Philip Sedgwick looks into the history of the Middleham Jewel.

TWENTY-FIVE years ago, one of Britain’s finest-ever archaeological discoveries, the Middleham Jewel, was found by treasure hunters.

With a value estimated at up to £5m, it lay undiscovered for 500 years by a footpath in a field near Middleham Castle, the northern home of Richard III.

In September 1985, antiques dealer Ted Seaton, along with two other enthusiasts, was returning to his car as dusk fell, when his metal detector started buzzing.

Digging by torchlight, he came across what he thought was a woman’s compact.

Back home in Barnard Castle, he realised he had made an astounding discovery – a centuries- old piece of gold jewellery.

Earning the finders and owners of the field a small fortune, it was the start of a drama which made headlines around the world.

A month after it was found, coroner Peter Hatch judged it was a case of finders keepers, declaring the jewel lost or abandoned, at a treasure trove inquest held at Thirsk.

He said: “I don’t think I have ever held such a beautiful work of art in my hands.”

With worldwide attention focused on the jewel, Sotheby’s sold the pendant at auction.

Bidding closed at £1.43m after only four minutes, but the identity of the buyer was never revealed.

The three finders, Mr Seaton, Bill Wiggans, of Ravensworth, and Darlington man Paul Kingston, shared the money with tenant farmer Edmund Tennant and landowner Lenora Peacock.

Speaking at her home in Middleham, where she still runs Manor House Stud, Mrs Peacock said: “I can’t believe it is 25 years. The memory is sad as my husband, Dick Peacock, had died shortly before the jewel was discovered. He would be delighted that the jewel is now in the Yorkshire Museum, as I am.”

A copy of the jewel, presented by Mrs Peacock, is on display in the parish church at Middleham.

Leaving the country for a new life in Spain, Mr Seaton was said to have received death threats. Mr Kingston said at the time the stress of the find had given him ulcers. Another treasure hunter, William Caygill, from Darlington, who was absent at the find as his metal detector was being repaired, demanded a share of the money. But his claim was dismissed in court.

The jewel faded from the news until 1991, when the owner applied to take it abroad. The Department of Trade and Industry blocked the request twice in the hope a British buyer could be found.

Having failed at the original Sotheby’s sale, the Yorkshire Museum launched an appeal to raise the £2.5m needed.

With the support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, donations from many sources, including American millionaire John Paul Getty Jnr, North Yorkshire County Council, the Richard III Society and private individuals, the jewel found a permanent home in York.

Andrew Morrison, head curator of the York Museum Trust, was a 15-year-old boy working at Bowes Museum when the jewel was first displayed there.

He said: “There I was, a 15- year-old on work experience, when this magnificent find was brought in and I helped put it on display.”

Almost certainly the work of 15th century English goldsmiths, the diamond-shaped pendant is made of ornately carved gold and set with a single sapphire. Holes along the side indicate the jewel was once decorated, possibly with pearls.

The front is engraved in a three-dimensional effect with the Trinity; the reverse has the Nativity, Agnus Dei (the Lamb) and images of 15 saints, notably St George, indicating the jewel’s English origin.

Hollow inside, the pendant was found to contain silk discs embroidered with gold threads and a small amount of earth. Experts believe this was a religious relic, dismissing theories that the earth inside was from under Christ’s cross.

The Latin inscription, “Ecce Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi”, means “Behold the lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world”. Along with the phrase “miserere nobis” (“have mercy on us”) these words would be well known in the Middle Ages as those recited by a priest prior to communion.

“Tetragramaton” means God in Hebrew, while “Ananyzapta”, the word which follows, is not Latin, said Mr Morrison, but a magic word like abracadabra.

Some sources credit the word with protection against epilepsy.

Mr Morrison said: “The jewel is a find of unequalled quality, and was certainly commissioned by a woman.”

In the 15th century, a sapphire was thought to be lifegiving, with a chastening or purifying effect on the soul.

The engravings mostly relate to women or childbirth – of the 15 saints engraved on the jewel, many are women.

In the Middle Ages, saints were seen as pleaders or protectors and, with death in childbirth having no respect for social status, the jewel would have been seen as useful insurance against possible tragedy.

This all points towards the owner being a very rich, pious person, concerned about childbirth and health, but above all deeply religious.

Only someone who was royal, or of higher nobility, could have worn the jewel.

In the Middle Ages, persons of high wealth but lower social stature could wear silver, but not gold, to ensure they did not “dress above their station”.

So how did the Middleham Jewel end up lost? Robbery was an unlikely explanation, as Middleham Castle would be well-garrisoned while the nobility were present, and anyone robbing a royal personage could expect little mercy.

Given that Richard III and his wife, Anne Neville, spent time together at Middleham, could it be that, following her death from tuberculosis in March 1485, the jewel was buried there at their behest? Its discovery exactly 500 years later would seem an uncanny coincidence.

It seems that the mystery surrounding its past will be a secret the Middleham Jewel will keep forever.

The jewel can be seen on display in the Yorkshire Museum, which reopened in August after a £2m refurbishment.