World Coins

British Viking coin hoard found in 2015 intrigues

There is always something exciting about finding buried treasure. Most discoveries are typical of others at the time of concealment, but there are occasionally finds that shout from the rooftops, “I am special!” This is the story of one of those, and it generated more interest than most.

I vaguely heard on the radio that a hoard had been found that “would change history.” 

However, it was not until nearly midnight that I got ‘round to browsing the papers. The Daily Telegraph had devoted a good half page to the find. Its headline read, “Enthusiast with a metal detector unearths Viking hoard and rewrites history of King Alfred.”

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The discovery was even featured in the editorial. It started by saying that perhaps with the exception of Alfred the Great, as he became known, it is hardly fair to expect English kings before 1066 to be generally well-known. It continued with a mention of one of Alfred’s contemporaries. “Poor Ceolwulf [II] got a dismissive write-up in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for feebleness in the face of the heathen (as the Vikings were known). Whether the latest find shows otherwise, no one can deny the effect of metal-detecting on our knowledge of our past. It is immense.”

Describing the hoard

James Mather, who has been metal detecting for 20 years, found the hoard during October 2015 in a farmer’s field that had been used to grow cereal crops. The farm is located near Watlington, a market town in the Chiltern Hills about seven miles south of Thame, Oxfordshire. The announcement was made two months later during the run-up to Christmas, when the annual Portable Antiquities Scheme and Treasure reports were launched.

Mather, a retired marketing executive from Reading, was searching with the farmer’s permission. He had been searching for five hours “detecting ring pulls from drink cans and shotgun cartridges,” he said with a smile. “I then found a silver ingot six centimeters in length, which I immediately recognized as being Viking. I had seen a similar one at the British Museum. Then after a more systematic search, I found the location of the hoard, 12 feet away.”

Having received a strong signal that a sizable amount of metal was under the surface, he neatly removed an area of cereal stubble and with a trowel undertook a careful exploratory investigation. He soon came across a few Anglo-Saxon coins, but could see that there were compressed items that would need professional extraction. 

Mather immediately alerted his local Finds Liaison Officer from the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Unfortunately the officer was not able to travel to the site for five days. Mather took the loose coins home for safekeeping and secured the site as best he could, returning at intervals over the next few days to ensure that all was well. 

He said, “Discovering this exceptional hoard has been a really great experience and helping excavate it with archaeologists from the PAS on my 60th birthday was the icing on the cake!” 

A “haggis-shaped” mound of earth was then removed containing the treasure. Wrapped in cling film and bubble wrap, the whole was transported to the British Museum in London, where it was excavated. 

The coins in the find were examined by Dr. Gareth Williams, curator of early medieval coinage at the British Museum and also Dr. John Naylor of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, who is the Portable Antiquities Scheme national finds adviser for post-Roman coinage. 

The hoard comprises 186 coins (some fragmentary) including some great rarities, seven arm rings and 15 ingots. The noncoin artifacts in the hoard are being worked on by Dr. Barry Ager, an early medievalist at the British Museum. 

Initial view of hoard

The hoard is currently being cataloged at the Ashmolean Museum and the British Museum. 

It is believed that it was buried around the end of the 870s in the period following Alfred’s decisive defeat of the Vikings at Edington in 878. Following their defeat, the Vikings moved north of the Thames and traveled to East Anglia through the kingdom of Mercia. It seems likely that the hoard was buried in the course of these events, although the precise circumstances will never be known.

Williams of the British Museum commented, “The hoard comes from a key moment in history. At the same time, Alfred of Wessex decisively defeated the Vikings and Ceolwulf II, the last king of Mercia quietly disappeared from the historical record in uncertain circumstances. Alfred and his successors then forged a new kingdom of England by taking control of Mercia, before conquering the regions controlled by the Vikings. This hoard has the potential to provide important new information on relations between Mercia and Wessex at the beginning of that process.” 

The bulk of the hoard comprises Cross-and-Lozenge type silver pennies issued by both Alfred and Ceolwulf. These coins are named for the reverse, which features a long cross with the moneyer’s name in its angles and a diamond-shape containing a small cross at its center. 

Dr. Naylor said, “In many respects it is these coins, from a numismatic aspect, that are the most important part of the hoard. Until this discovery only about 55 to 60 of these were known. Therefore the find substantially increases the number available for study. This will allow us to test the current understanding of the issue, as well as to further examine the relations between Alfred’s and Ceolwulf’s coins. The study will also assess aspects such as the size of the issues; the mints which issued them based on the style of the engraving and moneyers, as the mints are not named on the coins; as well as their fit into the longer-term production of the coinage by looking at aspects such as the moneyers on these coins and comparing them to previous and subsequent issues. Potentially these new cross-and-lozenge coins will be important for our understanding the issues surrounding coinage in the later 870s.”

However, the rarest coins in the hoard are the silver pennies, where the reverses feature two emperor-like figures ruling as equals. This is known as the Two Emperor type. Until this discovery, only two specimens had been published. One was issued by Alfred, the other by Ceolwulf. As only two examples were known, numismatists were unsure if the coins were “a one-off.” 

