The Staffordshire Hoard and Mercian Power

Simon Keynes (University of Cambridge)

In the early 12th century, William of Malmesbury remarked that almost all historical record had been buried with Bede, meaning that, in the 500 years which had passed since Bede’s death, no-one had risen to the challenge of building upon the foundations he had laid in giving shape and significance to the past. It had thus fallen to those of William’s own age to construct an Anglo-Saxon past for their own purposes.

As they saw it, inspired by their own reading of Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, by collections of royal genealogies and episcopal lists, and by the legends of saints, it was a past which could be resolved into a tale of seven major kingdoms. Their respective ruling dynasties traced their ancestry back through Woden to Adam, and were complemented by neat patterns of episcopal succession, to generate in combination a semblance of order stretching from creation to conquest.

One of the earliest manifestations of this constructed past is represented by the systematic account of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which formed part of the preliminary material for the chronicle of John of Worcester. There are magnificent pages showing the lines of bishops for each kingdom, followed by pages tracing the descent of the kings from Woden, ingeniously merging information derived from royal genealogies with information derived from regnal lists, annals and legends.

John of Worcester's list of the Mercian bishops John of Worcester's list of Mercian kings

Here are the two pages which relate to the kingdom of the Mercians. On the first one you can see the bishops – you can see the compiler is struggling with the complexities of episcopal succession. Hereford and Worcester are on the left; Lichfield, Leicester and Lindsey, the core, in the centre; and then there is Ætla of Dorchester in solitary splendour on the right.

The second page shows the line of the Mercian kings. Penda, and his sons Wulfhere, Æthelred and Peada are in the centre, complemented by a number of other offspring, with red lines showing the relationships between them.

Much of the same material lies behind William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum, although he chose to focus his attention on the four major kingdoms as he saw them – Kent, Wessex, Northumbria and Mercia – leaving East Anglia and Essex to the end, not worthy as he says of serious attention, and leaving Sussex completely out of the reckoning. The history of Mercia was evidently not to William’s taste (he says so himself) although Penda stars at the beginning, in his role as a bigoted pagan and homicidal maniac.

Henry of Huntingdon, in his Historia Anglorum, was somewhat more direct. He writes of the Saxons establishing seven kings in seven kingdoms, and is thus given credit for inventing the Heptarchy. Map of the Heptarchy c. 700 ADPenda of Mercia retains his role, and features in what is presumed to be a vernacular battle poem, of very uncertain date, used by Henry and quoted by him in Latin translation.

Would that it were all so simple! Yet here, somewhere, lies the context for the Staffordshire Hoard, the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma – or concealed behind our ignorance of all of the relevant circumstances, and at the same time locked into the received traditions of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy. It is painful, if salutary, to face this problem.

It has become a truism to say that in the surviving written record the Mercians are disadvantaged because we lack material representing a Mercian view of events, or from any one of their perspectives. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (HE), finished in 731, gives us the inestimable benefit of his own very distinctive view from a vantage point in Northumbria, but what he says of the kingdom of the Mercians in the seventh and early eighth centuries is naturally the product of his need to tell a coherent story of Northumbrian, East Anglian and West Saxon kings. Moreover, it is difficult for all of those who have followed him, from the compilers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the late 9th century onwards, to break free from his influence.

What we lack of course is a view from inside the kingdom of the Mercians, or indeed from any part of its eastward extensions, over the land of the Middle Angles or into the kingdom of Lindsey. For Kent and Wessex, we have law codes from the late seventh century, but there is nothing similar for Mercia, perhaps because such texts have not chanced to survive, though possibly because none ever existed. We also lack proper Mercian charters of the late seventh and early eighth centuries, whether from the see of Lichfield (for the Mercians) from the see of Leicester (for the Middle Angles), or from the see of Lindsey.

