Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Poor Alice de Lacy, Part 1

Recent posts on the Tutbury Hoard led to a discussion about Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, who is the likeliest candidate for losing such an enormous amount of coinage. His wife was Alice de Lacy, whose fortunes were potentially as high but ultimately as low as his.

Alice was born on Christmas Day in 1281. She was the only surviving child of the Earl of Lincoln, Henry de Lacy, and the Countess of Salisbury, making her an heiress to two sizable estates who would be greatly desirable on the marriage market. When she was nine years old, she was betrothed to the 14-year-old nephew of King Edward I, Thomas (whose father the Earl of Lancaster made him potentially rich and powerful as well). They married when she was thirteen.

Alice's father chose to allow his titles to pass, upon his death, to his son-in-law rather than his daughter. Perhaps her father was sexist. Perhaps the king pushed this arrangement to bring those lands into the royal family in exchange for a prominent husband. At any rate, Henry could expect that his grandchildren would enjoy significant inheritances.

But there were to be no grandchildren. Either Alice was barren, or Thomas was not interested in procreating with her. He had other children: two sons out of wedlock. Alice and Thomas started to live separate lives. It was easy, therefore, for her to be abducted from her own manor of Canford, Dorset. This abduction, carried out by knights under John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, seems not to have been for romance, but to insult Thomas, who had done Warenne wrong in an earlier matter. Thomas went to war with Warenne (settled by the king), but never asked for Alice's return.

When Thomas was executed (see here), Alice could have become wealthy since he had no legitimate heirs, but her titles were confiscated by the Crown and the king (now Edward II) imprisoned her at York as the wife of a traitor. Alice was not released until she handed over much of her inheritance and the sum of £20,000. She was given the Constableship of Lincoln Castle and allowed to remarry.

That next marriage, the second of three, was happier than the first. But then came another abduction, and a rape, and another marriage. We will continue her story next.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Thomas Lost a Treasure

This is about Thomas, the 2nd Earl of Lancaster. He was born about 1278 to Edmund Crouchback (the second son of King Henry III). His life was not without problems.

He had an unsuccessful marriage to Alice de Lacy. They had no children, although Thomas fathered two illegitimate sons. Alice was abducted in 1317 by a knight under the Earl of Surrey. Thomas divorced Alice and started a conflict with Surrey which was ended by King Edward II. During the coronation of King Edward II, Thomas carried the royal sword Curtana in the procession. Like many nobles, however, he turned against Edward when Edward showed favor to Piers Gaveston, reputed to be the king's male lover.

Thomas led two revolts against Edward. One, in 1310, led to Parliament putting limits on Edward's spending. The second, in 1321, led to defeat and his execution for treason on 22 March, 1322.

Thomas had been given Tutbury Castle, which he renovated and made into his primary residence. His presence benefitted the surrounding countryside, stimulating the local economy. The famous Tutbury Hoard—the largest collection of found coins in history—was so large it must have come from his treasury. Historians assume he had gathered it to pay his allies and Scottish mercenaries, probably during his second revolt against the king. It was lost while crossing the River Dove, however, leaving it to be found by workmen in 1831.

But poor Alice! In her life she was married three times, abducted, widowed twice, imprisoned, raped, and had her in hesitance stolen. I'll tell you more about her next.

Friday, May 10, 2019

The Staffordshire Hoard Conflict

Some of the pieces from the Anglo-Saxon Staffordshire Hoard.
The largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver coins was uncovered in Staffordshire, England in 2009. The 3500 metal pieces added up to 5.1 kilograms of gold and 1.4 kilograms of silver.*

The hoard dates from the 7th century when the area was the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. The items are all of high quality and appropriate for a military man—swords, helmets, hilts, pommels, buckles, scabbard loops, etc. Commonly, Anglo-Saxon finds include jewelry, cooking vessels, and eating utensils—items related to a household or suitable for a woman. The few items that break this pattern are three crosses. This hoard seems likely to have been the collected possessions of a soldier or military leader who stashed it away for safekeeping and then failed to live long enough to retrieve it.

