A Detectorist's dream - the story behind the Middleham Jewel
Updated: Jan 12, 2021
As a fan of the gentle BBC TV comedy series The Detectorists with Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones playing Andy and Lance, two hapless metal “detectorists” in Suffolk, whilst researching an article on the Middleham Jewel - it was fascinating to hear the story behind its actual finding.
Before the story about the actual find it is worth giving some background about the jewel itself as it is one of the most important historical artifacts ever found in Yorkshire. Particularly being from the 1400’s .
The Middleham Jewel is actually a gold pendant, with a large 10 carat blue sapphire stone set on one face. Both sides of the pendant are engraved with religious scenes and it measures approximately 6.4cm across.
One side bears a representation of the crucifixtion and it is bordered by a Latin inscription translating as “Behold the Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world. Have mercy on us.” The sapphire sits above this engraving. The reverse face show an engraving of the Nativity with the Lamb of God bordered by the faces of 15 saints.
These images all had significance to childbirth and it is believed that the jewel had been once owned by a wealthy noble woman.
The back panel slides to reveal a hollow interior which contained 3 disks of silk embroidered with gold thread. This cloth was believed to be fragments of a saints clothing, so the piece contained rare holy relics.
The piece has been dated to the 15th Century and was believed to have been made by one of London’s finest medieval goldsmiths. As it was found very close to Middleham Castle (once childhood home of King Richard III) it is thought that it could have once belonged to one of the following women - Richard III’s wife – Anne Neville, Anne Neville’s Mother – Cecily Neville or Richard’s mother in law Anne Beauchamp the widow of Richard Neville – also known as Warwick the Kingmaker.
If you want to see the Middleham Jewel it is on display in the Yorkshire Museum in York. It is now closed due to Covid restrictions but well worth a visit once it re-opens as it has so many of Yorkshire’s historic treasures.
But if you are in Middleham – the Church of St Mary and St Akelda, a 13th Century Grade 1 listed church actually has a replica of the jewel in a case at the back of the church with a button to press to light up the pendant.
Back to the story of how it was found…
A metal detectorist Ted Seaton has been out searching in a field very close to Middleham Castle with a couple of mates. He was the last to finish and by accident had forgotten to turn off his metal detector.
It was dark as he walked back to the car and as he trudged back the detector beeped. He dug down quickly and found something metallic which he put in a bag and returned home. Apparently he thought he had just found a make-up compact so didn’t make much of his find to his pals.
When he got home he went for a shower and whilst he was washing away the dirt from his exploring his wife took it upon herself to clean the item. What she found amazed her when she realised it was gold and her husband was in shock when he saw what he’d actually found!
Now the rules on “detectorist” finds are interesting. And at the time it was found in 1985 the rules where roughly – if you found something which had been hidden it belonged to the crown, but if you found something which had been lost it belonged to the finder.
It was usual that if a hoard was found it was deemed hidden and then owned by the crown, but individual items usually were found by a Treasure Trove Court to be owned by the finder and this is what happened to Tom Seaton – he became the owner of the Middleham Jewel.
The finding of the Middleham Jewel had generated a huge amount of publicity and Tom decided to put it up for auction. It was snapped up with a bid of £1.4 million (about £5 million in today’s money) by Sotherby’s on behalf of a private client.
The buyer wanted to move the item abroad, but fortunately as the piece was considered a piece of National Heritage, a special licence to move the piece abroad was never granted. Eventually the secret buyer decided to sell the jewel again and it was purchased in 1992 by The Yorkshire Museum for £2.5 million with various donations and funds raised by a public appeal.
But back to Ted. He had to share his £1.4 million windfall with the landowner of the field he was searching on and his two detectorist mates who had previously made a deal to equally split what they found if they were in a field together!
As a foot note – a fourth detectorist who sometimes joined them but hadn’t turned up on the day they made their find took Ted to court for his share of the find. He lost his case.
With his share Ted and his wife moved to Spain.
So there you go – the story behind the finding of the famous Middleham Jewel and how this stunning historical artefact of Yorkshire heritage has ended up being one of the most important exhibits at The Yorkshire Museum.
Thanks to York Museum Trust for permission to use of some pics by photographer Gareth Buddo