Saturday, April 16, 2016

London's Lost Jewels: Wealth and Display in the 16th and 17th Centuries

by Mark Patton

This post is an EHFA Editor's choice. It was first published on December 9, 2013

In 1912, workmen engaged in the extension of a cellar at 30-32 Cheapside, in the City of London, came upon an ancient treasure-chest. Opening it, they saw not only the glistening of gold, but also the gleam of pearls and the brilliance of emeralds and diamonds. They took their discoveries to a well-known pawn-broker and antiquities dealer, George Fabian Lawrence.

Cheapside in 1890

Better known as "Stony Jack," Lawrence had played an important role in educating the working men of London's building trade as to the archaeological discoveries they might expect to make. He regularly paid them for the objects they found and, even if these objects had little value, rarely sent a man away with less than the price of a half-pint of beer.

George Fabian Lawrence, or "Stony Jack" 

The Cheapside discoveries, however, were in a different league. Recognising key pieces as dating to the Elizabethan or Stuart period, Lawrence contacted Lord Harcourt, a trustee of the London Museum. The hoard was declared to be "Treasure Trove," and most of the pieces were acquired by the museum. They now form part of the collection of the Museum of London (www.museumoflondon.org.uk), and are the centrepiece of a public exhibition open until 27th April 2014.

The Cheapside Hoard, as it is known, is not a set of family jewels, but rather the stock-in-trade of a 17th Century jeweller. Cheapside was known for its jewellery shops at the time, and the hoard includes uncut and unset gemstones as well as finished necklaces, brooches, rings and watches.

A jewellery workshop of 1576

The discovery of the New World, and the explosion of international trade in the reign of Elizabeth I, had revolutionised London's jewellery trade. The hoard includes pearls from Borneo, Sri Lanka and the Persian Gulf, as well as emeralds from Colombia.

This watch, set into a large emerald from Colombia,
is one of the most valuable items in the collection (image - Museum of London)


This little brooch, in the form of a salamander (a symbol of endurance and resurrection)
is inset with Colombian emeralds and Indian diamonds (image - Museum of London)

Several of the objects in the hoard were already ancient when they were acquired by the 17th Century Cheapside jeweller. There are several gems carved with images of the saints from the 3rd-6th Centuries AD, another from the 14th Century, carved with an image of St George and the dragon, and even several pieces from pagan classical times.

This cameo, carved from sardonyx, was probably made 
in Alexandria in the 1st Century BC, and may depict Cleopatra 
with the attributes of the Goddess Isis (image - Museum of London)

One tiny gemstone, a carved carnelian gem, gives a vital clue as to the date at which the jewellery was buried. It bears the arms of William Howard, the first Earl of Stafford, who received his title from the king in 1640. This is the earliest date at which the jewellery could have been buried. It was clearly buried before the Great Fire of London in 1666, since the fire destroyed the building above the cellar.

The "Stafford Gem," a crucial piece of dating evidence
for the Cheapside Hoard (image - Museum of London).
The Great Fire of London, Dutch School, c1666

During the English Civil War, the City of London declared for the Parliamentary side. Perhaps the Cheapside jeweller was a man of Royalist sympathies, who buried his stock-in-trade for safekeeping, before stealing away to join the armies of Charles I?

Or perhaps, like many London goldsmiths, he was a foreigner, a man from Northern Europe who preferred to escape to his own country rather than face the chaos of a Civil War in which he had no role, but who dared not carry his treasure past the inevitable military checkpoints?

Whether he was killed in battle, or fell victim to one of the outbreaks of plague that swept across Europe in the 17th Century, he was clearly never able to recover his property, and the hoard remained in the ground, undamaged by the fire, and undiscovered until 1912.  

In it are to be found some of the best examples of the jeweller's art to have survived from the times of Elizabeth I and James I, showing the range of materials available to goldsmiths and gem-cutters of the period, and the variety of techniques they used to work them.

It is a testament, also, to the impact of global trade on the 16th and 17th Century, and the speed with which the fruits of this trade became available to wealthy Londoners for the purposes of personal adornment.

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Mark Patton blogs regularly on aspects of history and historical fiction at http://mark-patton.blogspot.co.uk. His short story, "White Wings," was long-listed for the 2015 Aestas Prize, and is published in the Aestas Anthology, which can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for a truly fascinating article!

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  2. Fascinating post on Cheapside. I did not know it was the site of the jewelry shops. Thanks for doing the hard research!

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  3. I loved reading this article. This period in history is so exciting.
    Thank you

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  4. It's hard to see the tiny watch ... but I believe at this time they only had an hour hand ... is that correct? Any idea who the watchsmith was?

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  5. Great post! It's seemingly impossible to plant a tulip bulb in the UK without a discovery! lol

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