Unpicking the largest coin hoard of the post-Conquest period

The discovery of over 2,500 silver pennies from the reigns of Harold II and William I has the potential to shed vivid new light on whether the immediate aftermath of the Norman Conquest was a time of upheaval or continuity. Carly Hilts found out more from Michael Lewis, Pippa Pearce, and Gareth Williams.

Found in Somerset farmland, the Chew Valley hoard is the largest-known coin hoard dating from the immediate aftermath of the Norman Conquest. This photo shows just a sample of its more than 2,500 coins.
Found in Somerset farmland, the Chew Valley hoard is the largest-known coin hoard dating from the immediate aftermath of the Norman Conquest. This photo shows just a sample of its more than 2,500 coins. [Image: Pippa Pearce, copyright Trustees of the British Museum]

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).

The hoard was immediately reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the local coroner, and arrived at the British Museum within a day of its discovery. It has since been carefully cleaned by expert conservators led by Pippa Pearce.
The hoard was immediately reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the local coroner, and arrived at the British Museum within a day of its discovery. It has since been carefully cleaned by expert conservators led by Pippa Pearce. [Image:
Pippa Pearce, copyright Trustees of the British Museum]

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.

At the time of the Norman Conquest, the only coins in circulation in England were silver pennies – in order to create smaller denominations, these were often cut into halves or quarters, as is reflected by some of the contents of the Chew Valley hoard.
At the time of the Norman Conquest, the only coins in circulation in England were silver pennies – in order to create smaller denominations, these were often cut into halves or quarters, as is reflected by some of the contents of the Chew Valley hoard.
[Image: Pippa Pearce, copyright Trustees of the British Museum]

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.

A coin of William I (LEFT) a coin of Harold II (RIGHT). Their busts are not realistic portraits but fairly interchangeable stylised images of kings – an aspirational imitation of the coins of Byzantine emperors.
The hoard contains 1,310 coins of William I (LEFT) and 1,236 coins of Harold II (RIGHT). Their busts are not realistic portraits but fairly interchangeable stylised images of kings – an aspirational imitation of the coins of Byzantine emperors. [Image: Pippa Pearce, copyright Trustees of the British Museum]
This coin is a ‘mule’, created using two dies from different coins – one side shows a design from an issue of Edward the Confessor (RIGHT) and the other bears one of William I (LEFT).
This coin is a ‘mule’, created using two dies from different coins – one side shows a design from an issue of Edward the Confessor (RIGHT) and the other bears one of William I (LEFT).
[Image: Pippa Pearce, copyright Trustees of the British Museum]

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.


This is an excerpt from a feature published in CA 356. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

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