Cheapside Hoard: London’s Mysterious Trove

by Michael Bernzweig

The Cheapside Hoard

Just over a century ago, workers excavating in London's Cheapside discovered what is today the world's greatest hoard of Elizabethan and early Stuart jewelry. This stunning and varied collection of jewelry was showcased in a temporary exhibition for the first time since its discovery in 1912. This article serves as our review of this fascinating story and the latest news on this piece of English history on the discovery.

A great European city began to emerge during the 16th and 17th centuries in London. In 1530 it had a relatively small population of approximately 50,000 people and a somewhat significant role in the trade of the North Atlantic. But by 1600, it had quadrupled in size to over 200,000 residents, and it doubled again by 1650. In tandem, the city was becoming a great European center of trade and business as Britain’s empire began to emerge. Moreover, while the city’s great claim to fame in the fifteenth century had been its important role in the European cloth trade, by the early seventeenth century, the city had become a center of a bustling trade in luxury commodities, bringing spices and tea from India and the East Indies and sugar, tobacco, and other goods from the Americas. Mercantile communities in London also had a major increase in gold, silver, precious gemstones, and jewels. Indeed, if one wants to get a sense of exactly how far and wide around the world such items could arrive in London from, then one need look no further than the Cheapside Hoard.  

One Day in 1912

The Cheapside Hoard was stumbled upon, quite by accident, in London on the 18th of June 1912. That summer, a crew of workmen was demolishing a timber-framed house at numbers 30 to 32 on Cheapside in London, on the corner of Friday Street and in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral. On the 18th, they began excavating the old cellar of the building with pickaxes, and while they were breaking up the floor, one of the men noticed something glinting in the soil under the brick floor tiles. They quickly began scraping back the soil and soon uncovered the remains of a wooden casket. While the container had partially rotted, the contents of it had not, and they soon realized that they had stumbled upon a vast trove of hundreds of precious gemstones and jewels. This would eventually come to be known as the Cheapside Hoard, though the items were not turned over to authorities at the time, and many of the workmen left the house that day with jewelry and gemstones stuffed into their pockets and hats. 

The Hoard 

The hoard which was discovered that day in 1912 consisted of nearly 500 pieces of jewelry, including rings, chains, amulets, brooches, perfume bottles, cameos, crystal tankards, and even a salt cellar. They included all manner of gemstones and jewels, including diamonds, rubies, garnets, amethysts, topazes, and emeralds, as well as rarer stones such as spinel and chrysoberyl. Many of these were set within gold frames for rings, brooches, and other pieces of jewelry. It was soon determined that most of the items dated to the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I between 1558 and 1603 and that of her successor, King James I, who ruled down to 1625. A small proportion of the hoard dated to the mid-seventeenth century. But what was most striking about the jewels when they were properly studied and assessed in the years that followed was the geographical area from which they had been obtained. From within Europe itself, many had come from eastern and central Europe, including opals and garnets from the lands of the Austrian Habsburgs, while one piece from the Byzantine Empire dated back to the Early Middle Ages and is a peculiarity within the hoard in not dating to the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. 

Many other jewels hailed from the Americas, where British colonies were being established in the early seventeenth century, and these included topazes and amazonite from South America, most likely from the Portuguese or Dutch colonies in Brazil. But surely the most impressive piece from the New World was an emerald from the region around modern-day Colombia, which had originally been as large as an apple before it was hollowed out to act as a very elaborate holder for a watch. The emerald watch is one of the most striking pieces from amongst the hoard and has understandably generated much attention, not least because it is the only artifact that is signed. This indicates that it was carved in the Swiss city of Geneva in 1610 by a watchmaker called G. Ferlite. Interestingly the watch was designed to be worn in such a way that the owner could read the time from it with a quick downward glance. This is interesting as it indicates that a valuable piece of jewelry such as this was acquired in the early seventeenth century not just for its material worth but to be actually used as a timepiece.

