A puzzle almost as old as King Alfred. Was the Alfred Jewel one of his æstels? And what was an æstel, anyway? After spending several days trying to approach this from a logical point of view, I finally came up with a new answer; but after a bit more poking about, I found someone else had arrived at the same answer – 30 years ago. It doesn’t seem to have met with much favour among the experts, though.
In the preface to his translation of Pope Gregory’s Liber Regulae Pastoralis, Alfred said he was sending a copy to each of the bishoprics in his kingdom, together with an æstel worth 50 mancuses. And let no one remove the æstel from the book, nor the book from the minster.
“… ond to ælcum biscepstole on minum rice wille ane onsendan; & on ælcre bið an æstel, se bið on fiftegum mancessa. Ond ic bebiode on Godes naman ðæt nan mon ðone æstel from ðære bec ne do, ne ða boc from ðæm mynstre.”
But no one seems quite to have understood what an æstel was since no one else seems to have used the word. Was the Alfred Jewel, with the words ‘Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan’ (Alfred commanded that I be made) one of these mysterious objects?