We’ve talked before about how coins preserve human history. They’ve been used to locate the lost location of Teutoburg Forest and determine the breadth and power of the once great Spanish Empire. Recently, a Viking coin hoard that the police seized in County Durham and Lancashire has shaken up historian’s ideas about Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, the Viking fighter and English king.
Who Was Alfred the Great?
Alfred was the son of Aethelwulf, king of the West Saxons. During this period of time England was routinely being raided, sacked, and plundered by Vikings from Denmark. By 866 these Vikings had seized York and established their own kingdom. They then captured East Anglia and Mercia, two other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. By 870 Wessex was next on their list of goals. At this time Alfred was a very young man. He fought the Vikings bravely but suffered devastating losses and retreated to the Somerset tidal marshes where he continued to wage guerilla warfare against them. In 878 he was able to defeat the Vikings finally at the Battle of Edington, take back Wessex for his people, and establish a peace with King Guthrum who converted to Christianity as a provision of the treaty they made. Guthrum honored that treaty, left Alfred in peace, and history has accounted Alfred the savior of English England.
Viking Coin Hoard Tells a Somewhat Different Story
In 2015, James Mather, an amateur metal detectorist discovered 186 coins, 7 pieces of jewelry, and 15 ingots in a muddy field near Watlington, Oxfordshire. These coins depicted two emperor-like figures and are believed to be Alfred and Ceolwulf II of Mercia.
The £500,000 coin hoard that the police seized now resides at the British Museum, and experts there believe that these coins belonged to the Viking army Alfred defeated. The curator of early medieval coins and Viking collections, Dr. Gareth Williams, said: “The coins I have seen so far add significantly to our understanding of the political history of England in the AD 870s. This is the period in which Alfred the Great was fighting the Vikings, but which also led to the creation of a unified kingdom of England under Alfred and his successors.”
Dark Ages Fake News
The fact that these Viking coins feature both Alfred and Ceolwulf II of Mercia together contradicts previous assumptions about the importance of Ceolwulf. Because Alfred won his war against the Danish Vikings, he got to write the history - or, rather, have it written down. In that history Ceolwulf was not described in flattering terms and he rather suddenly disappeared from the historical record without an explanation. After this Alfred took over Ceolwulf’s kingdom, Mercia, as well.
However, the existence of minted coins with both Alfred and Ceolwulf on them would suggest that at the time the two men had forged an alliance - one that didn’t make it into the history books. That they were minted extensively in both Wessex and Mercia suggests that this alliance was firmly established and lasted some time.
Remember, the Danish Vikings were ruthlessly expanding their area of control and subjugating the English people after they had killed their leaders, stolen their property, raped their women, and burned their churches. When Alfred wrested control of Mercia back from Ceolwulf II after his exile and victory, the monks who kept the record were probably more than happy to put Ceolwulf II down in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as an “unwise King’s thane” instead of a conqueror and a king himself.
The power of coins as history keepers, however, is that they can’t be rewritten. They can be melted down and destroyed, but once they have been minted, they are remarkably sturdy reflections of their historical period and the ideas they were minted to convey. On U.S. coins we include our flag, the eagle, Lady Liberty, and buildings of historical or political significance to show our ideals. These Viking coins were minted, apparently in an attempt to establish peace and a working relationship between the English leader, Alfred, and one Viking king, Ceolwulf II. The Viking coin hoard that survived tells us that story and illuminates this part of the Dark Ages for modern understanding. That’s nothing short of amazing.