We do have some information when we go to the sees serving the sub-kingdoms of the Hwicce (Worcester), and the Magonsæta (Hereford), but these did not form part of the core kingdom of the Mercians. We have some scraps from one or two of what might have been the important religious houses within the Mercian sphere of influence, such as Much Wenlock and Medeshamstede (later Peterborough) but nothing from Repton, Breedon-on-the-Hill, Oundle, or Louth; or one of the many other important places. Still, we need to face up to the limitations of the evidence and simply acknowledge that we are stuck with what Bede leaves to us.

From the map, we seem in seventh-century Mercia to be dealing with a sprawling and unstable agglomeration of different peoples giving rise to a polity (still in the making) which might well have differed in significant respects from the other polities or kingdoms lying to the north, east and south. The Mercian heartland, that part first called Mercia in the words of the Tribal Hidage, seems to have lain either side of the upper and middle Trent, inhabited by people who could be divided into the north Mercians and the south Mercians; here of course we are dependent on Bede.

The very name of the people (or the kingdom) is symptomatic of the problem. The word ‘Mercian’ would seem to have originated as a term denoting the people who dwelt on or beyond a ‘march’ or boundary, or perhaps within a more distant boundary, arising from the need of those living to the north and east to identify or characterise those who lived to their south and west; or from the wish of the Mercians themselves to distinguish themselves from other Anglian peoples. In other words, the boundary in question would appear to have reflected a distinction which had come to be recognised between groups of settlers of a common Anglian origin, though it is also possible, as Nicholas Brooks, for example, has argued, that it might have been the boundary with the British in Wales.

Then, almost as soon as we meet them, we get the impression that the Mercians were a predatory people who, in order to develop their power and sustain their position, needed to be able to exploit the weaknesses – and thereby appropriate the wealth and resources – of those around them, and who, though never averse to looking west and north, were mainly interested in facing east, south-east and south.

Penda is central to Bede’s account, and is seen dealing with the West Saxons to the south, with the Anglian peoples to the north and east, and with the British of Wales. The impression which Bede creates is extremely interesting. Penda’s ability to roam north and south is hugely impressive. It’s the case, however, that when we meet the Mercians between the Humber and the Thames, we seem to be meeting them on their own ground, and perhaps we begin to understand more about what they were actually about. The internal dynamics of the kingdom lay upwards along the Trent to the Humber, and then outwards from the upper Trent eastwards across the lands of the Middle Angles to Lindsey and East Anglia, and down Watling Street towards London, and then through London into the south-east.

From the time we first meet them in the historical record, the Mercians held sway in some sense over a separately identifiable people known to Bede as the Middle Angles, and also at certain times the people known as the men of Lindsey, and they also had – or were developing – designs on the Angles of the east.

You will all know from Bede the story of Raedwald, and how some time in the 640s Penda attacked the kingdom of the East Angles, and then how in the 650s, apparently in 654, he put an end to King Anna of the East Angles, showing great aggression in that direction. In fact, if you put all of Bede’s account together, you find that Penda in total dispatched no fewer than five kings, two of the Northumbrians and three of the East Angles; but then of course he over-reached himself, at the head of what would seem to be a formidable confederacy of the various peoples under his control. Again, you will all know the story of the battle of the River Winwaed, supposedly in 655. Æthelhere, who had succeeded Anna as king of the East Angles, is named as one of the thirty royal leaders in Penda’s force, and was among those killed, together with Penda, who is described by Bede as being the cause of the war (HE III, 24).

Penda is altogether an extraordinary character. John of Worcester’s diagram of the kings of the Mercians shows that Penda established a dynasty which lasted for fifty years after his death, which is more than can be said for most kings at this time. The story of Penda’s successors in the second half of the seventh century can again be read in the pages of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, particularly Wulfhere (658-75) and his brother Æthelred (675-704). Some details are very interesting, such as Æthelred’s devastation of Kent in 676, when he destroyed its religious houses ‘without fear of God or respect to religion’ (HE IV, 12).

