The Staffordshire Hoard and the Mercian Royal Court

Nicholas Brooks (University of Birmingham)

This paper will concentrate on interpreting the character of the hoard. Of course we are at a very early stage at present, and some possible hypotheses will be eliminated as the research and study of individual items continues; but several fundamental points can nevertheless be considered.

First of all, this is a hoard predominantly of gold. The later its date, the more it is at apparent war with the evidence of coin hoards and the production of coinage in England which suggests that from the middle of the seventh century gold was less and less available to the moneyers of London, Kent, and East Anglia. This may be because the context of the gift exchange in which kings take part is very different from the context in which moneyers work

Secondly, this is a hoard for male display - bling for warrior companions of the king - and above all a hoard of sword ornaments. 97 pommel caps is the latest total, representing a very significant number of potential warriors with an important display of weapons. In addition there are many helmet fragments, although these may represent just a single helmet, or they might be pieces to use for repair should a helmet get damaged. Despite this, the rareness of helmets in the early-medieval period, both in Britain and on the Continent, suggests that these enormously elaborate and important helmets with metal fittings are kingly or princely items belonging to people of very high status and indeed symbolic of this status. Helmets of this type are used in the earliest king-making rituals, before the use of crowns, and are worn on important public occasions. Lastly, it is possible that even the ecclesiastical items might be regarded also as specifically male items.

Having established these two fundamental points, it is worth thinking a little more about the role of gold in Anglo-Saxon society. The later Roman empire had established a strong gold currency of solidi, that depended upon a state monopoly of the production of gold; Matthias Hardt’s paper mentioned the ingots with imperial stamps. The Dolaucothi gold mine in northern Wales was evidently under imperial control, as indeed was the work of goldsmiths and, increasingly, the distribution of gold objects, as Byzantine and late Roman sources combine to suggest to us (Hendy 1985; 1989). The Byzantine emperors emphasised that only the emperor or consuls of the imperial house could make gifts of gold, and Clovis, when he had himself declared a consul and distributed gold, was clearly aware of this.

In England, whatever date you prefer for the composition of Beowulf, it is of interest that the poet thought of the king as a goldwine gumena – the gold-friend of the warriors - or as the goldwine Geata – the gold-friend of the Geats. He is a gold-gyfa, a giver of gold, a beag-gyfa, a giver of rings. The royal hall of Heorot is the gifhealle – the gift hall. The importance of the king’s gifts of gold, to his wives and to his followers and warriors, is emphasised again and again throughout the poem. And in return, both from his wife and from his followers, the king expects faithful service. When Eofor kills Ongentheow in battle and recovers from his body the gold-hilted sword and helmet, he delivers them to his lord King Hygelac, and is rewarded for so doing. Similarly, Weohstan recovers from the dead Swedish prince Eanmund a gold-adorned shield, a burnished helmet and an ancient sword, and he gives them to his lord King Onela, and receives them back as a gift, and is later permitted to hand them on to his son Wiglaf.

The practice of giving a heriot, here-geatu, war-gear, to the king, at death, was well-established in Anglo-Saxon law, and is most fully described in the second law code of King Cnut, from c. 1020. Clause 71 specifies the different amounts which different classes of society were required to pay to the king.

Cnut’s Secular Ordinance [II Cnut] (Liebermann 1903, 356-8)

clause 70: If a man departs from this life intestate, be it through his carelessness or be it through sudden death (ðurh færlicne deaþ), then the lord is not to take any more from his [movable] property (æhte) than his due heriot (butan his rihtan heregeate). But the property is to be shared most correctly according to his deliberation (be his dihte) by the wife, the children and near kinsmen – each in accord with the measure (mæðe) that belongs to them.

clause 71: And the heriots are to be determined (beo... gefundene) exactly as is appropriate (mæðlic):

- an earl’s as befits him: that is 8 horses (4 saddled and 4 unsaddled); and 4 helmets (helmas) and 4 bynies (byrnan); and 8 spears and as many shields; and 4 swords (swyrd); and 200 mancuses of gold.

- and then the heriots of the king’s thegns, who are nearest (nyxte) to him: 4 horses (2 saddled and 2 unsaddled); and 2 swords; and 4 spears and as many shields; and a helmet and a byrnie; and 50 mancuses of gold.

- and of the more ordinary thegn (medemra ðegen): a horse and its tack (gerædan); and his weapons or his healsfang in Wessex; and in Mercia £2; and in East Anglia £2.

- and the heriot of a king’s thegn among the Danes, who has his soke (socne): £4.

- and if he has a closer relationship (furðor cyððe) to the king: 2 horses (1 saddled, 1 unsaddled); and 1 sword; and 2 spears and 2 shields; and 50 mancuses of gold.

- and for him who has less and is less close: £2.

clause 78: And the man who on a campaign (fyrdunge) falls in front of his lord, whether within the country (lande) or outside it, is to be forgiven his heriot and the heirs are to succeed (fon) to his land and movable property (æhte) and are to divide it very justly (swiðe rihte).

These payments were closely connected with the question of whether or not someone had made a will. If he had not made a will, as Clause 70 shows, the lord took the heriot from the goods first of all, but then supervised a proper division amongst the heirs. In Clause 78, if a man died as he should do, loyally fighting in battle, then he had no longer to pay the heriot, because if the battle had been won his lord would be able to recover it from his body, and if the battle had been lost he had fulfilled his obligation to him by fighting heroically.

