Sunday, 11 December 2016

Tribute or wages? The fascinating coins of the Watlington hoard - part 2.

The Watlington hoard contains nearly 200 silver coins, the vast majority of them minted by the Anglo-Saxon kings Alfred ('the Great') of Wessex and Ceolwulf II of Mercia. These coins would have been standard currency in their area of jurisdiction during the 870s, so how did so many  end up in the coffers of one (or more) Vikings? 

One distinct possibility is that the coins represent ransom payment given by the Anglo-Saxons to the Vikings to, essentially, get them to go away.  This practice is well documented in the late tenth century, when the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelred, nicknamed Æthelred Unræd ie. the Unready (ruled 978-1013 and 1014-1016 AD) made a policy of paying out huge sums of tribute payments to would-be Viking attackers. As a result, thousands of Æthelred’s coins have been found in Scandinavia (see pictures below). This tactic may explain why Æthelred the Unready was so named: translated from the Old English, his name means “noble counsel, bad-counsel” (or, as one eminent Anglo-Saxonist put it “noble counsel, my foot!").

I excavated this coin of Æthelred on a Viking-age farmstead at Slite, Gotland, Sweden (waaay back in 2005). Thousands of Aethelred coins are found in Scandinavia: testimony to the Anglo-Saxon practice of paying off would-be Viking attackers. (my photo, my hand)

The front of the same coin, cleaned up.
(my photo)
But although often associated with Æthelred, ransom payments are also hinted at in the ninth century. In a typically English indirect style, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes how the Anglo-Saxons ‘made peace’ with Viking forces on various occasions during the military campaigns of the 870s and 880s, thereby averting battle. On such occasions, Viking forces probably demanded, and received, cash in hand. This is certainly suggested by other sources. A document from 872 describes how the bishop of Worcester, one Wærferth, resorted to selling land for gold because of the ‘very pressing affliction and immense tribute of the barbarians’. The Vikings pursued a similar policy of extracting cash bribes during their raids on the Carolingian Empire and in Continental sources there is no such beating around the bush. In 866, Charles (the Bald) ‘made peace with those Northmen at the price of 4,000 lbs of silver, according to their scales’ (the Vikings were clearly dealing with silver by weight). He later ‘collected the amount he had agreed to pay those Northmen, both in silver and in wine’. 

The Watlington hoard was hidden immediately following an intense period of Viking military activity in southwest England. Alfred had ‘made peace’ with the Vikings at Wareham in 875 and at Exeter shortly thereafter. Alfred defeated the Vikings, under their leader Guthrum, at Edington in 878. Some weeks later, Guthrum was a guest at Alfred’s court; here, Alfred sponsored Guthrum's baptism and ‘greatly honoured him and his companions with riches’. The coins in the Watlington hoard may have been acquired by the Vikings on one or any of these occasions, with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle – a pro-Wessex/ Alfred account – understandably not wanting to detail the cash transfer.  Certainly, the coins have a narrow date range and this is a good indication that they were gathered together shortly before being deposited. 

Silver coin of Ceolwulf II of Mercia, who is recorded only fleetingly in contemporary annals, and who disappeared around the same time the Watlington hoard was buried (c. 879/80).

But, beyond being a ransom payment, there is another, intriguing, possibility. This period also saw Alfred, ruler of Wessex, take over the neighboring kingdom of Mercia, and in c 879 AD, the Mercian ruler Ceolwulf II vanishes without trace (see blog below).  Could the coins have been acquired by the Vikings not as tribute, but as payment by Alfred for military services against Ceolwulf?  This is pure speculation, and would involve an otherwise undocumented alliance between Alfred and the Vikings. Still, the hoard was deposited at exactly the same time Ceolwulf drops out of historical sight.

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