Another piece of evidence that these were the possessions of a military man is a small golden strip, approximately 7" x 0.6"; it is inscribed with a passage from the Old Testament: "Rise up, Lord, and let thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee." [KJV, Numbers 10:35]

The Hoard is now on display at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. You can see more stunning pictures here.

Next, we return to the Tutbury Hoard and talk about, not the finder, but the person who likely lost it.

*The farmer on whose land it was discovered agreed to split the value with the man who found it with a metal detector. They split the £3,300,000 value, but other issues turned them into enemies. You can read about it here.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Tutbury Hoard, Part 2

Part of the Tutbury Hoard
The sudden acquisition of wealth can change people. When coins started to be found in. the River Dove in 1831—ultimately amounting to 360,000 medieval coins uncovered by scores of treasure seekers—some lucky people found themselves in possession of silver worth more than they'd ever held before.

John Blackburn was one such person. Rather than turn the coins in to the Crown for monetary reward, however, he cashed in only enough to buy a horse and trap, and a gun to protect the rest. He then returned to his farm with his wife, Jane. They started living off their own private stash now, neglecting the farm and letting their hired labor go. They avoided people, even their own sons, Thomas and Henry.

Then, in October of 1852, would-be rescuers rushing to the Blackburns' burning house found John and Jane murdered. For the Staffordshire police, suspicion fell on the sons, who might have wanted an inheritance. Evidence was lacking, however, until a scrawled anonymous letter, written by someone who knew unpublished details about the murder, implicated Henry Blackburn.

Henry would not have implicated himself, so the police made inquiries to find the scribe. They found Charles Moore, a former laborer on the Blackburn farm. He had talked several times about the treasure hidden away on his former employer's land, and had also mentioned being hired by Henry Blackburn to kill the old couple in return for a share of the silver. Four men were taken into custody: Charles Moore, Henry Blackburn, and two Irish associates of Moore, Edward Walsh and Peter Kirwan. A three-day trial included a witness who heard Moore discussing how to start a fire with resin and pitch. It was determined that Henry Blackburn's name in the letter was designed to throw suspicion off the real culprit, Moore. Kirwan and Blackburn were declared innocent. Walsh was declared a conspirator, and sentenced to transportation for life (being sent out of the country, likely to Australia).

Moore went to the gallows, proof that (in the words of Chaucer's pardoner, Radix malorum est cupiditas. [Latin: "The root of evil is love of money"]

The Blackburns' silver hoard was never found.

Tomorrow I'll talk about the largest Anglo-Saxon find in modern history, which also happened to end a friendship.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Tutbury Hoard, Part 1

The coins were found in casks in the River Dove
Workers in 1831, while repairing a mill-race on the Dove River, found a chunk of mud-caked coins from the 13th and 14th centuries. Curiosity was piqued, folk flocked to the area, and searches of the river turned up 360,000 silver coins in total. It would be impossible to put a value on a hoard that huge. When only 26 were sold at auction in 2010, they were evaluated at £3000.

More and more people with picks and shovels descended on Tutbury, digging in and around the river. One contemporary account claimed about 300 people at any one time could be seen wading through the river. Digging in and around the river was declared off-limits and the coins designated Crown property by King William IV. That law is still in force.

The Duchy of Lancaster ultimately stepped in to maintain control over the area. Tutbury Castle was owned by the Duke of Lancaster, and it was assumed that the treasure had once belonged to Thomas, Earl of Lancaster (more on him in the near future). Approximately 100,000 coins were turned over to the Crown, but the majority remained in the hands of the finders.

Two of the finders, neighbors John Blackburn and Hugh Barber, had located a large cache. Barber cashed his part in immediately, receiving £100. Blackburn sold enough to buy himself a horse and cart, and a gun. But he kept a lot of the coins. He and his wife became reclusive, even from their own sons. They stopped working their farm, and kept people away.

In 1852, the Blackburns were found murdered. We'll take a 19th century side-trip next to talk about that.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Coin Hoards

Edward I penny from the Colchester Hoard
Among the treasures found accidentally by digging or deliberately by people wielding metal detectors are hoards of old coins, jewelry, and other ornamentation.

Why were these hoards hidden in the first place? Valuables get stashed away for several reasons. In times of political or economic uncertainty, it might be prudent to hide wealth to avoid confiscation. One might also bury a hoard due to the lack of a banking system (see below re: the Colchester Hoard). In any case, the owner presumably intended to recover his wealth but was prevented by death or an inability to return to his land due to occupation by hostile forces.

Some of the notable finds are:

The Abergavenny Hoard, consisting of 199 silver pennies from the 11th century reigns of Edward the Confessor and William the Conqueror. It was found in 2002 and currently is owned by the National Museum in Cardiff.

In 2000, 448 pennies and 27 half pennies were found in Beverley, East Yorkshire. The Beverley Hoard dates from the mid 13th century and sits in the British Museum.

The British Museum is also home to the Colchester Hoard, dug up from the High Street in Colchester during routine public maintenance work in 1902. Workers found a lead canister holding about 12,000 silver pennies from the time of Edward III. That area was the Colchester Jewry, where Jews congregated to live. One theory is that the lead canister was intended as a safe, built into the floor.

The largest hoard ever discovered in England was found in 1831, long before there were any laws governing the disposition of such things. It was found in Tutbury, Staffordshire, and the 360,000 silver coins were widely dispersed. The discovery of so much value in one place caused the nearest thing England ever experienced to a "gold rush."

I think it's worthwhile to go into detail on the Tutbury Hoard. Stay tuned.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Found Treasure

Roman hoard found at St. Albans
Speaking of digging up old things...

Every once in awhile we hear of someone finding a hoard of coins or other treasure from centuries past. The Treasure Act of 1996 in England was created to answer the question: to whom does this find belong? How should it be handled? The Act applies to England, Ireland, and Wales; Scotland has its own laws regarding found treasure.

The rules for a find are simple: within 14 days, you must report your find to the local coroner. The coroner will conduct an inquest to determine if the find is, in fact, "treasure." The legal definition of treasure is based on whether it has real world (not just sentimental) value. The presence of a large number of items and the presence of a certain percentage of gold or silver figures into the definition. Also, the find must be at least 300 years old.

If the find is determined to be treasure, it must be offered for sale to a museum after being evaluated by a board of experts, called the Treasure Valuation Committee. If no museum wants the treasure, then the finder/owner can retain it or sell it to someone else.

What if I use a metal detector and find a hoard of coins in a farmer's field? Does it belong to the finder or to the property owner? The Treasure Act declares that the finder(s) and land owner(s) share the wealth in a ratio (usually 50/50) determined by the Treasure Valuation Committee.

Next I'll share some of the most notable treasures that were hoards of coins.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Finding Bodies in Peat Bogs

Tollund Man, found in a bog in Denmark
You have no doubt seen articles of bodies and artifacts found in peat bogs, such as the Gundestrup cauldron from the previous post. What exactly is a peat bog, and why is it suited for preserving things, especially bodies?

Peat is a brown, soil-like material that forms from decaying plant matter in a wetland whose water is acidic. The acidic environment inhibits  nutrients and therefore limits the flora and fauna usually found in either bodies of water or fields. Peat can be cut into blocks, dried, and burned as fuel. Peat bogs are found in temperate latitudes. Some of the largest peat bogs are found in Siberia (1,000,000 square km), souther South America (44,000 square km), and the Democratic Republic of Congo (130,000 square km).

The acidic and oxygen-poor environment, and the tannic acids that develop from the slowly decaying plant matter (usually mosses), helps to preserve organic material—so much so, that over 500 bodies have been found in bogs, remarkably intact (not just skin, but also hair and stomach contents) and ready for analysis. Tollund Man, found in Denmark in 1950, still has a three-days growth of beard. (Ironically, the "tougher" teeth and bones are more susceptible to being dissolved by acid.)