A full breakdown of the contents of the hoard has yet to be published, so the number of Two Emperors coins found remains uncertain, but three were shown at the press launch. The emergence of more issued by both Alfred and Ceolwulf, in the view of the experts, suggests that the two neighboring kings who were collaborating to defeat the Vikings also minted the coins.

Williams continued, “Here is a more complex political picture in the 870s which was deliberately misinterpreted in the 890s. Perhaps we should be thinking more of Stalin and Trotsky, with Ceolwulf being airbrushed out of history because he’s no longer convenient. That of course gives a very different picture of the history of Alfred the Great, national hero, defeating the Vikings. Poor Ceolwulf gets a very bad press in Anglo-Saxon history, because the only accounts we have of his reign come from the latter part of Alfred’s reign. What we can now see emerging from this hoard is that this was a more sustained alliance with extensive coinage and lasting for some years.”

Published material 

Sixteen years ago, the late Mark Blackburn, writing in Kings, Currency and Alliances, cites two mentions of Ceolwulf in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The first is in the annal for 874, which records how the Vikings defeated Burgred of Mercia, who went into exile at Rome for the remainder of his life. It continues, “And the same year they gave Ceolwulf, an unwise [also reported as foolish] king’s thane, the Mercian kingdom to hold; and he swore oaths to them, and gave hostages, that it should be ready for them on whatever day they would have it; and he would be ready with himself, and with all those that would remain with him, at the service of the [Viking] army.”

There is another mention in the annal for 877, after the Vikings had stormed Exeter but were bought off by Alfred. This reads, “In the harvest the [Viking] army entered Mercia; some of which they divided among them, and some they gave to Ceolwulf.”

The phrase “a foolish king’s thane” requires an explanation. 

In Anglo-Saxon England, when a man is granted land by a king, he is elevated to the position of thane. This means a person not of royal or aristocratic blood, but above the rank of freeman. The implication is that Ceolwulf was not from the ruling classes, but that he had been unjustifiably elevated to a class for which he was unworthy by an undiscerning monarch. Then there are the unkind words that Ceolwulf was dependent upon the Vikings for his position and livelihood. So, what did his fellow Mercians think of this situation?

Alas, there is no Mercian Chronicle. However, Richard Abels’ excellent work on Alfred the Great embraces Ceolwulf’s acceptance by his subjects. Abels’ suggests that he “may well have traced his descent” to the Mercian kings Ceolwulf I (821 to 823) or to his brother Ceonwulf (798 to 821). 

Abels points out that during Ceolwulf’s reign, he undertakes the usual things that an Anglo-Saxon sovereign did, such as issuing coins and granting land by charter. 

He adds, “His charters indicate, moreover, that he enjoyed support among the Mercian nobility and ecclesiastical establishment. At least two of Burgred’s ealdormen continued in office under Ceolwulf and frequented his court. Burgred’s bishops apparently found nothing incongruous about serving a king who had betrayed his — and their — royal lord and who owed his office to the good graces of pagan invaders.”

Abels also refers to a regnal list from Worcester now in the British Library, that states Ceolwulf ruled for five years following Burgred.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 418 states, “This year the Romans collected all the hoards of gold that were in Britain; and some they hid in the earth, so that no man afterwards might find them, and some they carried away with them into Gaul.” 

Needless to say, the hoards were discovered. A gold fourth century solidus from one of them was the inspiration for the Two Emperors penny. 

This reverse type has been interpreted in various ways over the years. In 1931, Sir Charles Oman maintained that both coins commemorated a pact between the issuer and the Vikings. A year later, George Brooke opined that Alfred’s version either marked his coronation (the second figure being his queen) or the accession to his brother’s throne (the second figure being Aethelred I) and marking their joint Victories against the Vikings. Oman’s view is that Ceolwulf’s issue marked his accession. 

In 1973, Dr. C.H.V. Sutherland wrote in English Coinage that “there is little room here for any theory that the ‘Two Emperors’ type could, by extension, reflect any accommodation between Alfred and Ceolwulf II.” 

Views of course change over time. In 1986, Philip Grierson and Blackburn wrote that the reverse of these pennies, “copied from a fourth-century [gold Roman] solidus was perhaps intended to commemorate an alliance between Wessex and Mercia against the Danes.”

Reaction to hoard

On Dec. 14, comments from two readers appeared in the Daily Telegraph’s Letters to the Editor page, under the title “One Saxon coin isn’t enough to recast history.”

The first note was from Robin Nonhebel, a retired history teacher with a particular interest in early Anglo-Saxon history. While he found the feature about the hoard and Alfred having “?‘airbrushed’ his rival from history” very interesting, he advised, “one should be careful about rewriting history on the basis of one find.”

He explained that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “begun in Alfred’s reign, was a West Saxon chronicle until Athelstan King of Wessex, became ruler of a united England in 927. It is not surprising that its authors at Alfred’s court focused on Alfred and Wessex, not Mercia.” 

