Some of you who follow me on this site have asked whether I’ve seen the Cheapside Hoard at the London Museum. In fact, I visited it some years ago and returned yesterday to see the extended exhibition – which is both amazing and fascinating.
The collection defies description, so I won’t try. I’ll merely say that I fell in love with some of the daintiest pendants I’ve ever seen; that the emerald salamander [photo below] is barely more than an inch long but beautifully-detailed; and that my personal favourite was the emerald parrot [see above] which is no larger than the nail on my little finger – but perfectly recognisable.
Thanks to a surge in publicity lately, I imagine most people at least know of the Hoard’s existence – but due to what I’ll call the ‘Luciano connection’, I thought it might be interesting to fill in some background information.
Basically, the Hoard is an unbelievably large collection of Elizabethan and Jacobean jewelry, coins and uncut gems. It was discovered in June, 1912 by workmen demolishing numbers 30-32 Cheapside, on the corner with Friday Street. The men found it buried in the earth floor of a cellar, caked in mud and virtually unrecognisable as what it actually was. Finds of various nature were not uncommon in London at that time and a gentleman known as Stony Jack Lawrence had for years been trying to teach workmen that even the merest fragment of metal or pottery could have archaeological significance.
Stony Jack was a number of things; collector, antiquarian and pawnbroker as well as library assistant for the Guildhall Museum. When he received the first installment of the Hoard – there were several of them – he realised that there was only one possible home for it. Within two days, he had been appointed Inspector of Excavations for the London Museum – but the incredible discovery was kept severely under wraps for a further two years. Not until March, 1914 did the Hoard go on display to the public in the Gold and Silver Room of the museum’s new home in Stafford House.
One naturally marvels at the sheer wealth of the collection and the many exquisitely-crafted pieces … but the inescapable questions arise. Who buried it in that cellar – and when – and why?
Well, there are plenty of possible theories and only one fairly conclusive fact.
The part of Cheapside where the Hoard was found was known as Goldsmiths’ Row and most, if not all, of the properties were owned and leased out by the Company of Goldsmiths. This, and the large number of uncut stones from places as far apart as Russia, South America and India along with certain unfinished pieces, suggest that the Hoard was stock of a working goldsmith.
As for the rest, if we can answer the ‘Why?’, we’ll probably also know the ‘When?’
As we are all aware, there were frequent outbreaks of Plague – most notably in 1625,1636 and 1665. But generally speaking, men of substance were able to flee the City for the duration and would almost certainly have taken their valuables with them.
The Great Fire of London might be a possibility – except that it took two days for the blaze to reach the west end of Cheapside. Shopkeepers there had plenty of time to remove their valuables and it’s hard to believe a goldsmith would choose to bury items of such value beneath premises that might well be burned down.
This leaves us with the Civil War. Did our goldsmith quit his trade to fight for one side or the other? Unlikely, I’d have thought – though if he went to war and never came back, it would account for him not retrieving his treasure. Or did he bury the Hoard because he was going away and was unable to either take it with him or entrust it to someone else?
This last, if you’ve read The Black Madonna, is obviously my favourite.
And finally to the ‘Luciano connection’. When I originally wrote The Black Madonna [back in 1991]I didn’t know of the Hoard’s existence until the book was more than half-written. Consequently, by the time I did learn of it, I had already set Luciano del Santi’s goldsmith’s shop on the corner of Friday Street and Cheapside – and thus, purely by accident, created a coincidence that was just too delicious to resist.
And since, to this day, nobody knows the real answers to the mystery of the Hoard and there is nothing amongst what we do know to contradict my fictional theory, I think it is probably as good a suggestion as any other.
The extended exhibition runs until April 27th and is well worth a visit. Magnifying glasses are supplied!