Dodgy Elizabethan jewellers and murder on the high seas—dark secrets of the Cheapside Hoard

Museum of London's
Elpie Psalti looks at bejeweled necklaces and chains [Picture: David Parry]

Museum of London's Elpie Psalti looks at bejeweled necklaces and chains [Picture: David Parry] - Credit: PA Wire

It’s a true story of dodgy jewellers, fraud, foul-play and murder on the high seas—the dark and murky side of the world’s largest collection of 16th and 17th century jewels known as the Cheapside Hoard.

Examining Salamander brooch set in gold with emeralds and diamonds [Picture: David Parry]

Examining Salamander brooch set in gold with emeralds and diamonds [Picture: David Parry] - Credit: PA Wire

The Museum of London has put this incredible collection of London’s lost Elizabethan and Stewart jewels on show for the first time in 100 years.

The hoard was left forgotten in a cellar in Cheapside before the Great Fire of London of 1666, discovered in 1912 and eventually brought to the surface a year later.

Now the museum has opened the first public exhibition on the centenary of that incredible event.

New research has, for the first time ever, identified Thomas Sympson as the dodgy 17th century jeweller responsible for counterfeit jewels found in the hoard.

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Sympson had a lucrative side-line in counterfeiting, flogging his fakes for up to £8,000 apiece. He is one of 18 jewellers identified leasing a property at 30-32 Cheapside at one time or another where the hoard lay buried underground for nearly 300 years.

Yet he wasn’t the only jeweller engaged in foul play. His relatives, John and Francis Sympson, received stolen goods snatched from the jeweller Gerrard Pulman who became victim of a tragic plot and was murdered in 1631 for his incredible stash of jewels on board a ship sailing to London from Persia.

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“The jewellery trade in the 16th and 17th centuries was clandestine by its very nature and skulduggery was rife,” exhibition curator Hazel Forsyth explains.

“Jewellers couldn’t shout about what they were up to or the precious gemstones that they were dealing with. That would make them targets for theft, corruption, or worse.

“Yet thankfully some of those jewellers and their underhand dealings were caught out and made to feel the long arm of the law.

“The level of detail found in contemporary court documents, witness statements and other archive material has proved a veritable treasure trove to delve into.

“It has brought about many juicy findings that we would not have known about, had the trade been transparent and squeaky clean.”

The Cheapside Hoard exhibition is the first time the entire stash has been on public show since its unexpected discovery in 1912.

It was buried between 1640 and 1666, in the decades before the Great Fire. The crucial clue comes from a previously-overlooked intaglio gemstone with an engraved design blazoned with the heraldic badge of William Howard, Viscount Stafford, 1612-1680.

The huge gemstone has nearly 500 glittering pieces, including delicate finger rings, cascading necklaces, Byzantine cameos, jewelled scent bottles and a unique Colombian emerald watch.

This priceless collection is London’s most exquisite stash of buried treasure, the single most important source of our knowledge on early modern jewellery worldwide.

The Cheapside Hoard exhibition is at the Museum of London till April.

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