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STONES, BONES, AND WRECKS

10 Rediscovered British Treasures

Samantha Arrowsmith
Some priceless pieces were found by amateurs.
Some priceless pieces were found by amateurs. / Heritage Images/GettyImages
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Somewhere in the Wash, a tidal estuary in the east of England, lie King John’s medieval crown jewels. He and his companions, carting a baggage train containing the treasures, were crossing the bay in 1216 when they were caught by the tide, and the baggage train containing the priceless pieces was swept away. While it remains every treasure hunter’s dream to find them—and some claim to have done so, though evidence is scant—they remain elusive. There is hope, however, as the stories of these 10 rediscovered treasures attest.

1. Sutton Hoo 

Sutton Hoo Treasure Displayed At The British Museum
Sutton Hoo artifacts on display at the British Museum. / Oli Scarff/GettyImages

This treasure—which shares similarities with the famous the Staffordshire Hoard—was never really lost; it was instead purposefully buried as part of the elaborate funeral for an Anglo-Saxon, believed to have been Raedwald (who died circa 625 CE). The 18 mounds on the site had been periodically robbed, but the largest remained intact when the land owner, Edith Pretty, asked amateur archeologist Basil Brown to take a look in the summer of 1939. She had accompanied her father, an archaeologist, at various excavations, and suspected something must lie beneath the unusually rounded areas of earth. But Pretty had no idea that digging into her own property would uncover one of the most significant hoards in British history.

Beneath the mound lay the imprint of an early 7th-century ship, 88 feet (27 meters) long with a special burial chamber built at its center. While both the ship and the body had disappeared due to the corrosively acidic soil, 263 of the artifacts Raedwald was buried with remained. They included silver Byzantium bowls, spoons engraved with Greek, a large silver platter made in Constantinople, a shield from Scandinavia, a purse of Francian coins, and locally made swords and household items. The king had also been buried with a change of clothes and a coat of mail armor placed at his feet. Most iconic of all was the king’s helmet, which has come to symbolize the face of the Anglo-Saxon age.

Sutton Hoo’s treasures transformed our interpretation of the Anglo-Saxon era. Once considered the Dark Ages, it is now seen as an age of cultural significance where, despite Britain’s location on the edge of the known world, trade with countries as far away as modern-day Sri Lanka and Turkey was not uncommon.

The find was made just months before the outbreak of World War Two, resulting in the treasure having to once again be buried. This time, the goods were hidden deep in a disused London Underground tunnel, and they did not go on public display until 1951. Today, people can view the artifacts at the British Museum.

Over the decades, the Sutton Hoo site continued to yield new finds. In 1991, the remains of a warrior and his horse were discovered beneath mound 17. 

2. The Alfred Jewel  

The Alfred Jewel.
The Alfred Jewel. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

While ploughing a field in 1693, a Somerset resident uncovered a remarkable piece of late Anglo-Saxon jewelry now known as the Alfred Jewel.

The tear-shaped piece measures 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters) and has the head of an animal (possibly a dragon) at its base. Inside the mouth is a small hole where a wooden or ivory rod would have been secured; above this is a gold frame with a flat back engraved with the Tree of Life. The frame houses an enamel portrait with a large piece of rock crystal in front for protection. It is generally agreed that the jewel was the handle of a reading pointer known as an aestel, and although several others have been found in England, the Alfred Jewel remains unique because of its direct association with one of the most significant kings in English history. Around its edge, written in the filigree gold frame, is the inscription: Ælfred mec heht ġewyrċan, which translates to “Alfred ordered me made.”

The Alfred in question is Alfred the Great (848–899), the King of Wessex who is remembered as a warrior, scholar, and patron of the arts. The jewel was found only eight miles from the village of Athelney, which Alfred used as a base in his fight against the Vikings. It was from here that he launched his counter-attack in 878, pushing the Danes out of what would become the south of England. In 888, Alfred founded an abbey at Athelney in thanks for his victory, and he sent an aestel with a copy of his own translation of Pope Gregory the Great’s Cura Pastoralis to every monastery in his kingdom.

There are a few theories regarding the portrait's subject, with some proposing it could be Alfred himself, Christ, or the personification of “sight,” which held particular significance with the act of reading. One other suggestion is that it may be the Macedonian king Alexander the Great, who was associated with absorbing knowledge through sight and was often depicted holding two floriated sticks, as does the figure in the jewel.

The aestel remained in private hands until 1718, when it was donated to Oxford University. It’s now on display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

3. The Lewis Chessmen 

Some of the Lewis Chessmen.
Some of the Lewis Chessmen. / Print Collector/GettyImages

Imagine walking along the beach one day, and instead of finding an old bottle top and a clump of seaweed, you find a box of beautifully carved medieval chess pieces.

