Do you remember the sunny weather that marked much of the first lockdown in March-June last year? As I write now, in the chill of mid-January, those balmy temperatures are a distant memory – but they not only gave spirits a much-needed lift, they also prompted a flurry of archaeological discoveries, the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) has announced. Although metal-detecting was among the outdoor activities banned during lockdown, and many research excavations scheduled for this period had to be cancelled or postponed, a new avenue of archaeological opportunity opened rather closer to home: people were spending much more time in their gardens. Of the more than 47,000 finds recorded by the PAS in 2020, 6,251 (more than an eighth) of these were made between March and May, and many stemmed from housebound horticulturalists digging in their flowerbeds and vegetable patches.
Some of these discoveries were highlighted at the launch of the latest PAS annual report – among them, an intriguing and regionally important Tudor coin hoard. Spanning almost a century, and containing issues from the reigns of four kings, the 64 coins were discovered by a family weeding their garden in the New Forest area. The hoard’s contents – which are being catalogued by Dr Barrie Cook, curator of medieval and early modern coins at the British Museum, ahead of the find’s coroner’s inquest under the 1996 Treasure Act – comprise one silver and 63 gold coins. The earliest of them reflect the upheaval of the period known as the Wars of the Roses (1455-1487), during which the rival Houses of York and Lancaster vied for possession of the English throne, and the crown changed hands many times. These coins include a single gold noble of the Lancastrian king Henry VI (r. 1422-1461 and 1470-1471), as well as four large gold coins known as ryals or rose nobles issued by Edward IV (r. 1461-1470 and 1471-1483), who twice deposed Henry VI, seizing power for his own Yorkist cause.
Spanning almost a century, and containing issues from the reigns of four kings, the 64-coin hoard was discovered by a family weeding their garden.
Edward IV also introduced a new type of coin, which was first minted in 1465 and which makes up the main denomination represented in the hoard: the gold angel, so-called because such coins are marked with an image of the Archangel Michael killing a dragon (a reference to the Book of Revelation in the Bible) on the reverse. They were worth six shillings and eight old pence – a third of a pound or half a mark – and were issued in large numbers in the late 15th and 16th centuries. It is therefore no surprise that angels make up the bulk of the New Forest hoard, as Barrie Cook said: ‘They were the workaday gold coin of the late medieval and early modern period, referenced by Shakespeare and poets of the period.’
Four of the hoard’s angels date from Edward IV’s reign, but the majority were issued under the Tudors: 35 of Henry VII (r. 1485-1509, himself a descendant of the House of Lancaster), and 15 of his son Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547). Interestingly, the contents leap straight from Edward IV to the Tudors; there are no coins to represent the brief intervening reigns of Edward V (9 April-26 June 1483) or Richard III (1483-1485).
Crowns and queens
The gold angels were not the latest coins included in the hoard, however. In 1526, Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey devised sweeping reforms of the nation’s coinage, which included changing the weight of both gold and silver coins, and introducing a number of new designs and denominations. The hoard’s only silver coin belongs to this second coinage: it is a groat, worth four old pence. Another of Henry’s innovations of this period was the crown, a new five-shilling coin that ultimately came to replace the angel as the main gold coin in use; four such crowns were present in the hoard. As well as representing a novel kind of coin, these examples preserve an unusual element in their design. On one side of the central image we find the letter ‘H’, and on the other variously ‘K’, ‘A’, or ‘I’. These initials stand for ‘Henry’ and the Latinised names of his first three wives, Catherine of Aragon (queen consort 1509-1533), Anne Boleyn (1533-1536), and Jane Seymour (1536-1537).
It is not known why Henry VIII marked his crowns with the queens’ initials, Barrie Cook said – there is no precedent for such a practice in this country – nor why the king seemingly abandoned the idea after the death of Jane, rather than continuing to feature the initials of his subsequent spouses, Anne of Cleves (6 January-9 July 1540), Catherine Howard (1540-1542), and Catherine Parr (1543-1547). This motif does provide useful dating evidence, however. There are no coins from Henry VIII’s third coinage (created in 1544), meaning that Jane Seymour crowns represent the latest datable coins so far identified in the hoard. Jane was Henry VIII’s queen for almost 17 months until her death shortly after the birth of Henry’s much-sought male heir, the future Edward VI, in 1537. The presence of her initial among the coins, together with the absence of Henry VIII’s third coinage, suggests that the hoard may have been buried in the years around 1540.
Mercantile or Monastic money?
It is not certain that all of the New Forest coins were hidden at the same time – it is equally possible that this was a savings hoard that was added to over time, particularly given the presence of the much earlier noble and ryals. In the mid-16th century, the 64 coins would have been worth a total of around £24, Barrie Cook said – equivalent to a purchasing power of around £14,000 today, and well above the average Tudor annual wage. Who, then, had the coins belonged to? It is worth noting that the New Forest area has easy access to the coast, and lies close to important ports like Southampton – could there have been a connection between the coins and maritime trade? A hoard of this value could have been within the reach of a wealthy merchant. Alternatively, if we accept a single date of deposition around 1540, that would place the hoard in the context of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which spanned 1536-1541. Might the coins have belonged to the head of a religious community who was trying to hold on to their wealth even as their institution was disbanded around them?