Even their clothing is preserved. Huldremose Woman, found in Denmark in 1879, had a leather cape and woolen scarf that clearly were not made in Denmark.

Many of these are assumed to have been human sacrifice, especially because so many are found with slashed throats, or with rope around their necks. Of course, they could also simply be the end result of treating criminals. A bog body found in Donegal, Ireland dates to the 1500s, and is believed to be a suicide. Because suicide was forbidden by the Church, perhaps her body was thrown into the bog because proper Christian burial was denied to her for her sin.

Not all finds in the ground are bodies, however. Next we will talk about some of the medieval treasures that have been dug up.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

The Gundestrup Cauldron

On 28 May, 1891, a worker digging in a peat bog near Gundestrup in Denmark made an extraordinary find: a shallow bowl holding a dozen curved panels (five large and seven smaller) and a couple short metal strips. Analysis showed the material to be 97% silver and 3% gold.

A Danish archaeologist realized that the pieces could be assembled into a deeper bowl, the silver strips forming a rim. Originally thought to be Celtic, careful examination of the figures carved on the silver panels revealed a mixture of images from different cultures. One of the images—an antlered male figure holding a torc in one hand and a serpent in the other—is identified as Cernunnos, the "Horned God" of Celtic folklore.

Who would have created something like this? The work resembles that of Thracian (Thrace included Bulgaria and parts of Turkey and Greece) craftsmen from the 2nd century BCE. Thracian metalworking would have been happening at that time in the Balkans. It is assumed that someone with Celtic leanings created the artwork. How it made its way to northern Denmark is anyone's guess.

The images on the Cauldron represent several themes: fertility, destruction, life and death. One of the most intriguing images is a bull hunt, depicted on an oval medallion. Three dogs are part of the hunt, and above the bull is a woman warrior, leaping to strike the bull with a sword.

Another panel shows two rows of warriors, one of which is mounted on horses with horse tack seen in Eastern Europe. The other row is followed by three men playing a Celtic musical instrument. A giant appears to be dipping a man into a cauldron, possibly representing rebirth.

Was the Cauldron a gift to a warrior or ruler? Was it created to be part of some magical ritual? A great deal of wealth and effort went into creating it; it is unlikely it was used as a fruit bowl. And why was it disassembled and buried in the peat bog? To hide it from enemies? As a sacrifice to gods? We will never be sure.

Actually, sacrificing by throwing things into peat bogs was a common occurrence up through the 2nd century CE. We should look at some of the things that archaeologists have recovered from peat bogs.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019


From the Gundestrup Cauldron
The figure to the left—a man with antlers, often holding or wearing a torc, often holding a snake—is not unique. It is considered a representation of a Celtic deity, called "The Horned God," who is possibly the god of nature, wilderness, animals, fertility, the underworld, wealth, etc. The earliest images were found in Northern Italy and on the Gundestrup Cauldron in Denmark from the 1st century BCE. We call him Cernunnos because of a single recorded reference on a carved stone called the Pillar of the Boatmen, referred to in the previous entry.

Looking for the origin of the name has led to some curious theories.

In the Ulster Cycle of Irish folklore, the hero Cuchulainn has a foster brother named Conall Cernach. One story of Conall involves him attacking a castle that is guarded by a serpent. The serpent does not attack Conall; rather, it drapes itself around his waist and is worn by him afterward. The odd relationship between Conall and the snake is linked by some to the image of the snake in Cernunnos iconography.

Another depiction of Cernunnos, a bronze figurine from Autun in France, shows two serpents around his waist, similar to the Irish story. Stories of Conall Cernach-Cernunnos may be a rarity: memories in literature of Celtic deities, of whom we otherwise have no details.

The Gundestrup Cauldron needs its own entry, which I will talk about next.