At the close of the ninth century, Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, commissioned a series of very small jewels from the goldsmiths of his realm. The jewels were shaped somewhat like turtles, with an ovoid body and a long neck with a hollow at the end, designed to accommodate an aestel—a wooden rod to be used as a pointer when following the words on a manuscript.
Alfred loved books. He would have rather spent his life reading than slaying Danes.
The Alfred Jewels were sent to every bishopric in the land, with the instruction that they should never be separated from the church of their destination.
One of the jewels was stolen by a seaman called Jon, who sold it to a Norwegian merchant in exchange for the psychedelic mushrooms that caused his heart to burst after a twenty-six-hour orgy. (Eleven centuries later, the merchant’s last descendant traded the jewel for crack in a train station toilet in Trondheim).
Six of the jewels sank to the bottom of the sea; two aboard Viking dragon ships, one on a dinghy, one on a raft, one on a transatlantic galleon, and one—most curiously—on a German U-boat.
Another of the jewels sits in the top drawer of a sideboard in a semi-detached house in Melton Mowbray. The old woman who lives there has no idea how much it’s worth. It only comes out during Christmas dinners, when it is fed a spoon rather than an aestel, and is used to scoop redcurrant jelly. Throughout the years, its pebbly detail and the wonky decoration on its back, meant to represent a man holding scepters—or perhaps flowers—sparked the imagination of many an overfed niece, bored child, or uncomfortable boyfriend.
One jewel sits in the villa of a private collector in Malaga. It was acquired, shall we say, via sub-legal means. The collector is a very old man, and his greatest misery, far worse than his capricious bladder, is not knowing what will happen to his collection. Will his heirs sell everything to buy another Porsche? Will the scandal of his black-market connections sully his reputation and cast a shadow on all his charity and munificence?
The jewel from the sunken galleon is covered in sand, algae, and ordure, at the bottom of a lobster’s cave.
Still another of the jewels is locked in a glass case in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. It ranks among the museum’s most valuable treasures. Hardly anyone pays it any attention. It is, really, very small and unremarkable.