The day buried treasure was found in Cheapside

The true story of the Cheapside Hoard is the stuff of fairy tales. But there are reasons why this unique collection of 16th- and 17th-century jewellery has never before been displayed in its entirety.

The Cheapside Hoard: London’s Lost Jewels
Museum of London, EC2

It’s the stuff of fairy tales. Pickaxes fall on the cellar floor of an old house. A workman freezes as he sees something glinting in the dirt. Then pandemonium as he and his fellows scrabble among the broken-up bricks and clay, heaving out clumps of gold, emeralds and pearls. There is more and more: long chains, earrings, bags of loose gems. They cannot believe their luck. They’ve found buried treasure.

But this was real life – Cheapside, London, 1912. And so, before living happily ever after, the navvies, who had been employed to demolish a set of shops, had to find someone prepared to buy goods of dubious provenance. It wasn’t as if they were going to go to the buildings’ owners and sacrifice the prospect of making a bit of decent money for themselves. They knew exactly the man to call on: Stony Jack, the pawnbroker and antiquary. He toured the pubs around the City and paid for bits of pottery, glass or coins that turned up during excavations, which he would sell on to collectors and institutions. Working with the newly established London Museum to save the Cheapside Hoard for the nation was to be his crowning achievement.

But the shady nature of the deals Stony Jack made is one reason why this unique collection of 16th- and 17th-century jewellery has never before been displayed in its entirety. The British Museum, used to getting first dibs on “treasure trove”, had to be placated with several bits of jewellery. Another piece ended up at the V&A.

Now, at last, everything is in one place. The curator Hazel Forsyth has assembled a dazzling exhibition that carefully grounds the hoard in its social and economic context. The displays guide visitors along the journey these jewels once took, by ship to the metropolis, into strongboxes, and finally to a workshop on Cheapside. For that is what the treasure represents – the stock-in-trade of a working goldsmith. As well as many finished pieces, it comprises gems waiting to be set and rough stones waiting to be sorted. The academics’ best guess is that it was buried for safekeeping during the upheaval of the civil war, and never reclaimed.

With the introduction over, we turn a corner into the main room. There is almost too much to take in: rings, necklaces and pendants are suspended everywhere. It is easy to miss some of the smaller objects – a tiny emerald parrot, representing erotic love (parrots were believed to be promiscuous), a red squirrel carved from cornelian, an exquisite strawberry leaf in bloodstone. All are heavy with symbolism. The strawberry leaf has three points for the Holy Trinity. A sinuous, enamelled, emerald-set salamander reminds the wearer of resurrection, as this animal is believed to be able to walk through fire. Most of the jewellery has a rough-hewn quality. The gems glow, rather than sparkle, the gold settings are chunky and irregular. This is no Bond Street jet-set sparkle, no oligarch’s bling.

Yet to look at the early-modern London of the Cheapside Hoard is to observe an elite just as decadent and wasteful as our own. It is only age that makes it seem nobler. In fact, the continuity is startling: One New Change, a luxury shopping mall complete with designer jewellers, stands today where the collection was dug up. And around it loom the financial institutions that have their origin in the “goldsmith bankers” of the 16th and 17th centuries; they were the first merchants in England to change and lend money, and to offer a secure place to store valuables.

So London runs on riches now as it did then. But the hoard teaches another lesson. Wealth is transient. It can disappear. Much of the collection may have belonged to the Stafford family, forced into exile in 1641 and stripped of its assets. Then the treasure fell out of the hands of a goldsmith and into the hands of navvies. It has come to rest in a public museum, where it sits in all its priceless glory, to all intents and purposes worth nothing.

The Cheapside Hoard is on display until 27 April 2014. Details: museumoflondon.org.uk David Shariatmadari is a deputy comment editor at the Guardian

Unique hexagonal watch and "Medusa" emerald. Image courtesy of the Museum of London

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue