The Cheapside Hoard: Treasure Beneath the Streets of London
On the 18th June 1912, a group of laborers demolishing a building in Cheapside in London discovered something quite incredible beneath their feet. Lying undiscovered under the streets of Cheapstreet for several centuries, in the bricked-up vaults below, was what would become known as one of the most internationally important collections of gemstones and jewelry to ever be uncovered in Britain. On that day in 1912, the great secret was revealed when one of the laborer's pickaxes broke through the remains of an old wooden casket, revealing a stash ablaze with the brilliance of some 500 gems.
A selection of items from the Cheapside hoard © Museum of London
What is the Cheapside Hoard?
The Cheapside Hoard is a vast collection of jewels spanning hundreds of years of history and a great deal of the globe, gathered in London and stashed away in the 17th century in the cellar of 30-32 Cheapside, where the hoard would remain for almost 300 years, untouched. From crucifixes to cameos, scent bottles to hairpins, and chains to timepieces - it is an incredible find.
There are a lot of questions surrounding the Cheapside hoard that are still unanswered. Who did it belong to? Why did they bury it there, in the cellars? Why didn't they ever come back for it? Naturally, where there are unanswered questions there is a lot of speculation.
Some believe the hoard contained stolen goods and was stashed away by a criminal. Most, however, agree that the hoard was the 'stock-in-trade' of a goldsmith-jeweler, containing as it does both finished pieces, unfinished pieces, and loose gems and beads. This is a theory supported by the fact that Cheapside was home to many goldsmiths and jewelers, often referred to as 'Goldsmith's Road' as the jewelry quarter of London at the time, and the property itself was owned for centuries by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths.
Reconstruction of a jeweler’s workshop © Museum of London
As for how the collection came to be in the hands of this potential goldsmith-jeweler, little to nothing is known. There is a story of a Dutch collector called Gerrard Pulman who spent 30 years abroad gathering an immense collection of gemstones and jewels. The story goes that on his return ship home to England from India he dazzled the crew with his cabin, which they described as being afire with jewels. Shortly afterward, he was found poisoned, and the ship's carpenter had jumped ship with the booty to sell the jewels on the London market. It's possible that some of those jewels ended up in the Cheapside hoard.
When was the Hoard Buried?
The Cheapside Hoard is thought to have been stashed in the cellar below 30-32 Cheapstreet sometime after 1640, but before the Great Fire of London in 1666. How do we know that? Well, usually an easy way to date a collection would be to look at the hallmarks of the pieces, but none of the jewels from the hoard were ever hallmarked, so other clues had to be found. Luckily, there are a few pieces in the collection that provide useful dates as the latest pieces in the collection:
This is a verge watch with calendar indications, hour striking, and alarm. The case is made of gilt brass, as is the dial which has traces of enamel decoration. The backplate bears the signature of the maker, G. Ferlite, a known Swiss watchmaker which dates the watch to c.1610-1620
This tiny carnelian seal, called the 'Stafford Intaglio', depicts the heraldic badge of William Howard, Viscount Stafford, who was ennobled in 1640. This provides crucial information for dating the hoard. The presence of this piece means the hoard must have been buried sometime after 1640. The Howards were Catholic Royalists who fled to the continent for safety preceding the Civil War. Their estate was seized by parliament and the jewels sold, and this piece may well have entered the Cheapside Hoard at that time
Why was the Hoard Buried?
As for why the hoard was buried, there are a number of theories. At a time before commercial banks could hold valuables it may have been common practice amongst jewelers to hide their stash away for safekeeping in cellars or boxes under the floorboards. Given that the jeweler never returned to claim their stash, it could be that that jeweler was facing some kind of personal emergency that required them to take desperate action. Another possibility is the Plague. With outbreaks coming in waves through Europe and Britain in those days, many fled to avoid the deadly epidemic.
Another theory is that with almost 60% of the jeweler goldsmiths in London being emigree craftsmen (French Huguenots, craftsmen from the low countries, goldsmiths from Germany), many jewelers traveled abroad a lot. They often didn't know where they were going or for how long, so it may be that this traveling jeweler simply never made it back from their adventures abroad.
More likely though, and generally accepted, was that the hoard was buried during the English Civil Wars (1642 - 1646). At this time, a large number of goldsmiths and jewelers shut up shop and went to be soldiers, or fled. The political upheaval of the war and the execution of the King may have caused the owner of the hoard to panic and hide his stash before he left.