The Lewis chessmen lay hidden on a beach on Scotland’s Isle of Lewis for nearly 600 years before they were discovered in 1831. No one quite knows how the pieces were found, but the most commonly reported tale is that a local resident named Malcom McLeod discovered them when he followed his cow onto the beach. Even then, however, the story diverges. He may have found them in a box hidden in a small cave or he may have dug them up­; another suggestion is that the cow dug them up. 

If it’s nearly impossible to say how they were found, it’s certainly impossible to say how they were lost. The Isle of Lewis is part of Scotland's Outer Hebrides, located off the country's northwestern coast. The islands’ proximity to Scandinavia has had a profound effect on their history: Vikings arrived in the Outer Hebrides in the 8th century; the area remained under Norwegian rule until 1266. The Lewis chessmen were made in Norway in the 11th century, and they reflect the local culture and art. Some of the pieces could have been used to play an old chess-like Viking board game called hnefatafl.

The chessmen are made of walrus ivory and sperm whale teeth and came from the same workshop, although not all made by the same person. Their unused condition and the fact that there were almost four complete sets (plus some other gaming pieces) suggests that they were new stock being delivered to someone important. How they ended up on a beach remains a mystery.

Regardless of who found them in 1831, it was Roderick Rirrie who acquired them and made the decision to break up the sets and sell the pieces. The British Museum purchased 82, and another 11 went to private owners before being acquired by the National Museum of Scotland in 1888. Six are on display on Lewis. Still, one knight, three warders, and 44 pawns remain missing.

4. The Middleham Jewel  

Middleham is a small town in the North Yorkshire Dales, 235 miles north of London; in the late 15th century, it lay at the center of royal power. The castle was held by Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (a.k.a Warwick the Kingmaker), a close advisor of Edward IV and chief proponent in the Wars of the Roses. As a boy, the king’s brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, lived there. When he married the Earl’s daughter and co-heiress, Anne Neville, in 1472, the couple made it their home. In 1483, Gloucester became Richard III.

After Richard’s death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, Middleham’s influence declined, and the castle gradually fell into disrepair. But in 1985, the town was once again thrust into the public eye when an amateur metal detectorist Ted Seaton stumbled across one of the greatest finds in detecting history. He hadn’t even been looking at the time—he had forgotten to turn his machine off on the walk back to his car, and when it began beeping, he couldn’t even see what he was digging up. Only later did he realize that he had found one of the finest examples of medieval jewelry to date.

The Middleham Jewel is a diamond-shaped pendant, made of gold and sapphire, that measures 2.4 inches (6.4 centimeters). It has holes around the edge that indicate it may once have been decorated with pearls, and shows signs of having once been painted with blue enamel. The front is engraved with the crucifixion, along with the Latin inscription Ecce Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi ... miserere nobis (translation: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world … Have mercy upon us”). There are also two other words: Tetragrammaton (the Latinized Hebrew name for God) and Ananizapta (a charm against “the falling sickness,” which we now know is epilepsy).

But it’s the reverse that is the most telling. The backside shows the Nativity with the Lamb of God (a representation of Jesus) below, encircled by 15 saints. The back slides open to reveal a hollow where a holy relic could be kept. Four small pieces of gold-embroidered silk were discovered inside. Both of these indicate that it was intended to be much more than a decorative necklace.

A woman would have worn the pendant. The nativity scene (which would be placed against the body), along with the inclusion of a sapphire (which represented the Virgin Mary), and the fact that nine of the saints are female, suggest it was probably designed to protect the wearer in pregnancy or childbirth. For good measure, the sapphire was believed to also protect against ulcers, poor eyesight, headaches, and stammers.

What makes the jewel so special is that it was undoubtedly connected with Richard III. Medieval portraits show that only women of status would have worn it, plus its location and date give rise to the idea that she may have been a relative of the king. His mother-in-law, Anne Beauchamp, Countess of Warwick, is the leading contender—she had two daughters, and is believed to have had at least one miscarriage—but it may also have belonged to his mother, Cecily Neville, Duchess of York. The most intriguing suggestion is that Richard himself purchased the jewel for his wife during her pregnancy with Edward, Prince of Wales, who was born at Middleham in 1473.

The Middleham Jewel passed into private hands in 1986, but an application to take it abroad was blocked and it was sold to the Yorkshire Museum, where visitors can still see it today.

5. The Middleham Ring 

The Middleham Jewel wasn’t the only treasure found at Middleham with a royal connection. In 1990, a gold ring was discovered engraved on the outside with 12 “S” symbols, the motif of Henry IV.

