The Cheapside Hoard
Yesterday I went to see the Cheapside Hoard at the Museum of London. In 1912, labourers on a building site in Cheapside in the City of London unearthed a great trove of gemstones and jewels which had lain undisturbed for some three hundred years. Known and celebrated as the Cheapside Hoard, it is still the largest cache of its kind to have been discovered. These objects, dazzlingly beautiful, intricate and often astonishing, like the cube watch made of a whole emerald crystal, are incredibly evocative of their time.
But what first astonishes is their tiny size and delicacy. You realise, looking at these pendants and necklaces, earrings and brooches, that jewellery was once far more refined and delicate than it is now. The Cheapside Hoard remains the single most important source of our knowledge of the Elizabethan and early Stuart jewellers’ trade and, by extension, life and fashion in London society of the era. It also makes all other adornment look clunky, nasty and vulgar.
But what a palaver it must have been to put on – the endless loops, swirls and twists of gold and silver became tangled and twisted with movement, and had to be arranged in very precise fashion. The exhibition is filled with paintings and documents that add to the whole picture of high fashion at the time.
The jewels and pieces were buried under Goldsmith’s Row, east of St Pauls Cathedral, between 1640 and 1666, and no-one knows who buried them, why, or why they were never retrieved. Those 26 years saw the Civil War, the Great Plague and the Fire of London. So we have a mystery, as well. Were they buried by a King’s Man who then died?
The new exhibition at the Museum of London marks the hundredth anniversary of the original public display, and for the first time reveals the Cheapside Hoard in its entirety. It provides lots of new information about the city’s role in the international gem and jewellery trade during one of the most dynamic periods of English history. Best of all, you come away feeling that, once again, London has succeeded in tricking you into thinking you’ve seen something beyond what you’ve actually seen – a glimpse into a world that for a moment is briefly unobscured, to reveal an alien way of life.