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The Watlington Hoard: The Viking Treasure that Marked the Foundation of England

By Minjie Su

Having you ever visited and been dazzled by Anglo-Saxon collection at the Ashmolean Museum, a priceless treasure hoard that the Museum has fought hard to keep earlier this year? Well, this is none other than the famed ‘Watlington Hoard’, a small yet pivotal collection of Viking silver (and gold) discovered and excavated in Oxfordshire in 2015.

Watlington Hoard in the Ashmolean Museum – photo by Minjie Su

On the 27th of November, Dr John Naylor and Dr Jane Kershaw, two chief researchers on the Watlington Hoard project, gave a seminar on the Hoard’s significance at Oxford University’s Institute of Archaeology; together, they provided the audience with a basic idea of how the Hoard is like, and explained why and how it is so important in shedding lights on Alfred the Great’s England.

The seminar was divided into two halves. In the first part, Dr Naylor, being an expert in early medieval and later coinage, gave a detailed introduction to the coins in the Hoard. Although many of the Watlington coins are fragmented and the final count is not yet ready, Dr Naylor estimates that there are around 210 coins in total, all dated to mid-9th to late-9th century, in the reigns of Alfred the Great of Wessex and Ceowulf II of Mercia.

The coins are categorised into two types based on their design. Thirteen coins belong to the rare ‘Two Emperors’ type, with Alfred and Ceowulf siting face to face below a winged figure, possibly an angel of victory. This design has its roots in 4th-century Roman solidus (pl. solidi), a type of golden coin issued in the Late Roman Empire. These coins suggest the alliance between Wessex and Mercia in face of the Viking invasion, and cast doubt over the conventional portrayal of Ceowulf as a puppet king of the Vikings. The second type, the ‘cross-and-lozenge’ type, form the bulk of the collection. About fifty to fifty-five of these are issued by Ceowulf, two by Æthelred, archbishop of Canterbury, and the rest by King Alfred. Generally based on Roman models, these coins can be further divided into four subtypes: Canterbury, Winchester, London, and unassigned ‘other’ style, with Winchester almost entirely Alfred’s and the ‘other’ Mercian. Quite some of these coins are barely used; they have almost never gone into broad circulation, which may help to understand why the Hoard was buried.

Coins from the Watlington Hoard – photo by Minjie Su

In addition, there are a few coins that call for special attention. One such, though fragmented, may be the earliest example of an Anglo-Saxon half penny, which seems to have a cross design on one side. There are also two Carolingian deniers, which are dated to about 860-870. The latest issue from the Hoard is a single example of what is termed the ‘two-line’ type coins, which were not produced until after the Battle of Edington (maybe 878, after which Alfred famously burned the cakes). This coin not only helps to narrow down the burial date of the Hoard to about 879-880, but also gives us a glimpse into under what turbulent circumstance the Hoard was deposed.

Dr Jane Kershaw, having taken over the second half of the seminar, talked about the rest of items in the Hoard, which consists of 15 silver ingots, 6 silver arm rings, 2 neck ring fragments, and 1 tiny yet valuable piece of hack gold, all most likely having a Danish origin. Unlike the coins many of which have never circulated, these silvers are heavily ‘nicked’, meaning that they have been tested for its fineness. Three of the arm rings are also deliberately cut – not broken, but cut up to be weighed. This attests to these metals’ circulation on the bullion exchange market, which was not at all uncommon in major Scandinavian trading towns such as Birke and had been introduced to England by the time the Hoard was buried.

The presence of the hack gold, however tiny, makes the Hoard even more interesting, for gold was rarely used as currency and tended to be traded separately from silver. The inclusion of gold in the Watlington Hoard gives evidence to the rise of a multi-metallic bullion exchange economy. Dr Kershaw thinks these metals and the two Carolingian coins come in one parcel, while the Anglo-Saxon coins belong to another.

Watlington Hoard in the Ashmolean Museum – photo by Minjie Su

How and why, then, was the Watlington Hoard buried? These treasure, as Dr Kershaw suggested, was likely associated with the ‘Great Army’ in the late 9th century. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles mention Alfred’s peace-making with the Vikings but offer no further detail – was he in fact paying them to leave, and the Hoard came as part of that payment? It is not an unprecedented move on a ruler’s part: the Royal Frankish Annals tell of Charles the Bald paying the Vikings and the Vikings weighing the silver.

When the Hoard was buried, the Viking army was on their way to East Anglia, as agreed under the Treaty of Wedmore after the Battle of Edington. They most likely took the old Roman road through Cirencester, where they stayed for about one year, then went onto the Ridgeway and the Icknield Way, thus passing Watlington. Sitting on the border between Wessex and Mercia and as an important Mercian fort, Cirencester is an interesting stop for the Vikings – just what made them choose that route? We know that Ceowulf II disappeared the year the Vikings took over Cirencester. Around the same time, Alfred melted down the ‘Two Emperors’ type of coins and started to mint the ‘Two-line’ type. This is all only speculative, but could it be that Alfred paid the Vikings to get rid of Ceowulf for him? Then, in that case, the Watlington Hoard would be a witness to the agreement between Alfred and the Viking army.

You can follow Minjue Su on Twitter @minjie_su 

Click here to visit the Watlington Hoard page on the Ashmolean Museum website

Click here to read Hoard of King Alfred the Great goes to Ashmolean Museum

Click here to read more articles by Minjie

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