From Asia, there were many other stones. Britain was already establishing a diplomatic and commercial presence in India during the early seventeenth century, and it is thus somewhat unsurprising to find a diamond from India and chrysoberyl from Sri Lanka in the hoard, but other pieces came from regions that attest to the extent of European trade networks at the time. For instance, there were pearls from Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, turquoise from Persia, and ruby from Burma. Most of the gemstones had been cut as cabochons. This means that the stones had been shaped and polished to have a smooth circular or oval surfaces, in contrast to how jewels are typically shaped in more modern times with severe angles to reflect more light off of their surfaces. Taken as a whole, the Cheapside Hoard constitutes one of the most remarkable collections of an early modern treasure to be discovered. 

Security For The Cheapside Hoard

According to scholars, the trove was most likely hidden for safety by someone who anticipated recovering it at a later date. According to Ms Forsyth, media reports from 1914 refer to a wooden box or coffin. She and a colleague discovered suspected soil contamination in many pieces, suggesting that the container decomposed and the contents were progressively absorbed by the surrounding soil. "Also evident is how many pearls are gone," Forsyth said. "I've calculated that there were about 4,000 initially, or possibly more in loose form, that rotted away in the soil, based on the empty settings."

The hoard's location is also significant. In the late 1500s, London's West End's Cheapside and Friday streets were the epicenter of a thriving jewelry manufacturing sector centered primarily on Goldsmith's Row. By 1625, several enterprises had established themselves in the region, decreasing its brilliance. The Goldsmiths' Company held the premises on which the trove was discovered, tenement houses 30-32. However, due to subleasing and subleasing to foreign labor, it is impossible to rebuild the residents of the buildings or to ascertain who may have buried the loot. It is interesting to note that Hatton Garden was an area in London's West End that became notorious for its large number of burglaries during the 1970s and 1980s.

The Jeweller and the Civil War 

A famous Jewellery editor in the United Kingdom, Sharon ament, uncovered the Cheapside hoard at St Pauls cathedral. In the years that followed its discovery and first public exhibition in 1914, thoughts turned to who had assembled it and how it had ended up in the cellar on Cheapside.   Some obvious clues pointed to its provenance.  For instance, a gemstone cameo or intaglio of Queen Elizabeth I immediately suggested that some of the items dated to the second half of the sixteenth century, while the date on the watch and a further intaglio bearing the coat of arms of the first Viscount Stafford, William Howard, further suggested that some of the items dated to as late as the 1640s and 1650s, Howard only having acquired his title in 1640. Thus, the hoard had evidently been added to as late as the mid-seventeenth century and contained an assemblage of items dating back to the 1580s and 1590s. However, there were no items that dated beyond the 1640s or 1650s. 

The location where the hoard had been discovered further suggested that the hoard represented the collection of a jeweler who was operating at Cheapside in the mid-seventeenth century. At the time, many properties here were owned by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, one of London’s twelve great livery companies and the foremost company for the trade in gold and jewels in early modern London. As such, the jewels were soon believed to have been collected by a jeweler who was a member of the Goldsmiths in the mid-seventeenth century. It had been speculated that he put these items together in the wooden casket in the cellar of his workshop on Cheapside, which at the time was known as Goldsmiths’ Row, at some stage in the 1640s or 1650s for safe-keeping during the Civil Wars and other political disturbances which wracked England at that time. Most likely, they were still stored there in the first days of September 1666 at the time of the Great Fire of London, when virtually the entirety of central London was burnt to the ground. The casket and the hundreds of gemstones inside were subsequently entombed in the cellar on Cheapside as the city was rebuilt around it, and there they lay until they were uncovered nearly 250 years later in the summer of 1912. 

This theory explains much about the hoard, but others have suggested alternative theories since. For instance, some have proposed that the Cheapside Hoard is actually a pirate’s loot and was buried there by a jeweler who was acting as a fence for the pirates who had stolen it during their voyages of depredation.

 A more elaborate theory still has been put forward by the historian Kris Lane who has argued that the jewels were assembled by a Dutch jeweler named Gerald Polman while he was residing in the Dutch colonies in the East Indies during the 1630s. In 1637 he returned to Europe on board an English East India Company ship and is known to have had a large crate of jewels with him which was valued at $180,000, a sum equivalent to tens of millions of dollars in today’s money. However, Polman died on this voyage, probably having been poisoned by the ship’s surgeon, and Lane has proposed that several of the crew took Polman’s jewels and sold them around London upon their arrival there. The remaining parts of Polman’s treasure were subsequently surrendered by them to Robert Bertie, first Earl of Lindsey, upon arriving in England. Lane’s theory is that the jewels were subsequently hidden in the house on Cheapside after Lindsey became involved in litigation with Polman’s family. There are extensive legal records that do indicate that Polman had a collection of jewels, and these eventually ended up in Lindsey’s hands, but the argument that the hoard found at Cheapside is Polman’s jewels is more tenuous. Thus, in the absence of any more substantive evidence, the specific provenance of the hoard will probably continue to remain unknown. 

