Understanding the Staffordshire Hoard is not an easy task. Was it the stock of a goldsmith, hidden and then lost? A sacrifice of valuables from a vanquished enemy? Or the wilful burial of the wealth and symbols of the Mercians’ ancestors?
Surge .dne disepentu r inimici tui et Fugent qui oderun t te afacie tua
Surge d(omi)ne disepintur inimici tui-et fugiu(n)t quio de runt te a facie tua adiute nos d(eu)sVulgata: Exsurgat Deus et dissipentur inimici eius et fugiant qui oderunt eum a facie eius
Kings James Version: Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered: let them also that hate him flee before him.
The story is well-known. In 2009 the sudden discovery of gold in a field near Hammervich, near Lichfield in Staffordshire resulted in the retrieval of the largest ever Early Medieval Hoard of gold ever discovered. With 5.094 kilos of gold and 1.442 kilos of silver plus 3.500 cloisonné garnets, the find resulted in massive public investment of finances and man-power. Until recently, the many objects and fragments thereof were been subjected to a state-of-the-art restoration effort. Currently, the finds are being exhibited first at Leeds and from mid-October 2016 in Bristol. The title of this exhibition is precise: Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold from the Staffordshire Hoard. And, indeed, this is the treasure of warriors. It is remarkable It is remarkable for being almost exclusively war-gear, with an extraordinary quantity of weapon hilt fittings, that is, decorative items from the handles of swords and knives. However, the find also included remnants of helmets as well as some Christian objects – a processional cross, a pectoral cross and a golden strip with a biblical inscription from the book of psalms (Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered) . Another characteristic feature is the date of the find. Elements spanning several hundred years from c. 500 – c. 700. Curiously enough, the hoard was totally devoid of any female valuables. Another characteristic feature was the seemingly wanton destruction of the pieces. Especially, the ripping off of the golden strips of decoration on helmets has caused the conservation team endless hours of head-scratching.
During the years a plethora of explanations have been floated. One such explanation has been that the hoard was deposited by a goldsmith passing along the nearby Roman Watling Street on his way to Lichfield. However, this does not explain why the objects were mangled in the way, they had obviously been. This should rather point to the weapons being the spoils from a battle in which the weapons of the vanquished had been ritually destroyed by the victors. However, if this was the case we should have expected the hoard to include the destroyed sword blades and axes as well. However, the find only consisted of the gold decorative elements – the pommels, the cheek-pieces and the decorations of the helmets. Which means that an explanation along these lines would entail not only the wanton destruction of the weapons of the vanquished and their deposit, but also the later (illegal) retrieval of the gold by perhaps a goldsmith and his subsequent deposit of the hoard in the field in order to be able to retrieve it later. It does not seem as if the find displays features which
St. Guthlac of Crowland
Recently, however, a German Medievalist, Harald Kleinschmidt, have come up with a very well-argued and consistent explanation, which moreover fits well with other evidence concerning the political and cultural context as represented by the history of Mercia around AD 700.
According to Harald Kleinschmidt we have to begin by studying the strip of gold with the uncial inscription of the verse from psalm 67. This inscription connects with the early Life of St. Guthlac of Crowland, which features the same verse. In Felix’s vitae of the saint from around 715 – 30 we are told that he woke one night disturbed by furious demons talking Celtic-British reminding him of his youth, when he was living as a hostage among his enemies and they had come at night in order to burn down his house and kill him. However, this calamity had been stopped by Guthlac singing out Psalm 67, a trick he used once more in his nightly hour of despair. Now, the interesting thing is that Guthlac according to Felix belonged to the family of the royal Mercian rulers. In his youth he had fought in the army of Æthelred of Mercia, but at the age of 24 he chose to leave behind his life as a warrior in order to seek a holy life as a monk at Repton monastery in the vicinity of Lichfield, which Offa fifty years later in 787 sought to elevate to an archdiocese on par with Cambridge and York. Guthlac later moved to Croyland near the Fens in order to live as a hermit.
For Kleinschmidt’s argument the main point is that Guthlac – who obviously was of the royal Mercian stirps – quoted this verse to ward of his enemies, whether British or demonic. In his perspective this fits very well with the fact that the Mercian kingdom around 700 was characterised by major upheavals. In 704 Æthelred, king of the Mercians since 775 decided to abdicate in order to seek out Rome leaving the throne to his nephew, Coenred. However, Coenred soon followed in the steps of his uncle and abdicated in favour of Ceolred, Æthelreds son. While Æthelred and Coenred seem to have been bent on following a religious path, Ceolred was said to have been highly immoral if not criminal. Saint Boniface later described him as dying in 715 in a crazed frenzy at a banquet, “gibbering with demons and cursing the priests of God”.
From Tribe to Kingdom
Whatever the actual truth of all these highly entertaining stories may be, the fact remains that the period around 700 in Mercia was decidedly characterised by internecine strife, social upheavals and crisis. “This crisis appears to have been a consequence of attempts to change the Mercian stirps regis from a descent group of rulers into a group of rulers over various collectives of residents” writes Kleinschmidt; the collectives of residents of course no more or no less than the “tribes” listed in the Tribal Hidage, but which the list interestingly enough referred to according to the ‘hides’ these people were inhabiting. In this understanding the Tribal Hidage is considered as a manigerial tool invented to describe the “new” order where land and no longer people constituted the main wealth of a dominion (whether small or large).
In this connection one party was obviously highly involved in collaborating with the church in order to create the foundation for this new order, while another party was bent on living out the warrior-life of the olden times, when rulers ruled people without taxing their land. In a masterful reading of the old royal genealogies, Kleinschmidt demonstrates how ideological reconstructions of these were attempted to “rule out” contenders from either camp.
We might imagine, suggests Kleinschmidt, how the “clerical” party at some time decided to amass the ancient valuables of their ancestors, symbolic of their former life and status as warriors, in order to have them ritually destroyed and deposited; perhaps this took place not far from the mounds of some of their ancestors. Aerial photography have shown that there were several large mounds in the neighbourhood of the field near Hammervich, which unfortunately were ploughed down after 1971.
The question remains, however, why such a desecration would include Christian items like the pectoral cross and the processional cross. Might we speculate that these were imbued with the same warrior-like aura as the ancient ancestral weapons and the strip with the inscription from Psalm 67?
Perhaps we shall know more when the final report on the find is published in 2017 – 2018! Until then, though, the “explanation” proffered by Kleinschmidt supplies important food for further reflection.
Der Fund von Staffordshire und die Krise der merzischen Königsherrschaft um 700. Ein Beitrag zur Kritik der Debatte um den Staatsbegriff des frühen Mittelalters und zur Kooperation zwischen Geschichtswissenschaft und Archäologie
By Harald Kleinschmidt
In: Frühmittelalterliche Studien (2015) Vol. 48 No.1, pp. 155-206
Felix’s Life of Saint Guthlac. Texts, Translation and Notes
Ed. and tr. by Bertram Colgrave
Cambridge University Press 1985
Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold from the Staffordshire Hoard – Bristol Museum
Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
22.10.2017 – 23.04.2017
Staffordshire Hoard Item 550: strip with inscription © Staffordshire Hoard