1000 years buried: Edward the Elder Silver sent to Rome in the time of Æthelstan and buried in a 928 hoard

Some ancient objects have amazing stories to tell.

One such piece is an Anglo-Saxon silver penny which was excavated in Vatican grounds in about 1928.

The penny has a fairly schematic portrait of the king, Edward the Elder, who reigned from 899 to 924. He, together with his sister Æthelflæd of Mercia, successfully conquered territory previously held by Danish vikings (the "Five Boroughs" of the Danelaw and East Anglia), a process completed in the time of his successor and first son (though his mother was not a queen), Æthelstan. Edward was born about 871, oldest son of Alfred the Great, and died on the 17th July 924 aged around 53, leaving fifteen children by three wives. Four of the sons would become kings and five of the daughters would marry into European noble houses.

The obverse of the coin shows +EADWEARD REX around the simple portrait. The reverse shows the inscription BEORN ƿOLD Mo, in two lines (above and below three cross pattées across the centre) naming the moneyer as Beornwold. It's enjoyable to see the extinct Old English letter wynn, a runic character borrowed into the English alphabet.

Who was this Beornwold? Well, according to Robinson (1983), "Beornwald/Beornwold are clearly to be identified with Bernwald, who struck the prototype O H S N A F O R D A coins at, it is now believed, Oxford, late in the reign of Alfred. (Whether the moneyer Beornwald who struck mint-signed coins at Wallingford under Æthelstan is the same moneyer or a homonymous son or grandson is uncertain.)" A silver hoard found in Leicestershire (1992-2000) included an Edward the Elder penny with moneyer Beornwold, attributed to a Wallingford (Oxfordshire) mint (PAS 106146).

The coin was one of 517 Anglo-Saxon pennies in the Vatican Hoard. It was the only one made by Beornwold and is illustrated in O'Donovan (1964, with reference number 421) and also in the original 1930 Glendining catalogue. It measures 22mm and weighs 1.48 g.

The coins were deposited during the reign of Æthelstan, the first English king for whom we have a contemporary portrait.

The earliest known surviving manuscript portrait of an English Monarch, Æthelstan here presenting a book at the shrine of St Cuthbert. from "Lives of St Cuthbert," made in the 930s. I have digitally restored the faces, given that the pigment had altered to grey over the centuries (guided by an experimental approach through artificial ageing: Amanatiadis et al. (2021) - the massicot (lead monoxide) ages from yellowish to grey). 

Portrait penny of ÆÐELSTAN showing him wearing the same distinctive crown as depicted in the manuscript portrait. Notice the Old English letter eth where we write "th" today.

In 926, Æthelstan had given his sister in marriage to the Norse-Irish viking king Sihtric of Northumberland and sponsored him in baptism. Before this point, Sihtric had minted coins in York showing a sword and Thor's hammer. When Sihtric died in 927, Æthelstan captured York, driving out Sihtric's son Anlaf and his brother Guthfrith. A meeting on July 12th 927 at Eamont Bridge (Emmet in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle) near Penrith in Cumbria saw the northern kings accept Æthelstan as their overlord. This completed the unification of England and made Æthelstan "Lord of the whole orb of Britannia."

York penny of Sihtric showing sword and hammer of Thor. Æthelstan gave his sister in marriage to Sihtric in 926.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 926 reads as follows:

"This year appeared fiery lights in the northern part of the firmament; and Sihtric departed; and King Athelstan took to the kingdom of Northumbria, and governed all the kings that were in this island: -- First, Howel, King of West-Wales; and Constantine, King of the Scots; and Owen, King of Monmouth; and Aldred, the son of Eadulf, of Bamburgh. And with covenants and oaths they ratified their agreement in the place called Emmet, on the fourth day before the ides of July; and renounced all idolatry, and afterwards returned in peace."

The Vatican Hoard

O'Donovan (1964) reasoned that the assembly of the Vatican hoard dates to the early years of Æthelstan's reign, prior to his conquest of York in 927, and that the coins had been gathered together in England and taken directly to Rome.

Several journeys between England and Rome in the ninth and ten centuries have been recorded, perhaps Ælfred's visit as a child to receive confirmation from Pope Leo III being the most famous, and it seems to have been a common pilgrimage to make.

O'Donovan quotes a continental annalist as follows: (921) 'Many English on the way to Rome were struck down with stones by the Saracens in the passes of the Alpes . .'; and (923) '. . A multitude of the English travelling to the thresholds of St. Peter for the sake of prayer were killed by the Saracens in the Alpes . . '

Æthelweard's Chronicle contains the following entry for 908: 'In the course of the same year the bishop just mentioned [Plegmund] conveyed alms to Rome for the nation and also for King Edward.'"

Then the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for the year 927 is as follows: 'In this year King Æthelstan drove out King Guthfrith and Archbishop Wulfhelm went to Rome.'

O'Donovan pointed out that "517 pence was not an enormous sum: it was equal to only 20 mancuses, if one includes the value of the ingots, and it might have been a part or the whole of a private bequest, or even a fee paid to the Papal chancellary for the pallium." 

As noted in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Archbishop Wulfhelm, who had crowned Athelstan in 924 at Kingston, visited Rome in 927, soon after his succession to Canterbury in 926, a convenient event to connect with the conveyance of the Vatican hoard to Rome. King Hywel Dda of Wales also went to Rome in 927 and may have been part of the same party, possibly an embassy from Æthelstan given his new status as "Emperor of the world of Britain."

O'Donovan argues that, "The hoard was probably deposited very shortly after its arrival in Rome, as it had accumulated only six foreign coins, and as, furthermore, one would expect the ingots to be separated from the specie fairly rapidly and struck into current coin. It is possible that events culminating in the death of Pope John X in 928 might have prompted the hoard's concealment. He became Pope in 914, and ruled quite powerfully for thirteen years, conducting a successful campaign against the Saracens in 916; but conditions in Rome were uneasy in 927, and in 928 a revolt instigated in Rome itself resulted in his capture and death by suffocation." 

The revolt of 928 would provide a probable motive and a suitable date for the Vatican hoard's deposition, a round thousand years before it would next see the light of day.

In Summary

The coin, in the context of the Vatican hoard, provides a wonderful connection with the early 10th century Anglo-Saxon world. It speaks of

- the rule of Edward the Elder following the death of Alfred the Great, and his conquest, with sister Æthelflæd, of much of the Danelaw;

- the subsequent completion of the project to unify England by Æthelstan following the death of Sihtric, viking king of Northumbria, in 927;

- the visits and pilgrimages to Rome of bishops and archbishops, princes and kings and the alms paid in silver, this one likely to have been transported to Rome in about 927, perhaps by Archbishop Wulfhelm and companions;

- the turbulence and conflict associated with papal reigns and the burying of hoards at times of instability, this hoard likely to have been buried in 928 during the revolt against Pope John X;

- the excavation of the hoard 1000 years later, a nicely round number;

- and finally, I like seeing the wynn rune in Beornwold the moneyer's name.


O'Donovan, M.A. 1964. The Vatican hoard of Anglo-Saxon pennies. British Numismatic Journal, 34, 4, 7-31.

Amanatiadis, S., Apostolidis, G., Karagiannis, G. 2021. Consistent Characterization of Color Degradation Due to Artificial Aging Procedures at Popular Pigments of Byzantine Iconography. Minerals, 11,782. 

Robinson, P. 1983. The Shrewsbury Hoard (1936) of pennies of Edward the Elder. British Numismatic Journal, 53, 4, 7-13.

Wood, M. 2022. In Search of the Dark Ages. BBC Books.


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