Theories Concerning The Hoard

The hoard's condition and contents provide clues. Forsyth defines it as a collection of polished gems reflecting current fashion and design trends, as well as pieces that have been around for millennia. The stones had been removed from their settings, presumably to be repaired or repurposed. Forsyth speculated that the collection was owned by a jeweler or a syndicate of jewelers, but its size and variety suggest it may have been a wealthy collector.

The Hoard exemplifies London's position in the worldwide gem and jewelry trade, with an astounding collection of about 500 spectacular diamonds and gemstones from all over the globe. There is an agate cameo of Elizabeth I; an exquisite gold watch set in a massive Colombian emerald; sapphires, diamonds, and rubies from India and Sri Lanka; gleaming pearls, opals, and turquoise; and Egyptian, Byzantine, and classical gems that had been in circulation for at least sixteen centuries at the time the Hoard was buried, most likely during the English Civil Wars (1642-1646).

Byzantine cameos and Londons lost jewels from the early Stuart era were believed to be contained in this buried treasure, along with jewels from New York and London society dating back to the late 16th and early 17th century. Some early 17th century jewels in the hoard were from the Jacobean London period of English history from 1603-1625 when King James I ruled England. The term "Jacobean" refers to the style of architecture and art produced during this era. Evocative emissaries presented lavish illustrations of the treasure that included items such as Henry VIII fan holders, Gaultier ferlite enamel, and a Cheapside hoard exhibition that included Stoney Jack, hazel Forsyth, and 1st Viscount Stafford.

The Hoard Today

The Cheapside Hoard was not turned over to the authorities immediately upon its discovery in 1912. The workmen who discovered it stuffed many of the items into their pockets and then proceeded to sell most of them to George Fabian Lawrence, a pawnshop owner who was known as ‘Stony Jack’. Luckily Lawrence was also an antique dealer who had worked for many years for the Guildhall Museum seeking out new items for their collections. The workmen came to Lawrence to sell the items as he was known to pay cash for such items without asking any questions where about where they had come from. Thus, in the course of late 1912, he purchased hundreds of items and re-assembled much of the hoard in his shop, though it is believed that substantial parts of the hoard ended up being sold elsewhere and are lost today. Yet Lawrence did acquire a very substantial part of the hoard in 1912. He then made it known to London’s museums what had come into his possession. In the ensuing struggle to acquire the collection, the new London Museum came out on top, and the hoard went on display there in 1914 to much public fanfare. In subsequent years individual items which were revealed as having formed part of the hoard in 1912 were uncovered, while a few items ended up in the Guildhall Museum, the British Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was not until all of these disparate parts were assembled together for an exhibition at the Museum of London in 2013 to mark the discovery of the hoard a century earlier that the remains of the Cheapside Hoard were displayed together for the first time.

The Byzantine cameo was one of the exquisite treasures found in the Cheapside Hoard, which was discovered in London in 1813. This treasure consisted of over 1,000 gold coins dating from the reigns of Constantine I, Constantius II, and Constans II. A Pearl was also found at the bottom of an old well near the Cheapside Hoard and is believed by Jewellers to be related. The Cheapside Hoard Senior Curator was an expert who worked with the Museum of London Archaeology Service to help find items from the Cheapside Hoard.

The Cheapside Hoard is the largest assemblage of jewels dating to Tudor and Stuart England to have ever been found. This collection of rubies, emeralds, amethysts, pearls, and many other precious stones collected from all over the globe was worth tens of millions of pounds when it was assembled in the seventeenth century, but today it is priceless. While its exact provenance cannot be determined with certainty, the collection attests to the elaborate trade and commercial networks which were in operation from the Americas through Europe east to India and the East Indies in the early seventeenth century and the range of luxury commodities that were becoming available to Europeans as the continent began its ascent towards global domination. 

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