Both scenarios seem plausible, and similar interpretations have been suggested for another significant collection of broadly contemporary gold coins: the Asthall Hoard, which was discovered during building work in the Cotswolds in 2007 (see www.finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/260783 for its entry on the PAS database). Now held by the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, its 210 gold angels and half-angels span 1470-1526 – encompassing the later years of the Wars of the Roses to just before the Dissolution of the Monasteries – and represent the largest intact assemblage of its kind. In the 16th century, the Cotswolds benefited from a booming wool industry, so it is possible that this hoard might represent the fruits of this trade – perhaps the savings of a particularly prosperous merchant – though concealed church wealth has been proposed as an option, too.
Research on the New Forest hoard continues, and it is hoped that ongoing analysis will shed further light on its make-up, improving our understanding of its meaning for the region in which it was found – watch this space!
As mentioned above, the New Forest hoard was highlighted as part of the most recent PAS annual report, which also described a number of other intriguing finds made in 2020. Among these was another garden find – indeed, another hoard of gold coins, though rather more recent in date: 50 South African Krugerrands, which were found in the garden of a Milton Keynes home. Weighing 1oz each, they had been produced as bullion coins – ‘a convenient way of holding gold,’ Barrie Cook said – at the Rand Refinery in Germiston, South Africa. Krugerrands were a popular choice for investors buying gold – indeed, by 1980 they represented more than 90 per cent of the global gold coin market – but they fell out of favour in the 1980s and 1990s as some Western countries banned their import due to their association with the apartheid regime.
The examples discovered in Milton Keynes were minted in the 1970s. How they came to be buried in an English garden is a mystery, but their coroner’s inquest will seek to establish whether the coins’ original owner or their heirs can be traced. (Although the coins are modern, they may still qualify as ‘treasure’ under the historic Crown right of treasure trove, which pre-dates the current Treasure Act – see CA 331 and ‘Further information’ box on p.53 for more details about the Treasure process.) It is hoped that, by making the find public, someone with information might come forward to the Milton Keynes coroner or the British Museum.
Leaving the 1970s behind to return to the time of the Wars of the Roses, among the other ‘star finds’ flagged by the PAS is an object that is thought to represent another monarch from this turbulent period: Richard III. The artefact in question is a circular copper-alloy mount found in Colyton, Devon. Decorated with gilding, silvering, and enamel, it depicts a white boar, an animal associated with Richard from at least the 1470s when, as Duke of Gloucester, he used the symbol as his personal badge. Boar badges were produced in large numbers for his coronation and to mark the investiture of his son, Edward of Middleham (1473-1484), as Prince of Wales. It is thought that this example may have been worn by one of Richard’s retinue or a well-off supporter – there was a fashion at the time, the PAS reports, to wear large mounts like this on low-slung belts fastened over armour.Other artefacts from the report were equally visually striking: they include a Roman furniture fitting found in Old Basing, Hampshire, which is thought to depict the god Oceanus and is featured as this month’s ‘Context’ image (see p.16), and a 13th-century lead seal matrix discovered in Dursley, Gloucestershire. Used to stamp an identifying image in a wax seal, this latter object depicts a bishop clad in flowing vestments, crowned with a mitre, and holding a crozier in one hand (the other is raised in a gesture of blessing). This image is surrounded by an abbreviated Latin inscription which can be translated as ‘David, God’s Messenger, Bishop of St Andrews’. The David in question has been identified as David de Bernham, formerly a chamberlain of Alexander II of Scotland, who was Bishop of St Andrews between 1239 and 1253. How the seal matrix came to travel more than 400 miles from the east coast of Scotland to south- west England, though, is less clear.
Finds like these highlight that, although many of us have spent much of the last year at home, the process of recording archaeological finds reported by members of the public continues. As well as adding more than 6,200 new finds to their database during the first lockdown, the PAS reports, some 22,507 existing records were updated between March and May. The 47,000 public finds reported in 2020 is, unsurprisingly, lower than in previous years, but the annual report carried new figures for 2019 that told a brighter story: in that year some 81,602 discoveries were reported, over 10,000 more than in 2018. Of these, over 90 per cent were made by metal-detectorists, highlighting the importance of responsible detecting in adding to our understanding of the past. There are now more than 1.5 million artefacts recorded on the PAS database, which you can explore at www.finds. org.uk/database.
For more information on the Treasure process in England and Wales, see www.finds.org.uk/treasure. The PAS does not operate in Scotland, which is represented by the Treasure Trove Unit – see www.treasuretrovescotland.co.uk. For more information on the operation of the Treasure Act and antiquities law in Northern Ireland, see www.communities-ni.gov.uk/articles/ advice-finders-treasure-northern-ireland.