Book Review: The Cheapside Hoard: London’s Lost Jewels

Hazel Forsyth, The Cheapside Hoard: London’s Lost Jewels. (London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2013). 248 pp., approx. 100 col. illus. £19.95 (paperback).
ISBN 978-1-78130-020-6

This book is published in conjunction with the exhibition held at the Museum of London 11 October 2013 - 27 April 2014. The exhibition showcases the extraordinary collection of some 500 jewels and gemstones dating from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century unearthed in 1912 from under a cellar floor in Cheapside in the City of London and now known and celebrated as the Cheapside Hoard. It provides a fascinating insight into the jewellery trade during the Elizabethan and early Stuart periods, and, by extension, the fashions of the era. Both the book and the exhibition bring the jewels to life with contemporary portraits, mostly from the extensive collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London.

The paintings show how the sparkling jewels were worn with the enthusiasm for new-fangled fashions: huge ruffs, vast farthingales, hair ornaments, feathered caps and richly embroidered cloths. Visitors to the exhibition also have the chance to see some items from the outstanding dress collection of the Museum of London, such as the elaborately decorated seventeenth-century dress illustrating blackwork, the effect echoing the black and white enamel used on many of the pieces in the Cheapside Hoard.

Elizabeth I loved adornment and conspicuous consumption was very much a characteristic of her reign. Indeed, a barbed quote of the philosopher Sir Francis Bacon is cited in both the exhibition and the book: the Queen ‘imagined that the people who are much influenced by externals, would be diverted by the glitter of her jewels from noticing the decay of her personal attractions.’ She also knew how to dress to impress, wearing an array of opulent fabrics with gemstones sewn directly onto her clothes as seen in her many portraits. Her grandiose finery was not only chosen for personal vanity, but also for political advantage, signifying, for example, to foreign dignitaries the wealth and hence the power of England.

One of the most spectacular treasures in the Cheapside Hoard is an uncut agate cameo of the Queen, a rare surviving hardstone portrait of her. From the style of her dress and her appearance the piece is dated towards the end of her reign. It is of the type often bestowed by the Queen on her favourites.

A group of fan handles are another highlight of the exhibition. These delightful and exquisitely made gold enamelled and gem-set jewels have a distinctive short shank, flared socketed-head reminiscent of aigrettes and are the ‘only known examples of their kind.’ The Queen owned dozens of fans including ‘a fanne of white feathers with a handle of golde having twoe snakes wyndinge about it, garnished with a ball of diamonds in the ende and a Crowne on each side within a paire of winges.’

In this period men, too, understood the power of adornment and festooned themselves with jewels, reflecting their status, wealth and power. A magnificent example is the portrait of Sir Christopher Hatton, the Lord Chancellor and favourite of the Queen. Dated from about 1589, it shows him wearing a black velvet cap with a white ostrich feather and adorned with gold and precious stone ornaments, triangular-shaped gold buttons and gold braid on his white satin doublet, and a black velvet cloak draped across his shoulders, its surface covered with pearls set in of gold. A cameo of the Queen, similar to the one in the Cheapside Hoard, is attached to three thick gold chains worn round his neck.

The curator, Hazel Forsyth, is to be congratulated for mounting this glittering exhibition at the Museum of London, marking the 100th anniversary of the original public display, no mean feat, and also for her erudite and beautifully illustrated book to accompany it, casting fresh light on the jewels and fashions during of one of the most dynamic periods of English history.

  • The Cheapside Hoard: A garnet pendant hanging in front of a portrait of Elizabeth Wriothesley, Countess of Southampton Image copyright: Muse
  • The Cheapside Hoard: A bejewelled scent bottle Image copyright: Museum of London