Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Cheapside Hoard Part 1

On Wednesday, the COG and I went into London to see the Cheapside Hoard Exhibition at the Museum of London. The outing was organized by some fellow Dorothy Dunnett enthusiasts, whom we met for lunch. This was really a pleasure - they are bright, interesting women who have many things to talk about other than Dorothy Dunnett, so even the COG had an interesting time.  After lunch, we had a fascinating hour with the curator of the exhibit, Hazel Forsyth. This first post is the background. In a second post, I will have some pictures of the hoard.

In 1912, some workmen demolishing two 17th century buildings on Cheapside Street in the City of London broke through into the ancient cellar of the building. There they found beautiful, sparkly things - over 500 pieces of medieval and renaissance jewelry.  They filled their pockets and took the jewels to a colorful character, named 'Stoney Jack.'  He was a pawn broker and antiquities dealer, who was known to local workers because he would buy any odd or antique thing they found.  Stoney Jack contacted Viscount Harcourt, whom he knew because they were working together trying to create a museum of London history.  Harcourt told him to buy all the pieces anyone offered him. Which he did, and immediately thereafter, Stoney Jack was named the 'Inspector of Excavations'  and the brand new London Museum was announced.  Soon afterwards, using various contacts, they quietly got the hoard made the Museum's legal property.

It wasn't until 1914 that the hoard became public knowledge and then the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert and the Guildhall Museum all were very annoyed that the jewels hadn't come to them.  They all believed that their museum had the legal right to the hoard. Lawsuits were threatened and some of the jewels were handed over to soothe the aggrieved parties.  The Guildhall Museum got nearly half of them, but since it later integrated with the London Museum to become The Museum of London, the bulk of the hoard remains together.  This exhibit is the first time that all the known jewelry that was part of the hoard has been brought together since then. It is, of course, impossible to know how many pieces quietly went walkies in workmen's and other intermediaries' pockets.

The hoard is bay far the most extensive and best collection of jewelry from the period.  There is very little jewelry of the period left anywhere. As fashions change, stones get remounted and the metals are melted down for new settings Most of what is known about jewelry from the period, is from examples in paintings and written accounts, some with hand drawn pictures.

No one knows why the hoard was hidden.  There was no archeologist on site to examine the find and it was completely overturned looking for more jewels. We don't even know what it was stored in - possibly a box, or a leather bag or in several different things. And, while there are some records of taxation, ownership and renters, sub-lets were so common as to make these records useless. Even if the names were known, it would still be difficult because we don't know when they were hidden.  It was a very turbulent time in England - The Civil War, the execution of the king, Cromwell's Protectorate, the Plague, the Restoration, and the fire of London -all between 1640 and 1670. Many goldsmiths were Royalists and one hypothesis is that the hoard was hidden during the Civil War at some point and the owners were unable to reclaim them.

The hoard can be dated to within twenty years. It contains a seal for Vicount Stafford, a vicountcy that was only in existence for 20 years.  That seal makes the earliest possible date 1640.  The latest possible date is 1666, because the cellar where the hoard was hidden was all that remained of a house burned in the great fire of London - Cheapside being pretty much ground zero. The building that was being demolished when the hoard was discovered, was built over the older cellar in 1667.  The jewels weren't compromised by fire, so they weren't lost in the fire, they were hidden sometime before.

The stones themselves come from all over the world: emeralds from Colombia and rubies from India, garnets and amethysts from the Middle East etc. And pearls - not many survive because the conditions were inhospitable to pearls, but it's possible to see that there were hundreds because the mounts remain.

All of this makes the hoard fascinating to me.  The real miracle is that so many jewels remained and that they didn't all get divided up by the labourers who found them - who have disappeared into history.

But the other thing that makes the hoard fascinating is the Sparkly Things, themselves, which I will cover in another post.

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