Despite the thane remark, he considers Ceolwulf probably had royal blood, but that he would have been seen as colluding with the enemy. 

“However, Alfred was a pragmatist,” he wrote. “Ceolwulf was powerful enough to defeat the Welsh, and an alliance of two Christian states against the pagan Vikings is not surprising. Aethelred, Alfred’s brother and predecessor, had allied with Burgred of Mercia and had taken an army to support the Mercians in 867.”

Nonhebel continued: “Alfred would presumably have cultivated friendship with Ceolwulf as it was in his interests, and previous finds have shown similarities between the coins of both kings. Although the Chronicle is critical of Ceolwulf and writes little about him, many historians assume that Alfred did not share the Chronicle’s antipathy. The discovery provides support for this analysis. It does not ‘rewrite history.’?”

Nonhebel’s comments makes sense, but as Alfred was Burgred’s brother-in-law, he just may have had some anti-Ceolwulf feelings. Until the discovery of this hoard, only 13 of Ceolwulf’s coins were known, which really was insufficient for a full study. 

However, as Naylor commented, “The discovery of the hoard may help us understand some underlying factors better relating to any political or economic alliance between the two rulers. It may also help to shed some light on the status of London at the time these coins were minted. According to historians, what is now England’s capital should have been under Viking rule. However, based on the evidence of the moneyers’ names on the coins, a good number may have been minted in London, which would alter our historical understanding.”

Another viewpoint

The second letter came from E.C. Coleman, a former officer in the Royal Navy who has written 10 books on a wide range of topics including medieval history.

His letter is short and to the point: “The coin has nothing to do with Ceolwulf II and everything to do with Alfred’s Christianity. The scene is boxed in on three sides by beaded lines representing the pearly gates of Heaven. The haloed figures are God the Father and Christ with the Holy Spirit descending from above to complete the Trinity. The disc in the lower centre is the Earth, and the [crossed] bones above signify death. The image shows the world’s dead being judged.”

Coleman’s interpretation of the coin’s symbolism is convincing, although I had never encountered a coin commemorating the Judgement of the Dead before. 

When I spoke to him, I was unaware that the design was based on a late fourth century gold Roman solidus. He explained that the two figures could not be kings, but represented Christ and God, the Holy Spirit completing the Holy Trinity. 

He explained that as in John 1:32 at Jesus’s baptism, Jesus saw “the Spirit like a dove, descending upon him” — the large winged figure above God and Christ he considered was a representation of a dove. 

“But why do crossed bones signify death?” I asked. Apparently when a knight died on a Crusade, his body was defleshed and his skull and two long bones were taken home for burial. 

“Crossed bones are the symbol for death,” Coleman explained. 

While Naylor found Coleman’s approach interesting, he explained that “the dove” was in fact the Winged Victory symbolizing Victoria the Roman goddess of victory. The “crossed bones” were in fact the decoration on the back of the throne on which the two emperors were seated as depicted on the Roman gold solidus. 

Naylor explained that the “Two Emperors” reverse of both Alfred and Ceolwulf was a direct copy of the Roman solidus, in the Anglo-Saxon style.

Coleman was not convinced. 

“I think it was Sherlock Holmes who said, ‘Never ignore the obvious,’?” he responded. “Alfred was a deeply religious Christian. Are we now expected to believe that he agreed to have a coin produced on which he is wearing a halo?” 

The halo was incorporated into early Christian art sometime in the fourth century A.D., and Alfred would have considered it blasphemous for him to be portrayed with one, Coleman maintains. 

Nonhebel reminded me of the rare Agnus Dei silver penny introduced by Aethelred II in 1009, featuring the Paschal Lamb on the obverse and the Dove or Holy Spirit on its reverse. 

It is believed to have been a solicitation to God to stave off the national calamity of heathens who were overrunning the country. 

He added, “It would not be surprising, therefore, if Alfred’s coins also were based on Roman models and that he, too, used his coins to demonstrate the West Saxons’ need of the wisdom of God in the presence of pagan attack.”

Hoard Conclusions

Over the past nine decades, there have been many theories as to what the Two Emperors type of Alfred and Ceolwulf represent. 

One theory is that to the Anglo Saxons, they represented God and Christ, and the Trinity was completed with the winged figure above. The coin was a solicitation to God to save the issuers from being conquered by pagans. However, the fact that both Alfred and Ceolwulf issued the coins shows an alliance between two rulers against a common enemy.

The two “emperors” are certainly not Anglo-Saxon kings.

Work will continue on cataloging the coins in the hoard. The additional coins will help the experts better understand the development of both Alfred’s and Ceolwulf’s coinage and the relationship between both rulers. Whatever happened to Ceolwulf will probably remain a mystery. Abels merely refers to “the death or deposition of Ceolwulf II sometime around 879 or 880.”

If the Watlington Hoard is declared treasure, the Ashmolean Museum and the Oxfordshire Museums Service will be working in partnership with others, and potential funders, to try to ensure that this important find can be displayed for people local to the find spot to learn about and enjoy the discovery. 

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