In 679, Ecgfrith of the Northumbrians brought his army from Northumbria into Mercian territory, and was there met in battle by Æthelred beside the River Trent. The king’s brother was killed, and there was some negotiation by good old archbishop Theodore, and peace was established. Bede comments that ‘the peace thus made was maintained for many years between these kings and their peoples’, that is, Mercia and Northumbria (HE IV, 21). And indeed there is reason to believe that the battle of the River Trent ushered in a period of virtual equilibrium between the kingdoms of the English which lasted for the best part of fifty years, in the last quarter of the seventh and the first quarter of the eighth century.

It is interesting that, at the beginning of this period, the canons of the Synod of Hatfield in 679 seem almost to symbolise the recognition of a new political order. They begin with reference to the regnal years of four kings: Ecgfrith who is called king of the ‘Humbrians’, Æthelred king of the Mercians, Ealdwulf king of the East Angles, and Hlothere king of Kent (HE IV, 17). There is no mention of the West Saxons, but as Bede tells us that the West Saxons were in an unholy mess at the time (HE IV, 15), it is entirely appropriate that they should not have been mentioned.

Bede also tells us the story of the bishops, and John of Worcester uses Bede to reconstruct an extremely good account of the episcopal succession of this area in the early 12th century. The story involves some bishops who came originally from Ireland, then Wilfrid acting in some capacity at Lichfield given to him by Wulfhere; it also involves Chad, who became bishop of Lichfield. Things unfolded to include the bishops of Leicester, and then the bishops of Lindsey as well.

The very interesting poem Marwnad Cynddylan also has something to contribute, but it is extremely difficult to know exactly what to make of it in this context.

What does the Staffordshire Hoard add, for a historian conscious of all this but also wanting to try to break free from Bede’s influence? Within its immediate context in the heartland of Mercia, the hoard clearly redresses an imbalance. We now have something tangible from (one would guess) mid to late seventh-century Mercia, to set beside the princely burials such as those at Benty Grange, Taplow, Sutton Hoo and Prittlewell, and also something to set beside the excavations at Yeavering in Northumbria.

In addition, it is symbolic of all that we already knew or might have guessed about the Mercians. The objects lend substance in their own right to the world of wealth, predatory power and the display of status already suggested by other finds and by the written record. Bede tells us of the large treasure offered by Oswiu to Penda just before the battle of the River Winwaed in 655 in the hope of buying peace (HE III, 24). We hear of the payment of compensation made for a slain person, or for a number of slain persons, as at the battle of the river Trent in 679 (HE IV, 21). One can imagine the payments of tribute made to a Mercian overlord by his subordinate peoples, perhaps in gold, perhaps drawn from an accessible store of valuables of some kind. Nicholas Brooks’s paper contains the extremely interesting observation that payments of heriot and so on, made in weaponry, might have been held by a royal treasurer.

When Wilfrid was nearing death, his biographer Stephen of Ripon tells us (chapter 63) that he ordered his treasurer to open his treasury and to spread out all of the gold, silver and precious stones for division and distribution for various purposes, for example to the abbeys, so that they might be able to purchase the friendship of kings and bishops. Kings would of course have their own treasuries; one thinks of Edwin’s treasures, including a great golden cross and a golden chalice, brought by Paulinus to Kent when he fled Northumbria after Edwin’s death in 633, and still preserved there in Bede’s day (HE II,20).

And there is always the sword which famously belonged to king Offa, retained as an heirloom within the West Saxon dynasty and bequeathed by the Atheling Athelstan to his brother Edmund Ironside in 1014 – suggesting of course that royal treasuries contained items no longer in current use (Whitelock 1930, no. 20; the translated text is appended to the bottom of this paper).

All of these things can be seen in the written record, but interpretations became more difficult when we have to assess the objects more dynamically – as a hoard. The place of deposit, so close to Watling Street and not far west along the road from the old Roman settlement at Wall, is remarkable; but the person who was last to see the hoard could have been coming from the east or from the west, and could thus have decided to secrete it (or whatever) on the side of the road when bringing it to or taking it away from one of any number of places that would have been accessible from the road. The possibilities soon begin to multiply.

