Friday, 9 December 2016

Rewriting history: the fascinating coins of the Watlington hoard - part 1

In 2015 an important Viking silver/ gold hoard was discovered near Watlington, Oxfordshire. The hoard appears to have been in Viking hands when it was buried in c. 879/80 AD. It contains a characteristically Scandinavian mix of coins, ingots and both complete and hacked jewellery. But its standout feature is its c. 200 silver coins. All but a handful were minted by the Anglo-Saxon kings Alfred (the Great) of Wessex (ruled 871-899) and his much less well-known contemporary Ceolwulf II of Mercia (ruled c. 874-879). Surviving coins of the 870s are rare. As explained in this new mini-book, the hoard casts vital new light on one of the most formative periods of medieval British history.


The Watlington hoard included a typically-Viking mix of coins, ingots, arm-rings and hack-silver, in addition to a tiny piece of hack-gold. (Copyright Ashmolean Museum)

Ceolwulf II is barely mentioned in the main documentary source for the period, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. This pro-Wessex source, first written down in c. 892, describes Ceolwulf as a ‘foolish king’s thegn’: a puppet ruler put in place by the Vikings to rule over western Mercia on their behalf in the late 870s, while they were busy attempting to subdue other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

But the coins tell a different story. In the Watlington hoard, coins issued by both Alfred and Ceolwulf (individually, rather than jointly) share the same design, and in some cases the same moneyer and mint place, suggesting some kind of monetary alliance on a grand scale: only possible if Alfred accepted the legitimacy of Ceolwulf and was willing to partner up with him in public. One of these is called the ‘Two Emperors type” because of the image of – you guessed it – two emperors on the reverse of the coin. Only two were known before this new discovery, with the current total now 15. Clearly, the coins were far more numerous than previously thought. The silver content of the coinage also seems to have uniformly increased around this time, further suggesting joint action.



A 'Two Emperors' type coin. The design was copied from earlier Roman coinage, but the message conveyed by the image of joint rulers was probably not lost on contemporaries. The winged figure above might be an angel, or a figure of Victory. If the latter, it's possible that the coinage was issued to celebrate the success of an otherwise unknown military coalition against the Vikings. (Copyright Ashmolean Museum)

Despite this monetary alliance, the relationship between Alfred and Ceolwulf quickly soured as Alfred moved to annex the kingdom of Mercia in around 880, and the shadowy Ceolwulf disappears from the historical record altogether (perhaps having been invited for a refreshing cliff-top walk). The fact that the coin types represented within the hoard have so far proved rare may indicate that Alfred deliberately melted them down following his takeover of Mercia, perhaps wanting to erase all reminders of Ceolwulf and their (now-embarrassing) former relationship. Indeed, Alfred began to issue a new coin type (the ‘Two-Line type', so called because…….yes, it has two lines of writing on it) at exactly this time.


A 'Two-Line type' coin of Alfred, found in Wiltshire. The two lines on the reverse of the coin read 'WLF RED' ie. Wilfred, the moneyer who produced the coin. (Copyright PAS). 

One of these new issues is included in the hoard - but just one. It seems that the Watlington hoard was assembled and deposited at a key moment of transition, when the Alfred-Ceolwulf coins were being melted down, but before Alfred had time to produce lots of his new 'Two-Line type'. Were it not for this hoard, we might well have consigned Ceolwulf to the margins of history. But the coins suggest that Ceolwulf was a legitimate ruler whilst painting Alfred as a shrewd manipulator of the facts.  

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