In the early 15th century, the castle belonged to Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmorland, who was brother-in-law and loyal supporter of the Lancastrian king Henry IV. Having usurped the throne from his cousin, Richard II, in 1399, Henry was bedeviled by rebellions for most of his reign. 

He became adept at using local rivalries to maintain his own position. The Nevilles’ adversaries in the north were the Earls of Northumberland, who rose in rebellion in 1403. Ralph was quick to seize an opportunity that would rid him of his rivals, and he played a key part in defeating the rebellion. Ralph’s loyalty was rewarded, and seven years later Henry IV stayed at Middleham while on progress through the north of England.

Two theories of how the Middleham Ring came to be at the castle exist, although no one will ever know how it was lost. It is possible that the ring belonged to someone in the king’s retinue who managed to lose it while removing a glove (the ring was designed to be worn on the outside of the garment). The second possibility, however, is derived from the word Sovereynly inscribed on the inside of the ring. The word means “of regal manner,” perhaps pointing to the fact that this was a personal gift from Henry IV to Ralph Neville for his loyalty.

6. The Sheriff Hutton Gold Book 

Sheriff Hutton is 40 miles from Middleham and only 13 miles from the city of York; the village passed into the hands of Richard III when he married Anne Neville. In 2021, an amateur metal detectorist named Buffy Bailey chose to use her metal detector in that particular location by chance. Eager not to waste time talking to tourists, Buffy put her detector to the soil and immediately got a signal. Although she initially expected nothing more glamorous than a sheep ear tag, as soon as she rubbed the soil off she knew that she had discovered something special: a minuscule golden book.

The tiny treasure depicts an open book often assumed to be a bible, although some dispute this. It’s just 0.5 inches (1.5 centimeters). The inside pages are engraved with depictions of St. Leonard and St. Margaret, respectively the patron saints of women in labor and expectant mothers.

The book was immediately linked to Richard III, and with some justification. It’s from the 15th century and shows the same craftsmanship as the Middleham Jewel—it’s possible they were both made by the same person. Once king, Richard used Sheriff Hutton as a base for his northern government, known as the Council of the North, so he and his family would have regularly stayed there. Both he and Anne knew the castle from their childhood. And of course, the link to childbirth suggests that it may have belonged to the same female relative who owned the Middleham Jewel.

The golden book is still being evaluated by the Yorkshire Museum, which hopes to purchase it and put it on display with the Middleham Jewel in the near future.

7. A (Potential) Fragment of the Tudor Crown  

In the aftermath of the War of the Three Kingdoms, the royal coronation regalia was seized, stripped of its jewels, and melted down on the orders of the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. This included the English state crown, which every monarch since Henry VIII had worn. It was featured in several royal portraits, including that of Charles I, its last owner.

The crown may have been ordered by Henry VII—a new crown for a new dynasty—and was far more elaborate than those worn by medieval kings. It was made of 84 ounces (2.4 kilograms) of gold with 344 precious stones—emeralds, rubies, sapphires, pearls, and diamonds—and five miniature gold figures. Initially, three of these were of Christ, but sometime after the Reformation, they were swapped for the saint kings of England: St. Edmund, St. Edward the Confessor, and Henry VI (Henry was never canonized, but he was revered by the Tudor dynasty, who saw themselves as his rightful successors).

It was long assumed that the statuettes met the same fate as the rest of the crown, but in 2017, metal detectorist Kevin Duckett found the figure of Henry VI. But is it the figure of Henry VI?

The statue measures 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters) and is made of solid gold with green and white enamel. It matches the description of the Tudor crown’s figures, and the Hampton Court replica includes an almost identical depiction of the king. The find site is close to where Charles I fought and lost the Battle of Naseby, so it’s possible the figure was dropped when the royalists fled the field. One alternative suggestion is that, while undoubtedly depicting Henry VI, the object was actually a pilgrim’s badge, a special item worn by someone on a journey to a specific religious site.

The British Museum is undertaking further research and has only said that it is medieval. The find is undoubtedly treasure, but whether it’s royal treasure is still to be determined.

8. The Honours of Scotland  

A depiction of Sir Walter Scott finding the Honours of Scotland.
A depiction of Sir Walter Scott finding the Honours of Scotland. / Kim Traynor, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

It wasn’t only England that suffered the loss of its royal regalia following the War of the Three Kingdoms. Although England and Scotland now shared a monarch, they remained independent. But Cromwell was just as eager to see Scotland’s symbols of monarchy destroyed as he was England’s.

