The Hidden Jewels of the Cheapside Hoard


Salamander brooch from Cheapside Hoard
Salamander brooch from the Cheapside Hoard
Last night I watched the BBC4 programme “The Hidden Jewels of the Cheapside Hoard” and made notes for those of you who are unable to access it.

The programme was presented by Shaune Leane, a goldsmith and jewellery designer, who was able to get sneak peeks of this beautiful cache of Elizabethan and Jacobean jewellery which is being exhibited at the Museum of London from now until 27 April 2014 – see the exhibition webpage Cheapside Hoard – London’s Lost Jewels for more information.

The Cheapside Hoard is a cache of late 16th and early 17th century jewellery which was discovered by workmen demolishing an old building at 30-32 Cheapside in 1912. The jewellery had been buried in the earth floor of the cellar and it consisted of over 500 pieces of various styles and periods, from enamel to rock crystal, from crucifixes to cameos. The collection even included an Egyptian cameo which dates back to the 2nd or 3rd century BC and which is thought to be of Cleopatra. In contrast to this Egyptian piece is a modern looking emerald watch fob. Leane commented that this watch fob would have needed at least 150 carats of rough emerald to cut it and so the owner would have been very wealthy.

Leane explained that the collection had been saved intact because of a pawnbroker called George Fabian Lawrence, known as “Stoney Jack Lawrence”, who purchased items dug up by workmen to save London’s archaeological past. Lawrence would then pass items on to the museum. As Lawrence paid workmen well, they were happy to sell finds to him and that is how the Cheapside Hoard ended up at the Museum of London.

In the 17th century, Cheapside was a major thoroughfare in London and was also the centre of the jewellery trade. Leane visited Goldsmiths’ Hall, the headquarters of the Goldsmiths’ Guild, and was shown plans of the area from the late 17th century. These plans showed Goldsmith’s Row in Cheapside, the jewellery quarter of London and where the hoard was found. A rent book from 1610 showed that 30-32 Cheapside was a tenement owned by Alexander Prescott and leased to a Mary Wakefield. There was a lot of subletting at the time, so it is impossible to say whether it was Mary who buried the jewellery. The cache was probably the stock of a working jeweller who had items for sale and who also took in pieces for repair and for recycling. Leane then showed viewers his own workshop and explained that little has changed, some of the same tools are still being used by jewellers.

The jewellery trade has now moved to Hatton Garden, but in the 16th and 17th centuries Cheapside was the centre and was very international. Not only did it have émigré families (from the Low Countries, Germany etc.) selling jewellery, the precious stones were also from far-flung places – Afghanistan, Persia, Bahrain etc. Leane examined a beautiful Salamander which was encrusted with emeralds from Columbia and diamonds from India or Burma. Leane spoke to an expert at the Museum of London about how the precious stones actually got to London and she told him a story about a Dutchman who was bringing a collection of precious stones to England by boat and who was poisoned to death so that the jewels could be stolen.

Leane explained that the wearing of jewels showed your status. He looked at the portrait of Margaret Cotton, the wife of a wealthy merchant, who was wearing a ring on her little finger and had another one sewn on to her ruff. He looked at other portraits where women’s hair was decorated with jewels, men’s caps were decorated with stones and clasps, as were outfits. Even buttons were encrusted with precious stones. It was all about displaying your wealth and status.

Leane then talked about counterfeiting. One piece in the Hoard shows a drilling mistake in an expensive stone, a spinel, and something like this could have been fixed by swapping the stone for a counterfeit one. The expert at the museum showed another stone from the Hoard which had been made to look like a spinel but which was actually a piece of rock crystal. The crystal would have been heated and then dropped into water containing a dye and then the dye would have filtered into the crystal making it the right colour to replace the spinel. The expert explained that there was a good market for counterfeit stones and that Thomas Simpson was a well known spinel counterfeiter from the period. The Company of Goldsmiths did police the jewellery trade and there were tough sentences for counterfeiters, if they were caught.

The gold in the Cheapside Hoard does not bear any hallmarks to say where or when it was made, but one watch does bear the signature of its maker, G. Ferlite of Geneva, and we know it dates to 1610/20. Another piece also helps to date the Hoard: an engraved cornelian bearing the heraldic badge of Viscount Stafford. This must have belonged to William Howard who was granted the title in 1640. This means that the hoard must have been buried after 1640.

But why was the jewellery buried?

Leane discussed a few possible theories:

  1. The Civil War – In the lead-up to the Civil War, the Howards, who were Catholics, fled to the Continent. Their estates were seized by Parliament and their possessions were sold off. Were their jewels sold off or were they hidden?
  2. Jewellers becoming soldiers – Records show that in 1643 a collector of subscriptions from jewellers in Cheapside had difficulty collecting the money because so many of the jewellers had gone to war. Leane wondered if the owner of the Hoard had buried the collection before he went to war but was then killed.
  3. The Plague – Another theory is that the owner of the Hoard buried the jewels before leaving the city to escape a bout of plague.
  4. The Great Fire of London – The fire of September 1666 wiped out Cheapside and only the deep cellars of properties survived to then be used as foundations for rebuilding. Perhaps the owner of the jewels buried them before fleeing from the inferno. The place of burial was then lost.

We just don’t know. It’s still a mystery.

Leane ended the programme by showing viewers his favourite piece from the collection – a gold scent bottle coated with enamel and decorated with opals from Hungary, diamonds from India, and pink and blue sapphires from Sri Lanka. It was very pretty.

The Cheapside Hoard – London’s Lost Jewels exhibition is on from now until April 2014. You can see photos of the pieces at and

The programme doesn’t seem to be on YouTube but this video from the Museum of London shows some of the pieces:

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