The legal situation is most fully defined in Cnut’s laws, but there are references earlier. The tenth-century wills of the leading Anglo-Saxon nobles confirm that this practice existed, but also confirm that it was in fact the return of weapons which had first been received from the lord on entering service. 

Will of thegn Ælfgar, c. 950 (Whitelock 1930, no. 2)

First, I grant to my lord 2 swords with baldrics (tueye suerde fetelsade) and two [arm-]rings (bege), each of 50 mancuses of gold; and 3 stallions; 3 shields and 3 spears. And Bishop Theodred and Ealdorman Eadric told me – when I gave to my lord the sword which King Edmund had given me, with a hundred and twenty mancuses of gold and four pounds of silver on the sheath/baldric (fetelse) – that I might have the right to make my will.

This shows that the rates of payment were slightly different than they were to become in Cnut’s time. There are no byrnies here, which is significant for other reasons. The bishop and the ealdorman, presumably in the shire court, tell Ælfgar that when he gives to his lord (who was King Eadred) the sword which King Edmund had given to him, then he has the right to make his will.

Thomas Calligaro’s paper has shown us how Indian garnets, unavailable from the 580s, were replaced by garnets sourced perhaps from Portugal. The following quotation from Gregory of Tours adds to this:

Gregory of Tours, Historia Francorum X, 31
They [sons of Wadda] appeared before the royal presence [Guntram], offering as a gift a great baldric enriched with gold and gems, together with a marvellous sword, the hilt of which was covered with gold and stones of Spain.

The ‘stones of Spain’ are presumably garnets from the new source.

It must be emphasised that gold is likely to have continued to be seized and used by kings, even after Viking extraction. Examples of these later kings disposing of gold include the following:

Gifts of King Æthelwulf to Pope Benedict III in Rome in 855 (Duchesne 1892, 148)
A golden crown, 2 gold bowls, 2 gold figures, 4 hanging bowls of gilded silver to light a sanctuary, a silk dalmatic with gold stripes, a silken alb embroidered with gold thread, 2 rich hangings/curtains, and a sword bound with the purest gold (spata cum auro purissimo ligata).

William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, § 133 (Whitelock 1955, 305)
Athelstan was acclaimed king, recommended by his age of thirty years and by the maturity of his wisdom. For also his grandfather Alfred had formerly prayed for a prosperous reign for him, seeing and affectionately embracing him when he was a boy of handsome appearance and graceful manners. And he had made him a knight (militem) at a very early age, giving him a scarlet cloak, a jewelled belt and a Saxon sword with a gold scabbard.

And finally here is the wonderful story from Bede of the East Anglian king Sigeberht, who retired to his monastery and was dragged out to fight king Penda, but refused to do so and refused to bear arms, and even though surrounded by his best and splendid army was nonetheless slain.

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, III.18
In these times Sigeberht presided over the kingdom of the East Angles, after his brother Eorpwald, the successor of Rædwald. He was a good and religious man, who had formerly (while he was exiled in Gaul in flight from the enmity of Rædwald) received the cleansing (lavacrum) of baptism. Having returned to his homeland when he gained the kingdom, and soon seeking to copy those things which he had seen well done in Gaul, he set up a school in which boys might be taught letters, with the help of Bishop Felix, whom he had received from Kent...

So greatly did that king become a lover of the ‘heavenly kingdom’ that, having finally forsaken (relictis) the affairs of the kingdom and commended them to his kinsman, Ecgric (who had previously ruled part of the same kingdom), he entered a monastery which he had built for himself and, having received the tonsure, concerned himself instead with the struggle for an eternal kingdom.

When he had yet been doing that for a considerable time, it happened that the Mercian people (gentem) under the command of King Penda attacked the East Angles, who – since they recognised themselves to be inferior to their enemy in the war – asked Sigeberht to join them in the battle in order to hearten the troops (ad confirmandum militem). Despite his refusals and denials, they dragged him out of the monastery against his will and led him to the battlefield, hoping that the solders would be less fearful and less liable to contemplate flight in the presence of their former most courageous and outstanding commander. But he – not forgetting his profession – even though he was protected by the splendid army (dum opimo esset uallatus exercitu) – refused to bear in his hand anything except a staff (uirgam). He was then killed, together with King Ecgric; and the whole of their army was either killed or scattered by the attacking pagans. 

The inscribed strip StH 550 has a suitable warlike message, and is just the sort of thing which might have accompanied a king like Sigeberht in battle. Conjectures such as these need to be put forward at this stage, so that as the scientific study develops, some of them can be roundly rejected!

StH 550

References

  • Duchesne, L., 1892 Liber Pontificalis: texte, introduction et commentaire vol. 2 (Thorin, Paris)
  • Hendy, M. 1985. Studies in the Byzantine monetary economy, c.300-1450 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge)
  • Hendy, M. 1989. The Economy, Fiscal Administration, and Coinage of Byzantium (Variorum, Northampton)
  • Liebermann, F., 1903. Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen I (M. Niemeyer, Halle a. S.)
  • Whitelock, D., 1930. Anglo-Saxon Wills (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge)
  • Whitelock, D., 1955. English Historical Documents I (Eyre and Spottiswoode, London)