The Cuerdale Hoard

The Cuerdale Hoard
The Cuerdale Hoard, British Museum [CC BY-SA 3.0]

On 15th May 1840 according to the Preston Chronicle:

‘the numismatic collectors and connoiseurs (sic) are quite in a furor about the matter, and the spot where the treasure was found has, since the discovery, been more zealously scratched than any dunghill in the best populated poultry yard!’

The immense Cuerdale Hoard had been discovered by workmen repairing an embankment on the banks of the Ribble in Lancashire. The land was on the estate of Downham Hall, owned by William Assheton (who was in Italy at the time), and there was hot dispute as to who owned the Hoard; it seems that three parcels were separated from the finds. One was displayed at the Hall, one was taken by Assheton’s steward for his master, and one was removed by Joseph Kenyon, a local coin collector. It was further reported at the time that the workmen had also managed to carry off some pieces in their pockets or boots and offered them for sale later. Later many of these items were returned but an early drawing of the “display” items includes a lost silver finger-ring. Kenyon also seems to have retained a number of rare or unique coins himself, which were later sold from his collection, and indeed stray items appeared for sale by private collectors over the years which almost certainly had originated in the Cuerdale find. As late as 1956, more than 100 years after it was found, a bequest was made to the British Museum which included items from the hoard. This dispersal among more than 170 recipients means that the Hoard as a whole is now distributed across such a number of collections, both known and unknown, that appreciating its full value is challenging.

While cataloguing the coins was an immediate priority, listing the other material was not completed. The Blackburn Standard (19 August 1840) reported that “There are sixteen large bars or ingots averaging 6¼ oz [recte: 8¼ oz] and weighing in the aggregate 132oz. Each of these has a cross upon it, and they are said to be marks, being of the value of 160 of the smaller coins.”

The identified components of the hoard are nevertheless extraordinary. It includes more than 7,000 coins, hack-silver and silver ingots, and 1,153 non-numismatic silver objects including English and Carolingian jewellery. The estimated total weight of the Hoard is around 31.9kg of which about 10kg is unaccounted for.

The majority of the Anglo-Saxon coins date from the last three decades of the ninth century. Two series of coins in the hoard can be attributed to the Vikings in East Anglia at around the same date, linked to “Æþelstan” which was Guthrum’s baptismal name. The largest group within the hoard is now firmly attributed to the northern Danelaw. In addition there are around 1000 Carolingian coins, as well as 50 Islamic, a few Scandinavian, one Byzantine coin and some Viking issue coins which are unattributable.

It is believed that it was buried around 900-910 AD by Vikings, and historically it is tempting to link it either to those who had been driven out of Dublin in 902 AD (although this is considered to be rather early for the deposition), or following the Viking defeat at the Battle of Tettenhall in 910 AD. However, such precise dating is not possible.

The hoard is one of at least 18 Viking hoards recorded between the late 860s and 927 AD when King Æþelstan defeated the Viking rulers of York, although in fact only one hoard, the “North Yorkshire” hoard, is dated earlier than Cuerdale.

The rings found in the hoard were mostly for personal use, for wear around the neck, arm or finger (there were no ear-rings at this time). Primarily this was for display, although they would also be broken into hack-silver when required. Because some of the items are so plain it may be that their use as hack-silver was actually their main purpose.

Fragments of brooches were found but these appear to have been reduced to hack silver in advance of being deposited. Items from the hoard are held in various public and private collections: the British Museum;  the Assheton collection (on loan to the British Museum); the Evans collection (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford);  the Nelson collection (Liverpool World Museum); and the Harris Museum, Preston), as well as other museums and private collections including the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh; University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge; Society of Antiquaries of London; Alnwick Castle Museum; Blunt collection; and McCoy collection