In December 2014 a metal detectorist stumbled upon a remarkable find somewhere in the West Suffolk village of Drinkstone; an Anglo-Saxon aestel, one of a small number of objects that were probably holders for a thin wooden or walrus ivory wand used to mark a reader’s place in a manuscript. The most famous of all aestels is the ‘Alfred Jewel‘ now in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, and all of the surviving aestels (including this one) date from the ninth century. This was, of course, the period of the Viking invasion of England that began in 865 and resulted in the establishment of the Danelaw. The Drinkstone aestel, which is the only aestel so far to be found in East Anglia, has been acquired by Moyse’s Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds and will go on display for the first time this weekend. The aestel has been christened ‘The Edmund Jewel’ (by analogy with the Alfred Jewel) owing to a claimed link between the aestel and Edmund. I was one of the historians who advised Moyse’s Hall on the aestel’s likely provenance, so it is only right that I set out here some of the possible interpretations of the artefact.
Aestels are objects very specifically associated with literacy and therefore with monasteries. We should expect to find aestels on or near monastic sites, therefore. However, there was no monastic community or major church (that we know of) near Drinkstone in the ninth-century kingdom of East Anglia, although a much later source (the twelfth-century Liber Eliensis) claims that King Sigeberht established a monastery at Beodricsworth (the town that would become Bury St Edmunds) in the seventh century. No convincing archaeological evidence has been found to confirm this. One interpretation of the aestel is that it could have been associated with a pre-Viking monastic community at Beodricsworth, and was either dropped by a member of the community or perhaps by the Vikings after looting the monastery in 869, the year the Danes returned to East Anglia and seized the kingdom. However, this explanation relies on us accepting the existence of a monastery for which there is little convincing evidence.
St Edmundsbury Borough Council seems keen to promote the idea that the aestel may have been owned by St Edmund himself, the last English king of East Anglia. Although the Alfred Jewel may have been owned by King Alfred (whose literary interests are well known), there is no reliable evidence that King Edmund shared those interests; he may not even have been able to read and write for all we know. A bigger problem in ascribing ownership of the Edmund Jewel to King Edmund, though, is that we know virtually nothing of the internal organisation of the pre-Viking kingdom of East Anglia. We do not know where Edmund lived, and there is no known connection between Edmund and Beodricsworth while the king was alive. Possible sites for Edmund’s capital include Rendlesham, Ipswich and Thetford, but certainly not Bury St Edmunds.
My own interpretation of the aestel also links it with Edmund, but much less directly. To the west, the parish of Drinkstone borders Bradfield St George. In 1983, the archaeologist Stanley West argued, on the basis of a number of pieces of toponymic evidence, that the name of Edmund’s place of martyrdom (called Haegelisdun in the earliest account, Abbo of Fleury’s Passio Sancti Eadmundi of c. 985) might survive in the field name Hellesden Ley in the parish of Bradfield St Clare. Abbo of Fleury tells how, after Edmund’s head was reunited with his body, the saint’s body was buried close to the site of his martyrdom and a simple chapel was erected over it. Here Edmund remained until his translation to Beodricsworth, traditionally dated to the beginning of the reign of Aethelstan in 924 (there are significant reasons to question this dating, but that’s another story…).
Abbo gives as the reason for the translation the fact that so many miracles were being wrought at the little chapel at Haegelisdun. This crucial detail tells us that the original burial chapel was the site of the earliest phase of the cult of St Edmund, which pre-dated even the discovery that Edmund’s body was incorrupt. My hypothesis concerning the aestel is that it may have been a votive offering left at the Haegelisdun burial chapel (at a time when its original purpose may even have been forgotten) in the 870s or 880s. If we assume that Stanley West’s identification of Haegelisdun as the Bradfield area is correct (and I consider his case a very convincing one), the chapel at Haegelisdun is the only cult centre we know of in the vicinity of Drinkstone in the second half of the ninth century. The distance between Drinkstone and Hellesden Ley is unimportant, since Abbo of Fleury makes clear that Haegelisdun was the name of both a royal residence and a neighbouring silva (wood or forest). This forest of Haegelisdun was probably very large, a predecessor of today’s Bradfield Woods (themselves one of the most ancient surviving pockets of deciduous woodland in England). The chapel may have been located anywhere within a forest of unknown extent, and the survival of the Haegelisdun toponym in one field name simply tells us that Bradfield St Clare was part of or close to the lost forest.
There is a good chance, in my view, that the aestel was associated with the (very) early cult of St Edmund and therefore it is justifiable to christen it the ‘Edmund Jewel’, although it should be borne in mind that there are alternative explanations as to how the aestel ended up in Drinkstone – in theory, the object could have been plundered by Vikings from any monastery in the Midlands or East Anglia in 869 and dropped while its plunderer was on the way to the eastern coast. What is really needed is an intensive archaeological search of the Bradfields/Drinkstone area in an attempt to discover the original Haegelisdun chapel. This would provide confirmation of the proximity of a cult centre and set the discovery of the Edmund Jewel in context.