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, at Exeter shortly thereafter, and at Chippenham in 878. Alfred defeated the Vikings, under their leader Guthrum, at Edington in the same year. 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.

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 is 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.