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11 October 2021

Monday Mysteries - An Anglo-Saxon Mystery Investigated by Annie Whitehead



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The Staffordshire Hoard by Annie Whitehead

There are many mysteries wallowing unsolved in the murky depths of the period known - erroneously as it happens - as the Dark Ages, from the identity of the man associated with the Sutton Hoo burial chamber to the final resting place of Harold Godwineson’s body after the battle of Hastings.

But today for Helen’s Monday Mystery slot, I want to talk about a field just off the A5 near Lichfield, or, more specifically, what was found there in July 2009: The Staffordshire Hoard.

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The largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver to be found, it comprised almost 4600 pieces but these items are just that: pieces. Torn from the weaponry they would originally have adorned, they are decorative fittings from, for example, swords, though the sword blades are missing. Where are the blades? No one knows. Blades were perhaps considered more valuable, passed down from father to son. They were forged by skilled metalworkers and were definitely not a one lifetime-only product. Only one item survived complete, and that was a gold pectoral cross. There was another gold cross, larger, which had been bent as if folded. I’ll come back to that. Around one third of the pieces came from a helmet, which has been reconstructed. It is rare to find a helmet from this period - only around 5 have been unearthed.

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Other fittings came from such things as saddles, reliquaries, and bibles. 

There are more gold items than silver, although some of the silver was originally gilded. The decoration techniques include filigree and cloisonné. There is also niello which produces a silver inlay.

Anyone familiar with the gold and garnet pieces from Sutton Hoo will spot a similarity. Sword pyramids with their multi-faceted garnets set in gold have also been found in the Sutton Hoo burial treasure. In keeping with the mystery theme, no one is sure how they were actually attached to the weapons.

There’s a piece which looks like a seahorse, but isn’t. It probably decorated the hilt of a sword. It has tiny fixing holes. 

Image Credit

The hoard was found in Mercia, but the pieces weren’t made there and they weren’t collected there, if we consider the fact that the hoard probably dates to a period when Mercia was still pagan, and yet it includes crosses. The gold must have come from somewhere other than England, most likely from Byzantium, possibly in the form of gold coins which had been melted down. There are different shades within the gold suggesting impurities (each time the gold was melted down, further impurities would have been introduced).

Speaking of melting down, was it on its way to be melted down and repurposed? The location, near two places called Hammerwich, has sparked interest, because Hammerwich means a hammer working or trading place. But nothing else has been found in the area to suggest that there is a link to the hoard or that there was any kind of production or worksite nearby and besides, this wouldn’t explain why there are only ‘elite’ pieces, nor why they show little sign of wear and tear, almost as if they are part of a ‘dress uniform’. 

There are no items associated with women, nor are there any everyday objects. The hoard is a curated collection of items found only in an aristocratic, male, martial environment. Perhaps even the pectoral cross was owned by a priest who carried it whilst going into battle?

It may be that it was heriot – war gear given by the lord to his retainers and paid back upon death, but this doesn’t explain why it was buried.

So where did it come from, and why and how did it come to be buried? There is a significance about where it was found, and I’ll come back to that, too. It might, indeed, have been put there by a non-Mercian. As Archaeologist Helen Geake has pointed out, anyone could have been travelling along that road.

But let’s assume that it has something to do with Mercia. What was going on at around that time? Quite a few historians have pointed to a ninth-century Welsh poem which details a battle at Lichfield, very close to where the hoard was found. 

In the Marwnad Cynddylan (A Lament for Cynddylan), Morfael is depicted as taking loot and killing the bishop and many monks at Caer Lwytgoed. But the dates don’t really fit if Caer Lwytgoed is supposed to be Lichfield. There was no reason for there to be monks in pagan Mercia and the first bishop of Lichfield wasn’t appointed until 669. It has been suggested that this religious community were in fact not at Lichfield but at Wall, and serving the religious needs of a Northumbrian army.

Hmm, Northumbria. Well, for a long time during this period it dominated Mercia and parts of Wales. Was this treasure collected as some sort of owed tribute? What we do know is that the hoard wasn’t buried in the equivalent of someone’s back garden. Excavation of the site revealed that there were no buildings, or burials so this was not a settlement or cemetery, so if this is tribute, again, why was it buried?

The epic poem Beowulf – thought to have been composed in Mercia – describes how objects of gold were placed ritually in a grave and given back to the earth as they had been taken from a barrow guarded by a dragon. Was the Staffordshire Hoard similarly given back to the earth? No barrow was found at the site and there is no pagan shrine associated with this spot, despite the nearby Wednesbury and Wednesfield suggesting a Woden cult in the area. If it wasn’t put there as part of a ritual, was it accidentally lost? It seems unlikely. 

A page from Beowulf

So what if… Well, here’s the thing. The burial of the hoard seems to coincide with the reign of King Penda, the last pagan ruler of Mercia. Clearly the stuff wasn’t his, not if it included Christian items. But remember that larger gold cross, that had been bent as if folded? And remember that I said the location of the find was significant? In my novel Cometh the Hour I played with the idea that this hoard was treasure which Penda collected after his battle victories, and I show him ordering the cross to be bent so that it fits into a sack. I also show one of his daughters taking a shine to the ‘seahorse’ and him making a gift of it to her. 

The bent gold cross

The significance of the burial spot? Well, yes, it’s not far from Lichfield and you’d go past it if you’re heading from Tamworth. You see, the road, the A5 as it's now known, is an old road. It existed in the seventh century and it was known as Watling Street. 

I can’t explain why the hoard only contains elite weapon fittings that had barely been used, but I did come up with a scenario in which it was buried, deliberately, by someone intending to come back for it…


Annie's two-book series, The Tale of the Iclingas, begins with the story of Penda, the last pagan king of Mercia, and in a sweeping saga of bloodfeud, love, and loss, includes the collection of the Staffordshire Hoard, the Sutton Hoo ship burial, and the founding of the Lindisfarne holy community. It continues with the story of Penda's sons, their continuing fight against the murderous Northumbrians, and focuses on Ethelred, the youngest of Penda's children, on whose shoulders the fate of the kingdom and his kin ultimately rests.

Cometh the Hour


The Sins of the Father



Annie is a History graduate and an elected member of the Royal Historical Society. She has written four novels set in Anglo-Saxon England, one of which, To Be A Queen, tells the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. She has contributed to fiction and nonfiction anthologies and written for various magazines and is on the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) Editorial team and is senior reviewer at Discovering Diamonds. She was the winner of the inaugural Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Prize 2017 and is now a judge for that same competition. She has also been a judge for the HNS (Historical Novel Society) Short Story Competition. Her nonfiction books are published by Amberley Books and Pen & Sword Books

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 < Did you miss anything?

Revisit the Tour  on Annie and Helen's Blogs
Three questions for Annie
Three questions for Helen