when we came back into the house because some of it was still in its trays and undisturbed. The police contacted all the local and London pawn shops but nothing turned up, and a friend of mine – who would know these things – told me that once the little skank had discovered that he’d made a bad mistake and no one would touch his 22ct gold, hallmarked swag, he will have dumped it in a ditch somewhere. Lucky the magpie – or detectorist – who unearths that lot, then, and won’t the historians wonder how come the banks of the River Stour in Canterbury came to be the resting place of all this 22ct gold treasure, bearing Polly’s hallmark!