Manuscripts, Coins & Other Remains

BriefHistory

Manuscripts, Coins & Other Remains

(London; Downton in Wiltshire; Richard`s Castle in Shropshire, etc.).

 

Considering the chancesand hazards of life in the ages that are gone it must be a matter for astonishment that so many documents and manuscripts have come down intact to us from Anglo-Saxon times. Surviving hoards of coins are not to be wondered at, for they were buried and hidden, and the earth has been their safeguard; nor are the discoveries of jewellery and other metel objects surprising, for generally they represent funeral-deposits preserved in graves beneath the ground.

But documents, in themselves frail and inflammable, have had no safe keeping such as mother earth could afford: they have been consigned to the precarious care of mortal men prone to the accidents of life, and have been kept in cupboards and chests, moved from place to place, handled, mishandled, and exposed to the jeopardy of employment, or left to the peril of disuse.

Yet today you may see many charters, deeds, and other documents wriiten by scribes who have been dead over a thousand years, and you may examine the actual signitures of kings and great men who wrote them generations before the Normans were ever heard of.

At Canterbury there are twenty-five such deeds, dating between 742 A.D., and 1049 A.D., two of them belonging to the reig of Offa of Mercia, dated 788 A.D., and 790 A.D., one of the reign of Alfred, dated 898 A.D., and one of the time of Cnut, 1023 A.D., in which the pious King states that with his own hands he had placed his “kingly helm” on the altar of the cathedral church.

At Westminster there is a charter of King Aethelred of Mercia, dated 693 A.D., regarding a grant of land at Battersea; another of Offa, 785 A.D., this being witnessed by that king and his queen; and many more. At Exeter there are several charters dating from the reign of Aethelstan down to the Conquest. At Winchester there is one of the time of Aethelwulf, dated 854 A.D., and another written in 957 A.D., in the reign of Eadwig. At Wells, Worcester, Chichester, and elsewhere, there are several such documents; while yet others are to be seen in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the Record Office in Kew and British Museum in London, and so on.

In the British Museum there are many manuscripts of this period; and here you may see some of Alfred`s own writings, and also his will, penned over a thousand years ago. In this collection also a copy, dating from about the year 1000 A.D., of the famous epic poem called `Beowulf,` composed before the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain, which is the oldest poem of any length in the language. Here, too, there are Bede`s `History,` written in the Eighth Century, of which astonishing to relate, there are more than 130 manuscript copies still in existence; the great `Anglo-Saxon Chronicle` begun by Alfred and continued by his successors; the Laws of Cnut and other kings who lived in the Anglo-Saxon period; a Latin Psalter of the Eighth Century, with an interlinear translation in Anglo-Saxon; and many other church books of the period.

Many hoards of Anglo-Saxon coins have been found in various parts of the country. In the British Museum you may see a beautiful silver chalice, found with other gold and silver objects and over one hundred silver coins at St. Austell in Cornwall; a bronze bucket from Hexham, Northumberland, which contained 8,000 coins; a splendidly decorated silver-gilt cup from Halton Moor, Lancashire, which contained 860 silver coins and some pieces of stamped gold, there is the Staffordshire Hoard where the largest find of Anglo-Saxon hoard of gold and silver has ever been found, the Prittlewell find of a burial chamber next to a road junction in Prittlewell, Essex, the Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, where a boat burial was found with all the artifacts of a burial, grave robbers had missed the find, West Stow in Suffolk where an Anglo-Saxon village was found and has been painstakingly reconstructed, the finds of thi period continue to be found quite regularly as our knowledge of this period expands because of these finds.

In London a hoard of 7,000 coins of late Anglo-Saxon date was found in the City; another hoard of 400 coins was unearthed near St. Mary-at-Hill; and yet another of 241 coins was discovered near Fleet Street. The Museum of London has many finds of this period which are on display.

A large collection of Anglo-Saxon coins is to be seen in the British Museum, and there are collections also in many of the local museums throughout the country. The earliest known coins of this epoch are small pieces of gold or silver known a `sceattas,` the word `sceat` meaning “treasure”; they date from about 600 A.D., and the designs upon them are copied from those on the latest coins of the Roman age used in Britain. Many hoards of Anglo-Saxon coins of this period of the Danish invasions have been found in Scandinavia, there representing the money paid to the raiders to buy them off, a practice often resorted to at the time when England was distracted and unable to meet the Danes in battle with any hope of success.

Our pound, shilling and pence (before decimalization) all appear in Anglo-Saxon coinage, with other units. The pound, then called `pund` from the Latin `pondus,` “a weight,” was equal, as it is was, to 240 pennies, but the penny had a much higher purchasing value, of course, than it had in later times. The word penny is derived from the Anglo-Saxon `pending` or `penig,` which, again, is derived from the Latin `pannus,` meaning a strip of cloth, that being an article of barter in early times. The shilling, derived from `scilling,` “a division,” varied from forty-eight to sixty to the pound, and did not fall to the ration of twenty to the pound until much later.

Apart from the jewellery and other articles founded in early Anglo-Saxon graves, which have already been mentioned, there are a great many objects of the later years of this period brought to light by chance discoveries. Many of these are in the British Museum; here we may mention a sword of most beautifully worked silver, found on Fetter Lane, London; another sword handle decorated with filigree-work in gold andv set with garnets, discovered in Cumbria/Cumberland; many gold finger-rings, including one belonging to Alfred`s father, King Aethelwulf, found at Laverstock, Wiltshire, and another once the property of Alfred`s sister.

London has provided a good many objects of various kinds, which have been discovered accidentally during digging operations undertaken for the purpose of laying drains, foundations, and so forth. These include swords, spears, pieces of jewellery, and the like, which are now exhibited in the British Museum; and here, also, you may see several combs, some in neat little cases, one of which was found in Threadneedle Street. Also may be mentioned a bronze model of a gravestone found in the Thames at Hammersmith.

In the grounds of a house in the villages of Downton in Wiltshire, some seven miles/11.2km south of Salisbury, there is a mound probably thrown up in ancient times. It is called the Moot, and it seems to have been used in Anglo-Saxon days as the meeting-place of the shire-moot or County Council of the period. We still use the word `moot,` by the way, in its meaning of council or debate, as when we speak of a “moot-point,” that is to say a point to be discussed; and the word “meeting” comes from the same word.

Finally Richard`s Castle, some three and a half miles/5.6km from Ludlow in Shropshire. This is the only masonry castle definitely recognized as Anglo-Saxon in all England. There are many earthworks and mounds, of course, still existing which appear to have been strongholds of this period, and hinted elsewhere that certain Norman Castles may possibly contain pre-Conquest stonework; but here at Richard`s Castle you may see the remaining traces of an actual fortress built before the time of the Duke of Normandy, and though little of the masonry now exists, the walls and towers were vstill standing in the Middle Ages.

The castle was built by Richard Fitz-Scrube, a Norman who had been given high office by Edward the Confessor, and who is said to have done his best to help hte Duke of Normandy to gain the throne. He erected walls upon a mound some sixty feet/18.2m high; and the existing earthworks and fortifications are well preserved.