Watlington (G-B): Viking hoard discovery reveals little-known king 'airbrushed from history'

A hoard of Viking coins could change our understanding of English history, after showing how Alfred the Great 'airbrushed' out a rival king

Hannah Furness

Source - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/environment/archaeology/12043749/British-Museum-unveils-unique-hoard-of-Viking-coins.html

Rare coin showing 3523417bA rare coin showing King Alfred ‘the Great’ of Wessex (r.871-99) and King Ceolwulf II of Mercia (874-79) 

A Viking hoard discovered by an amateur metal detectorist could prompt the re-writing of English history, after experts claimed it shows how Alfred the Great “airbrushed” a rival king from history.

Ceolwulf II of Mercia is barely mentioned in contemporary records and largely forgotten by history, only briefly described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as an “unwise King’s thane”.

But as of today, his reputation might be rescued after a haul of coins dug up after more than 1,000 years suggested he in fact had a powerful alliance with Alfred, ruling their kingdoms as equals.

The hoard, made up of 186 coins, seven items of jewellery and 15 ingots, was found by amateur metal detectorist James Mather on his 60th birthday, after he uncovered it in a muddy field.

A selection of ite 3523068bA selection of items in the Watlington Hoard after examination work  Photo: PA

A selection of the coins show two emperor-like figures, believed to represent Alfred and Ceolwulf, and are now known to have been produced extensively in both kingdoms.

Speaking at the unveiling of the hoard at the British Museum, its curator of Early Medieval coinage said the discoveries gave a “very different picture” to the legacies set down in the history books, as he suggests it could counter the "very bad press" given to Ceolwulf II thus far.

Gareth Williams said: “Here is a more complex political picture in the 870s which was deliberately misrepresented in the 890s after Alfred has taken over the whole of Ceolwulf’s kingdom.

X ray of the watl 3523069bAn X-ray of the Watlington Hoard  Photo: PA
Perhaps we should be thinking more of Stalin and Trotsky, with Ceolwulf being airbrushed out of history because he’s no longer convenient.

That of course gives a very different picture of history of Alfred the great national hero, defeating the Vikings.”

The coins date from the late 870s; the only example of a Viking hoard from the era.
Only one example of the double figured coin from each kingdom has been found previously, with archaeologists left unsure as to whether it was a “one-off” mint.

The new discovery reveals how the coins were produced in both Ceolwulf and Alfred’s names, far more extensively than previously thought and in a number of different mints.

It sheds new light on a very poorly understood period in English history,” said Dr Williams.

Poor Ceolwulf gets a very bad press in Anglo-Saxon history, because the only accounts we have of his reign come from the latter part of Alfred’s reign.

What we can now see emerging from his hoard is that this was a more sustained alliance with extensive coinage and lasting for some years.”

The haul, known to be Viking thanks to the style of jewellery, was found earlier this year in a field near Watlington, Oxfordshire, by Mr Mather, who has been metal detectoring as a hobby for 20 years.

He came across it after a futile five hour hunt, moments after he had decided to call it a day and go home.

Coming across an ingot he recognised as Viking after seeing a similar example in the British Museum, he went on to discover the entire hoard buried in the mud.

After alerting an officer from the Portable Antiquities Scheme, he returned to check the hoard was safely in situ in the field four times over the next five days, until an expert could travel down.

From there, a "haggis-shaped" mound of earth was removed in tact, with the treasure inside, and transported to the British Museum in a make-shift wrapping of clingfilm and bubblewrap.

Mr Mather, who joked his two adult children are now newly impressed by his hobby, said: “Discovering this exceptional hoard has been a really great experience and helping excavate it with archaeologists from the Portable Antiquities Scheme on my 60th birthday was the icing on the cake.

Watlington hoard 3523059bJewellery including bangles from the Watlington Hoard during conservation and examination work.  Photo: British Museum

It has been absolutely amazing. The range of emotions you go through, from shock to disbelief to joy – it all becomes a bit surreal.”

The hoard will now be examined with a view to being classed as treasure, whereupon Mr Mather and the landowner of the field in which it was discovered will receive a significant payout.

The haul has not yet been valued, but good quality individual coins from the era can fetch five-figure sums.

Ceolwulf II

Born: Unknown

Died: Unknown

King of Mercia: 874 - 879

Ceolwulf II was the last king of Mercia, succeeding Burgred in 874 after he was defeated by Viking invaders. He is thought to have reigned until around 879, with Aethelred becoming Lord of the Mercians under the rule of King Alfred in 883. He is mentioned only briefly in written records, with two charters from 875 calling him rex Merciorum. He is thought to have been the leader of a Mercian army which killed Rhodri the Great in Wales in 878, but disappears from records around 879.

"The same year they [Vikings] gave Ceolwulf, an unwise king's thane, the Mercian kingdom to hold; and he swore oaths to them, and gave hostages, that it should be ready for them on whatever day they would have it; and he would be ready with himself, and with all those that would remain with him, at the service of the army" - The Anglo Saxon Chronicle's only reference to Ceolwulf