Today I took a day trip down to Winchester with a couple of friends from my Uni course to see the exhibition at the Discovery Centre entitled Alfred the Great: Warfare, Wealth and Wisdom. Winchester is an absolutely beautiful town, and I’m now hankering after the gorgeous Georgian houses there!

The exhibition was pretty small but well laid out with useful and well presented information, as well as a few fun hands-on activities for children (which we of course tried out too!). The highlights were the so-called aestel jewels, the Fuller Brooch, and the earliest surviving manuscript of Alfred’s translation of Pope Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care. All these objects are normally scattered across the country in various museums, so it was fantastic to be able to see them all together.

The Pastoral Care is the first book fully written in English, and though it is a translation it also contains one of the earliest pieces of sophisticated English prose: Alfred’s Preface, in which he sets out his vision and plan to restore the state of learning in England by teaching every young man in England who is not otherwise employed to read English, and by translating some of the books ‘most necessary for men to know’ into English to give them something to read. It is an incredible insight into a medieval mind, and should demolish for once and for all the stubborn stereotype that everything that happened before 1066 was the ‘Dark Ages’. In the Preface, and in the works he had translated, in particular the Pastoral Care, we can see a man who was deeply concerned not only with faith, but also with how to conduct himself as a good ruler, and how to enrich and improve his kingdom intellectually as well as materially.

The jewels, which are thought to be the heads of pointers used for reading, are absolutely stunning when you see them close up. They vary in size and design quite a lot, and as more of them have been found, it is becoming more and more clear that we don’t really have any idea what they were used for, but they do seem to be of a related type: variously shaped gold heads, some with glass enamelling, with sockets which give the suggestion they were once attached to something.

The Alfred Jewel is the most famous one; it it larger than the others and depicts a man; it has an inscription round the edge reading ‘Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan’ (Alfred had me made). In the Preface, Alfred states that he is sending a copy of the Pastoral Care to each of his Bishops, accompanied by an ‘aestel’ worth fifty mancuses – a lot of money. The Alfred Jewel is thought to be one of these aestels, and it would certainly fit in beautifully with the image of the intellectual warrior king Alfred seems to have been.

I also absolutely loved the Fuller Brooch, which, with its sophisticated depiction of the Five Senses and the Four Elements, also gives us a sense of the vibrant intellectual and artistic culture of the late ninth century. It is also just a beautiful object of highly skilled craftsmanship!

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