The English had already stolen the Honours, as the crown jewels of Scotland are known, in 1296, forcing the Scots to assemble a new set of regalia that consisted not only of a crown, but also two immensely symbolic gifts from the Pope: the scepter and the Sword of State. Although the crown underwent remodeling by James V, it was used at the coronation of every Scottish monarch since it was touched against the forehead of the 9-month-old Mary, Queen of Scots in 1543.

When England declared itself a republic in 1649 (and promptly sealed the transition by executing Charles I), the Scots opted to remain a monarchy, and the Honours were used to crown Charles II at Scone Palace in 1651. The regalia were then whisked away to Dunnottar Castle with the English in hot pursuit. With little hope of holding out, two local women—Elizabeth Douglas (the wife of the castle commander) and Christian Fletcher (the wife of the local minister)—made a plan. Together they smuggled the regalia out, either hidden in a bundle of flax, or possibly lowered down to a servant who hid them in a basket of seaweed, and buried them under the floor of Kinneff Old Kirk, where they remained for the next nine years. On Charles II’s restoration, the Honours were retrieved and returned to Edinburgh, except for the sword belt, which was rediscovered in 1790 built into a wall at Dunnottar Castle.

But the Honours weren’t done with being lost. When Great Britain was formed in 1707, the Scottish royal regalia were declared redundant and locked away in a chest within a sealed room somewhere in Edinburgh Castle. For 111 years, they lay forgotten until, in 1818, the celebrated novelist Sir Walter Scott set about finding them. With the Prince Regent’s permission, he and a group of castle officials broke open the room and found them just as they had been left.  

The Honours are now housed in a more appropriate setting back in Edinburgh Castle. They haven’t been used for a coronation since Charles II, but with the call for Scottish independence back on the agenda, who’s to say that they wont be used again to crown Charles III?

9. The English Coronation Spoon

The coronation spoon.
The coronation spoon. / WPA Pool/GettyImages

The English coronation spoon is one of the finest surviving examples of medieval metalwork. It was crafted sometime in the 12th century and likely presented to Henry II or his son Richard I for use as a ceremonial object. It was first mentioned among the regalia in 1349, when it was described as an antique. By 1603, it had become the tool used to anoint the sovereign with holy oil at a time when monarchs were still considered appointed by God.

The spoon should have met the same fate as the rest of the English royal regalia during the revolution of 1649. Instead, Cromwell chose to sell it to raise funds for the new government. Clement Kynnersley bought it for 16 shillings, a paltry sum for what it was, even for the age—it was worth less than a horse, and equates today to only $99 (£82.81). The fact that Kynnersley had arranged the sale may account for the meager price.

As it turns out, Kynnersley had saved the spoon for the nation. He had served as one of Charles I’s yeomen of the wardrobe, the department in the royal household that dealt with the king’s clothes, furniture, and furnishings. Kynnersley kept the spoon safe for 10 years until the Restoration of 1660, when he returned it to Charles II. It’s now displayed with the “modern” crown jewels at the Tower of London.

The spoon remains the only item of the medieval coronation regalia to have survived. 

10. The Mary Rose 

The 'Mary Rose.'
The 'Mary Rose.' / Epics/GettyImages

The Mary Rose was built in 1510 and was named for the Virgin Mary and the symbol of the Tudor dynasty. There’s some speculation that Henry VIII may have actually helped design the state-of-the-art battleship, which could carry eight heavy cannons and the first vessel of its kind to have gunports.

The ship was in use for 34 years before catastrophe struck—and unlike some other treasures, we know exactly how and when it was lost. 

On July 19, 1545, the French fleet entered the Solent on the south coast of England. The Mary Rose, along with 80 other English ships, set sail to meet them. The battleship had just fired from its starboard side and was turning when a gust of wind blew it low into the water. The gunports were still open and the water rushed in, taking the Mary Rose down in minutes. Only 35 of the 500 men on board survived.

The Mary Rose lay lost for 400 years until, in 1965, Alexander McKee began the Project Solent Ships initiative with the aim of finding it. McKee and his team of divers spent six years searching for the wreck site. Their first breakthrough came in 1968, when they found a strange shape on the seabed, but it wasn’t until 1971 that they could be confident that they had found the Mary Rose. Even so, it took another 11 years of careful excavation and planning before the ship could be recovered.

On October 11, 1982, millions of people in the UK watched live on TV as the hull of the Mary Rose slowly appeared out of the water. After years of preservation work, it’s now housed in a dedicated museum in Portsmouth, where both the ship and many of the artifacts that were raised with it can be seen. Part of the ship remains on the seabed, and archaeologists remain hopeful of finding even more of its lost treasures.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Sutton Hoo burial site was also known as the Staffordshire Hoard.

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