It has always been very tempting to see the hoard as booty, representing the proceeds of a military campaign elsewhere, being brought back to Mercia for further processing or distribution. The fittings might represent the valuable or re-usable bits of war-gear taken from the killed or captured members of a beaten army (though one might have thought that the blades were just as valuable). The folded gold cross, plus the folded strip of gold apparently removed from some kind of cross, with its telling inscription, might suggest that the people who had been wielding the missing swords had gone into battle as soldiers of Christ; and equally that the people who had come into possession of their war-gear were their enemies and had not yet seen the light. These were the thoughts that must have been going through many of our heads.

But reading Bede, one has to admit that there were any number of contexts in the second and third quarters of the seventh century in which quantities of gold might have been brought into Mercia, and in which such treasure might have been secreted to the side of Watling Street and then not recovered. Such treasure could have been brought back into the Mercian heartland from elsewhere in Mercia, from Middle Anglia or Lindsey, or from Wessex, or from Northumbria, or from East Anglia, perhaps especially in those last two cases in the 640s and early 650s, or indeed could be taken by Welsh raiders from the Mercians or taken from Essex or Kent. The historical contexts are all there in Bede.

It could have been secreted at a time when the heartland of Mercia was under threat, perhaps in the immediate aftermath of Penda’s defeat at Winwaed in 655, or during the uprising in 658, or perhaps from the Welsh, or perhaps from Ecgfrith when he was approaching in 679 – or indeed under countless circumstances which are simply unknown. And what about the impact of the plague in 664, which in Essex turned people away from the new religion and which might have occasioned a votive offering or two in Mercia? And who can tell what circumstances might have obtained locally when king Æthelred brought his army back from devastating Kent in 676? The possibilities continue to multiply the more one reads Bede.

One hesitates to say that there might have been fewer contexts for the deposition of a hoard as things quieten down in the later seventh century. Alternatively, it is possible that there were disturbances in Mercia thereafter, for example attending whatever process brought Æthelbald to power in 716 and to the fore after 725.

Beyond these conjectures, everything still depends – and perhaps always will depend – on the nature of the hoard itself, and on our understanding of the apparent circumstances and date of its concealment in the ground. We need to know precisely what it contains; not just the sword fittings, the helmet and the crosses, but everything down to the last fragment, because only then will we know what might be the common denominator that characterises and makes sense of the deposit as a whole.

When we know how best to characterise the hoard, we shall then be in a better position to ask what it might represent. Perhaps we will be on the safest ground with the study of the objects in their own right, once they have been cleaned, closely examined and set beside analogous objects from elsewhere.

One thing is certain; that there will be as many theories as there are pundits prepared to propound them. If laid end to end, the pundits will sooner or later reach to the moon. Only one such theory can be right, and since we cannot hope to know which it is, the fact remains that the hoard has the magical power to illuminate them all.

References

Whitelock, D., 1930. Anglo-Saxon Wills (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge)

Will of the ætheling Æthelstan, 1015

First... to Christ and St Peter... and the sword with the silver hilt, which Wulfric made; and the gold baldric (fetels) and the armlet (beh), which Wilfric made and the drinking-horn, which I bought from the community at the Old Minster... And to my father, King Æthelred, ...the silver-hilted sword which belonged to [Earl] Ulfketel; and the byrnie which Morcar has; and the horse which Thurbrand gave me... And to my brother Edmund I grant the sword which belonged to King Offa and the sword with the pitted (pyttedan) hilt. ...And I grant to my brother Eadwig a silver-hilted sword. ...And I grant to Ælfmar, my dish-thegn, ... and the sheared sword (sceardan swurdes)... And to Siferth I grant... and a sword... And I grant to Eadric, the son of Wynflæd, the sword on which a hand is marked (þe seo hand is gemearcod). And I grant to Æthelwine, my cniht, the sword which he previously gave to me. And I grant to Ælfnoth, my sword furbisher/polisher (swurdhwita) the sheared pattern-sword (malswurd).

(Whitelock 1930, no. 20).