In any case, the hoard would almost definitely have been buried before the Great Fire of London in 1666, where Cheapside stood only a stone's throw from Pudding Lane, the epicenter of the fire. Everything above ground on 'Goldsmith's Road' was wiped out, and all the residents of the buildings either fled or perished in the flames (which could have been another potential fate for the hoard's owner). The bricked-over vaults and cellars below, however, were untouched, keeping safe this incredible stash for centuries.
The Hoard's Historical Expanse
The Cheapside Hoard is a collection that shows how the London jewelry trade stood at the intersection between old and new, celebrating both together. In the diverse pieces can be seen love for both the 'new' jewelry of the 'new world' being explored and contemporary techniques and designs, as well as a love for the 'old' jewels and the gems and cameos of antiquity. From Egyptian and Byzantine gems that had been in circulation for as many as 1600 years to magnificent examples of internationally sourced 16th and early 17th-century jewelry - this collection captures a vast historical expanse.
A banded agate carved in the Alexandrian workshops of Egypt and cut in the 2nd or 3rd century BC. The incredibly detailed and skillful ancient carving depicts a mysterious Ptolemaic queen, possibly Berenice II or more likely Cleopatra, in the guise of the Goddess Isis with a feathered vulture headdress
This is one of two Byzantine gems in the Cheapside Hoard, dating to around the 6th or 7th century. There are only 300 gems like these known in the world, and of all of them, this one perhaps carries the most importance. It is a cameo crafted to the quality of an emperor's jewel, made from white or very pale blue sapphire, and depicting 'The Incredulity of St Thomas' with mutilated greek inscriptions, mounted in the late 15th or early 16th century - © Museum of London, via www.gia.edu
Another cameo of an important figure, but much later, this is a sardonyx cameo carved with a portrait bust of Queen Elizabeth I, late 16th century - early 17th century
A commesso cameo portrait made from composite hardstone and designed to be set in a frame of gold. The workmanship of this piece marks it as being from the Florentine workshops of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, for the Medicis. Who is the figure? Well, she's an enigma. It's clearly a portrait of someone in particular, perhaps Marie de Medici? But we will never really know
An amethyst intaglio depicting the wreathed head of an emperor, roughly scratched beside the head are the letters VIIX, c.1501 - 1625. This shows the continued interest in creating intaglios and cameos in the style of antiquity in the 16th and 17th centuries
A cameo carved with Aesop's fable of the dog and the reflection. Made of three strata onyx in Italy. The cameo is close in style to the sardonyx Rape of Ganymede, described as Italian, 16th century, particularly in the representation of the dogs and the landscape in very shallow relief
Gold finger ring set with a large table-cut diamond in an enameled gold setting, the white champleve enamel is decorated with black enamel flowers and leaves on the outer surface of the hoop and underside of the bezel. This diamond and enamel ring demonstrates perfectly the move in the 16th- 17th century from the point-cut to more elaborate and brilliant cuts like the table-cut
This is what is known as a Toadstone. Almost unheard of today, this unusual gem was actually very popular at the time the hoard was put together. Shakespeare mentions them in As You Like It, Elizabeth I had a Toadstone ring, and Mary Queen of Scots carried around a whole bag of them loose. Toadstones are the fossilized teeth of the 'Lipodotus Maximus', a fish around 2.5m in length. They were named for their likeness to the lumps and bumps of a toad's skin and were thought to provide protection against poison. This Toadstone is around 150 million years old and worked in the late 16th and early 17th century
"Sweet are the uses of adversity Which like the toad, ugly and venomous, Wears yet a precious jewel in his head"
- As You Like It, William Shakespeare
The Value of the Cheapside Hoard
Exquisite Craftsmanship and Extraordinary Wealth
The Cheapside Hoard is not only a valuable collection for its monetary worth, but it is also an important record of the incredible workmanship of the time, and what jewelry collections of the time might have looked like, particularly since so little from that era has survived.
“The hoard also shows us the technical skills and styles of cutting we’re not really able to reproduce today. Partly because of the gem material they had available but also the years of handed down knowledge and tradition.”
