The Cheapside Hoard: London’s Lost Treasure

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In 1912, the world was given a glimpse into what was being sold in Cheapside, London, early in the 17th century. Cheapside was indeed a busy shopping street from the Elizabethan era and beyond and was known for its jewellers. Samual Pepys himself had shopped here for jewellery. He once wrote in is famous diaries. “To Cheapside, where I consider a token for my wife, poor wretch…”

Three-hundred years later, a workman was digging in the cellar of a building at the corner of Friday Street and Cheapside – the site of Wakefield House. As he dug, something hard broke the end of his pick-axe as he hit through to a large wooden box. The box was slightly decayed and looking like it had been built to perfectly fit a number of trays. Upon pulling it out, he was astonished to find a sparkling collection of jewellery. This was an extremely important find, not just in terms of value,  but history, based on the sheer number and volume of the find. It exceeds anything yet discovered of this nature.

People have hidden things away for as long as people have existed. In times of plague and war, people hid or buried their household items to come back to later. Like a pirates treasure, sometimes getting back to your “stash” is impossible. The person has either died, been hung, been murdered or any number of reasons. For Londoners and people all over Great Britain and Europe, hiding one’s belongings in bad times was common among the rich and the poor. Plague, war, and other disasters were common and temporary.

The Cheapside Hoard is a mystery, but it’s been dated to somewhere between 1610 and 1630.  Perhaps there were rumours of war. It is believed the original owner was a jeweller. The questions are, was it stolen and hidden or was he a jeweller who needed to leave in a hurry? For that matter, was it his stock and he used the cellar as a vault? Perhaps he died without letting his family or apprentices know where it was kept.

Not all the pieces in the hoard are of any great monetary value. They are the sort of small trinket you might buy for a wife, girlfriend or daughter. But the collection does include some finer pieces. There is a cameo of Queen Elizabeth herself and is dated. It also includes two watches of exceptional quality, which were rare at the time, indicating the jeweller may have been well-known as a fine jeweller. One is oval with an enamel face, dating to 1580, which could mean the jeweller may have bought and sold jewellery, much like a pawn shop, as there are many pieces in the hoard, made long before the end of the 16th century.

The workmanship of the collection is as varied as the places of origin for many of the gemstones. These were still early days for worldwide trade in England, yet there are stones from Columbia, Brazil, Ceylon, India, Persia and the Red Sea. The collection includes necklaces, brooches, rings and pendants and there are 250 pieces.

It contains many fine examples of the jeweller’s craft as far back as the Elizabethan Era and it represents the best a jeweller could offer at that time in history. The majority of the board is held in the Museum of London and the best pieces are on display.


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