The largest-known coin hoard dating to the period immediately after the Norman Conquest has been unveiled at the British Museum.
Over 2,500 coins of Harold Godwinson (Harold II, the last crowned Anglo-Saxon king of England, r.1066) and William the Conqueror (William I, r.1066-1086) were found by metal-detectorists in January, scattered through a small area of ploughsoil in the Chew Valley, Bath and North-East Somerset. The hoard includes twice as many coins of Harold II as all other previous finds combined, and five times more examples of the first coin-type issued by William I than the total number known before. Its discovery therefore represents a unique insight into the immediate impact of the Norman Conquest on coin production in England.
The hoard was reported as potential Treasure via the Portable Antiquities Scheme soon after its discovery, and within a day it was at the British Museum. Since then, its contents have been carefully cleaned and catalogued by expert conservators, the curator, and volunteers in order to prepare a report for its upcoming coroner’s inquest under the Treasure Act 1996 (see CA 331).
This analysis has revealed that the hoard includes 1,236 silver pennies of Harold II and 1,310 of William I, as well as fragments that cannot be clearly attributed. There are also a number of cut halfpennies – during the Anglo-Norman period, the only coins minted for general circulation were silver pennies, but these were often cut into halves or quarters to create smaller denominations.
Cut pieces like these were not ‘small change’, though, as Gareth Williams, Curator of Early Medieval Coinage at the British Museum, notes: ‘Five complete pennies would be enough to buy you a sheep, so half a penny was still a considerable amount,’ he said. ‘The entire hoard represents a flock of 500-plus sheep, or the annual income of a large estate – it probably didn’t belong to someone from the very top level of society, but this is within the range of a wealthy landowner or a merchant.’
Some of the coins are worn or cracked, indicating that they had been in circulation before they were buried, while others had been deliberately bent by cautious individuals checking that their silver had not been mixed with lead – but for the most part the hoard’s contents are in good condition, allowing the British Museum team to read the names of the moneyers who issued them, and their mints.
Mints and mules
The coins of Harold II in the hoard mainly come from south-east England, with mints including Winchester, London, and a particularly big concentration from Sussex – perhaps hinting at financial preparations being made in this latter region to resist the coming Norman invasion – though western mints such as Bath (the first time this location has been identified on a coin of Harold II) and Bristol are represented too. Harold’s coins bear the word pax (‘peace’) on their reverse, a design representing what must have been rather short-lived optimism for his reign – though the coins of William I do attest that at least some Anglo-Saxon moneyers continued to operate after the upheaval of the Norman Conquest.
These moneyers did not always play by the rules, though – despite decidedly draconian deterrents for those who did try to cheat the system. Three of the Chew Valley coins are of a more unusual type, known as ‘mules’ – this is where dies for two different coin types have been used to strike a single coin. In this case, the hoard includes two coins with Harold II’s design on the obverse (front) and the reverse design of William’s first coinage – the first known examples of such a combination – as well as a coin combining dies representing William I and Edward the Confessor (r.1042-1066), Harold II’s predecessor. The name of one moneyer represented in the hoard, Sideman of Wareham, was found on the two Harold/William mules, but also producing regular coins from William I’s reign.
These hybrid designs were created as a kind of early medieval tax-dodging scheme, Gareth Williams explained: ‘During this period, coin types were changed every few years, after which the previous design ceased to be legal tender and you had to change your coins for new ones,’ he said. ‘This meant profit for the moneyers, though they also had to pay a fee to the Crown to operate, and to purchase new dies for each change. Some moneyers tried to get around this by illicitly continuing to use old dies and hoping that no one would notice. Some of the coins issued during William I’s reign still use Harold II’s bust – these weren’t realistic portraits but stylised images of kings mimicking the coins of Byzantine emperors, so you would have to look closely to tell the difference. As many people couldn’t read, they wouldn’t necessarily have spotted that their coin had the wrong name on it.’
Rise of the resistance
When was the hoard buried? All of the coins from William I’s reign are of the very first design that was issued after his coronation on Christmas Day 1066, suggesting that the hoard was probably buried only a year or two later, most likely not much after 1068. But why was such comparative wealth consigned to the Somerset soil? Hoarding is sometimes associated with episodes of perceived threat, and in the years immediately after the Norman Conquest we are spoiled for choice for possible motivators that may have spooked the south-west of England.
In 1067, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us, the Welsh rulers Rhiwallon and Bleddyn, aided by ‘Eadric the Wild’ – a Mercian magnate who refused to submit to William I – invaded Herefordshire, carrying out raids within the county and attacking Hereford Castle. Nor was this the only episode of local resistance to Norman rule. It was probably in order to quell one such rebellion that William I besieged Exeter in 1068 – surviving records do not tell us why, but it does appear that there was considerable unrest in the south-west. This was also the year that the sons of Harold II returned from exile in Ireland, raiding around the mouth of the River Avon, attacking Bristol, and pushing into Somerset, before they were forced to flee to Dublin once more.
It is these latter events, Gareth Williams said, which provide the most-compelling candidate for the cause of the hoard’s burial, though of course it could have been triggered by something that is not described in surviving sources. ‘In a period of great uncertainty, with a country led by someone that not everyone supports and a complicated relationship with the Continent, that’s a period in which anyone might choose to bury their money in the ground for safekeeping,’ he said.
This is not the only enigma surrounding the circumstances of the hoard’s burial. No suggestion of a container, like a pot broken by the plough, has been discovered at the findspot, and Senior Conservator Pippa Pearce observed no trace of textile on the coins. It is most likely, she said, that the coins were buried in a number of bags that have long since rotted away.
What is clear, though, is the potential that this discovery has for informing studies of the post-Conquest period. Gareth Williams said: ‘This is an extremely significant find for our understanding of the impact of the Norman Conquest of 1066. One of the big debates among historians is the extent to which there was continuity or change, both in the years immediately after the Conquest and across a longer period. Surviving historical sources tend to focus on the top level of society, and the coins are also symbols of authority and power. At the same time, they were used on a regular basis by both rich and poor, so the coins help us understand how changes under Norman rule impacted on society as a whole.’
At the time of writing, analysis of the coins was ongoing, and the next step was for the hoard to undergo its coroner’s inquest under the Treasure Act 1996 (which in England is administered by the British Museum) to determine whether it constitutes Treasure. If the coroner rules in the affirmative, museums will have the chance to fundraise and acquire the find for public display – and with the Roman Baths & Pump Room in Bath already expressing an interest in adding the hoard to its collections, if it is declared Treasure, it could be that the hoard will remain in its native Somerset as a resource for future study.
Under the Treasure Act, all finders of potential Treasure have a legal obligation to report their discovery within 14 days to the local coroner in the district in which the find was made. For more information on the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Treasure process, see our article in CA 331, and visit www.finds.org.uk/treasure.
Michael Lewis is Head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme; Pippa Pearce is Senior Conservator in the British Museum’s Department of Conservation and Scientific Research; Gareth Williams is Curator of Early Medieval Coinage at the British Museum.
All Images: Pippa Pearce, copyright Trustees of the British Museum.