- Hazel Forsyth (Curator)
A gold wire pendant decorated with twelve alternating bands of enamel and pearls, with a six-armed spray of articulated gold wire set with pearls, late 16th century - early 17th century
A pendant scent bottle made from veined grey agate and mounted in enameled gold. The bottle is in the form of an ewer with a handle, a short spout, and an agate stopper. The handle is scroll-shaped with a tiny, skillfully carved Cupid bust in white enamel. The pendant is suspended by two chains from a cartouche set with a ruby and three pearls, c.1600-1700
Dress ornaments in bow-form were popular from the 17th century when the ribbon and braid trimmings of dresses began to influence jewelry designs. The image on the left shows a silver double bow brooch set with caliber-cut foiled pastes imitating opals, c.1741-1760; a gilt metal bow pendant with a suspended rosette set with flat cut garnets and worn in choker-fashion; a gold bow pendant set with fancy-cut and trap-cut foil-backed rubies and table-cut diamonds. The pendant, called a 'flower' in Elizabethan times, was often attached by a ribbon to the left breast or used in the hair and on the neckline
These pendants in the form of grapevines contain several bunches, each of which is carved and polished from a single emerald or amethyst and then hung from 2 sprigs of recurving wire and a length of chain
An openwork octofoil of gold and enamel with nine foiled amethysts in octagonal bezels: eight surrounding a larger central stone. It is enameled on the reverse in black and white
Gemstones and jewelry were very popular amongst the wealthy of the 16th and 17th centuries. This is clear from portraits of the time (the exhibition of the hoard featured contemporary portraits alongside many pieces), where men and women wore rings and jewels sewn into their clothes as well as on their hands, ears, and necks, to showcase their wealth. Rich women piled their hair high with jewels, pins, and droplets and men had jewels sewn and set into their caps, cloaks, and buttons. This was certainly the case for the very wealthy upper classes and aristocrats, but there was also an emerging merchant class who enjoyed wearing expensive jewelry in this way to signal their newly acquired status in society.
A portrait of Margaret Cotton via artuk.org showing her the rings she wears both on her hand and sewn into her ruff. The rings on the right are a selection from the Cheapside Hoard
Left: A selection of necklaces from the Cheapside Hoard, which contains over 30 necklaces, most of them with delicate knots, stars, scrolls, and foliate and floral links with detailed enamels. These necklaces were very popular in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period and are often depicted in contemporary portraits worn sewn into collars or draped down the front of clothes - © Museum of London Right: An example of just such a portrait featuring an unknown woman who was previously, but seemingly erroneously, thought to be Mary Queen of Scots decked in chains and necklaces, c.1570 - © National Portrait Gallery, London
A miniature portrait of Queen Anne of Denmark (1574–1619) showing a jewel in her hair that is remarkably similar to the blue sapphire and spinel pendant on the right, which is from the Cheapside Hoard. The portrait photo on the left is ©Victoria & Albert Museum. The pendant on the right is ©Museum of London; photo by Robert Weldon/GIA.
Left: A portrait of Elizabeth Wriothesley (née Vernon), Countess of Southampton c.1620 wearing beautiful pendant earrings - © National Portrait Gallery, London. Right: A very similar earring from the Cheapside Hoard on display at the Museum of London in front of the portrait
One thing that is very clear from the collection is that there were some very wealthy customers and jewelry owners around. One particular piece of evidence for this is the timepiece from the Cheapside Hoard collection, made from an emerald the size of a small apple.
An elaborate timepiece (probably made in Geneva) set into a single large Colombian emerald of incredibly skillfully cut hexagonal form with a hinged lid, enameled in translucent green, c.1600-1610. Emerald is a hard and brittle gemstone, so cutting it without making a mess of it and cracking the crystal was very difficult. According to scholars, there is nothing existing from this time to rival this piece, and it would have had to have belonged to someone of extraordinary wealth. Who that was, we don't know
A City at the Heart of the World
One thing the Cheapside collection documents very well is the huge international reach of London's jewelry trade in what was an age of global conquest, colonization, and exploration. London's Cheapside was the city's main thoroughfare, and the glittering heart of England's jewelry trade, so clearly stones from all over the world passed through the hands of many jewelers on 'Goldsmith Road'.
The hoard includes such beauties as emeralds from Colombia; amazonite from Brazil; rubies from Burma; diamonds from India, Burma, or Borneo; chrysoberyl, sapphires, rubies, spinel, and other gems from Sri Lanka; pearls from Bahrain; lapis lazuli from Afghanistan; turquoise from Persia; and peridot from Egypt. The collection offers an unrivaled glimpse into which of the world's resources were available to London's gem merchants and jewelers of the time.
