Alfred the Average? Court case coins may alter the view of a king | UK news

He’s been known as Alfred the Great since the 16th century, celebrated for his wisdom, generosity and mercy.

But coins at the heart of a major heritage crime court case suggest we may have to rethink the ninth-century Anglo-Saxon king. “Alfred the Average?” suggested Det Supt Lee Gosling, who led the police operation which resulted in guilty verdicts for two men on Thursday..

Gareth Williams, the curator of early medieval coins at the British Museum, gave a more nuanced view. “I’m not disputing his greatness,” he said. “But I think there’s a level of ruthlessness and manipulation of the facts that goes along with that. So he can be great and still not a terribly nice man.”

The reappraisal of Alfred the Great is only possible because of the coins in the Viking hoard at the centre of the court case.

If Roger Pilling, 75, and Craig Best, 46, had got away with their crime then experts may never have studied the coins and discovered the story they tell.

And what a story, one which essentially rewrites history and sheds new light on a pivotal moment in the creation of England.

One of the coins found.
One of the coins found. Photograph: Durham police

Alfred the Great remains probably the only Anglo-Saxon king that many members of the public have heard of. He is the king who, stories say, let the cakes burn as he lost himself in plotting defeat of the Vikings. He is the only English ruler to be known as “the Great”. He was a good guy.

But perhaps not completely good or great, the coins suggest.

The significance lies in what they show about the relationship between Alfred, king of Wessex, and his contemporary, Ceolwulf II, king of Mercia.

Ceolwulf was king of lands which stretched from the Thames to the Humber yet he is barely or never mentioned in history books.

Until now, accounts have suggested he was foolish, a minor noble rather than a king, and little more than a puppet of the Vikings.

“The impression we get in historical sources is that this is a nobody who had no right to be king and who cooperated with the Vikings for his own advantage,” said Williams. “He just disappears from history.”

The reason for this is that the history of the time was spin doctored by the court of Alfred.

A ‘two emperors’ coin found in the case.
A ‘two emperors’ coin found in the case. Photograph: Durham police

Coins in the hoard show Alfred and Ceolwulf in an alliance. The fact the coins are good-quality silver, as opposed to the terrible quality previously used, suggest a reform carried out together.

“These coins are the only direct contemporary evidence that we’ve got of the relationship between these two men,” said Williams.

One particular coin in the hoard suggests that the alliance between the two kings was a prolonged one, lasting a number of years.

At some point Ceowulf “mysteriously” disappears. Alfred becomes king of Mercia and he and his descendants gradually create a single, unified kingdom of England.

It is a murky story that had parallels, Williams said, with “Stalin airbrushing Trotsky out of the history of the Soviet Union”.

Pilling and Best were found guilty of conspiring to sell the coins and separate charges of illegally possessing them. A judge warned they face jail sentences which would be “years” in length and remanded them in custody until sentencing.

The two men probably had no idea what they had, but the importance, in Williams’s eyes, cannot be overestimated. “The coins literally enable us to rewrite history,” he said.

The 44 coins at the centre of the Durham case all come from a hoard discovered by two metal detectorists in a farm field at Leominster, Herefordshire, in 2015. They did not declare the hoard as treasure, instead selling the coins to dealers. For that they were given lengthy jail terms in 2019.

There were about 300 coins in the hoard, of which 29 were recovered. Now the 44 coins at the centre of Durham court case can be added. That means more than 200, telling even more stories, are still unaccounted for – all illegally possessed by persons unknown.

But why would someone want coins that should be in a museum? Williams said: “There are people who just like the feeling of history going through their hands, having something where they are the first person for a thousand years to handle an object that’s been lost.

“How much more of our history, how much more of our heritage, is missing?”

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