A gold and enamel brooch in the form of a salamander with splayed limbs, raised head, gaping mouth, and a tightly curled tail. The sinuous body is fashioned from ten cabochon emeralds from Columbia flanked by 30 tiny table-cut diamonds from either Burma or India. It is highly detailed, with little flecks of darker enamel representing teeth and scales on the underside if viewed very closely
Three gold scent bottles enameled white and set with Hungarian opals, Indian diamonds, pink and blue sapphires from Sri Lanka, and rubies and spinels. These richly decorated bottles were designed to contain perfume made from flower distillations and spices to disguise unpleasant odors (like the streets of London in general). They were widely used in the 16th and 17th centuries, c.1570 - 1630
Another interesting aspect of Elizabethan jewelry exposed by the collection is the market of counterfeits that existed in London at the time. Within the hoard is both a real spinel, badly drilled through and attached to two sapphires to form a pendant, and a counterfeit 'rough' spinel stone.
Left: Three drop pendant in gold frame, set with two fancy-cut sapphires and an irregular polished spinel from Sri Lanka. Right: A counterfeit spinel that has lost some its original coloring with age
In 1610, the Goldsmiths’ Company investigated one of its own members, a goldsmith-jeweler who was said to be making fake 'balas rubies' (an old name for spinel). The Company was in charge of policing quality in London's jewelry trade, and counterfeiting or even selling sub-par jewels could receive a hefty sentence.
Pendant spinel drops were both extremely popular and extraordinarily expensive at the time, and counterfeiters like Thomas Simpson were making a fortune off of knockoffs. Creating a counterfeit involved a method called 'Quench Crackling', where a heated rock crystal was dropped into a bucket of cold, dye-impregnated water, inducing thermal shock and opening up the fissures to let the color of the dye in. These fakes sold for as much as £7000 - £8000 a piece - an incredibly steep price, worth about £850,000 in today's money.
With a price like that, many such fakes were sold on the gem market, and some even made it back to India and Africa, discrediting the British East India Company enormously. That a counterfeit like this one could have ended up in the collection poses a lot of questions about who exactly owned the collection, and whether they were really the law-abiding goldsmith-jeweler we believe them to be.
Where is the Hoard now?
Although there are almost 500 pieces in the collection, it is often thought that some of the pieces from the hoard were taken by the workmen who discovered them. The story goes that the workmen stuffed the loot into their handkerchiefs, hats, and pockets and took them to a man called George Fabian Lawrence, known locally as 'Stony Jack'. Stony Jack was an antiques dealer who ran a pawn shop and acquired objects to sell to museums. He was known to offer top prices to the navvies for unusual artifacts or items they discovered while working on London's building sites. Even if what they brought him was worthless, he always gave them enough cash for a pint of beer and often would make his trades during a kind of 'pub crawl' with the navvies.
"I was with [Stony Jack] one day when two navvies handed over a heavy mass of clay found beneath a building in Cheapside. It was like an iron football, and they said there was a lot more of it. Sticking in the clay were bright gleams of gold. When they had gone, we went up to the bathroom and turned the water on to the clay. Out fell pearl earrings and pendants and all kinds of crumpled jewellery. That was how the famous hoard of Tudor jewellery, the Cheapside Hoard, was discovered.’"
- HV Morton, In Search Of London
The navvies who brought their finds to Stony Jack were rewarded with "something like a hundred pounds each", but there are some who didn't immediately sell on their finds. Stray pieces from the hoard continued to turn up for decades after the discovery, including rings mysteriously owned by a former staff member of the London Museum. There may well be more pieces out there belonging to the hoard, waiting to be found.
As for where the majority of the pieces are now: there are five items in the Victoria & Albert Museum, twenty-five in the British Museum, and many more in the Museum of London. All of these pieces were brought together for the 2013-14 exhibition 'The Cheapside Hoard: London's Lost Jewels', exhibited at the Museum of London. The Cheapside Hoard will be going on display in a permanent dedicated gallery when the Museum of London moves to its new site in West Smithfield in 2024.
To wrap up, here are a few more pieces from the collection:
© Museum of London, ©Victoria & Albert Museum, © The Trustees of the British Museum