Viking coins worth at least £500,000 found during police raids

Police investigating illegal trade in historic treasures find hoard of Viking coins worth at least £500,000 that could rewrite Alfred the Great’s role in British history

  • They date from the time of Alfred the Great who defeated the Vikings in AD 878
  • They show King Alfred standing next to Ceolwulf II, King of Mercia 
  • Ceolwulf II was previously thought to be a minor figure but the coins show the two rulers standing side by side as allies suggesting a different story
  • The coins were seized in multiple police raids and are valued at £500,000  

Police investigating an illegal trade in historic treasures have seized a hoard of Viking coins that could rewrite British history.  

The haul of coins and a silver ingot, dating back to the 9th Century reign of King Alfred the Great, were recovered by police at homes in County Durham and Lancashire earlier this month.

Believed to be worth at least £500,000, a leading expert has told the MailOnline they could ‘add significantly to our understanding of the political history of England in the AD 870s’ as they reveal a previously unknown alliance between King Alfred and his contemporary Ceolwulf II, King of Mercia.

Ceolwulf of Mercia was believed by historians to be simply a puppet of the Vikings  – a minor nobleman rather than a proper King. 

But the recently discovered coins show the two rulers standing side by side as allies suggesting a different story. 

While Alfred became known as a national hero who defeated the Vikings, Ceolwulf was written off as insignificant and disappeared without trace, indicating the Mercia King was later ‘airbrushed out of history’ by Alfred. 

If confirmed, the discovery could reshape our view of how England was united and those who made it happen.

Police, who have now handed over the haul to the British Museum, have arrested a number of people on suspicion of dealing in culturally tainted objects and the complex police operation – codenamed Operation Fantail – is said by Durham Police to be in its early stages. They refused to give further detail on the arrests. 

Police investigating an illegal trade in historic treasures seized a hoard of Viking coins that could rewrite British history. The front of one of the coins show Ceolwulf (top) and the back (bottom) shows King Alfred and Ceolwulf standing side-by-side, demonstrating their alliance

Detective Inspector Lee Gosling, Senior Investigating Officer for Operation Fantail at Durham Constabulary, said: ‘We believe the material recovered comes from a hoard of immense historical significance relating to the Vikings and we are delighted to have been able to hand it over to the British Museum.’

The British Museum believe the coins were in circulation at the time of King Alfred when he won a number of major battles in AD 878 that led to the defeat on the Vikings  

Dr Gareth Williams, curator of Early Medieval Coins and Viking Collections at the British Museum, called the latest find ‘nationally important’. 

He said: ‘This is the period in which Alfred the Great was fighting the Vikings, but which also led to the creation of a unified kingdom of England under Alfred and his successors. 

‘The hoard contains coins both of Alfred and of his contemporary Ceolwulf II, King of Mercia.

The haul of coins and a silver ingot, dating back to the 9th Century reign of King Alfred the Great, were recovered by police at homes in County Durham and Lancashire earlier this month and show images of Alfred the Great (pictured) and Ceolwulf, King of Mercia

Believed to be worth at least £500,000, a leading expert has told the MailOnline they could ‘add significantly to our understanding of the political history of England in the AD 870s’ .  The coins show Ceolwulf (top left) and Alfred (top right) with the back of the coins (bottom left and right) showing Alfred and Ceolwulf standing side-by-side demonstrating their alliance

WHO WAS CEOWULF II?

Ceowulf was King of Mercia, an Anglo saxon kingdom, and reigned at the same time as Alfred the Great who is widely thought to have defeated the Vikings and united England. 

He reigned between 874 to 879AD based on a Mercian ruler’s list.

According to sources from Alfred’s court, Ceowulf was described as ‘a foolish king’s thegn’, where thegn means a minor noble. 

It has long been thought that Ceowulf was simply a ‘puppet’ King put on the throne and controlled by the Vikings. 

He ruled for five years and disappeared and disappeared without trace from history around AD 879, after which Alfred took over his kingdom.

However, recent coin finds show images of Ceowulf sitting side-by-side on the throne next to King Alfred which suggest that the alliance between the two was more significant than previously thought.

The coins show a working relationship with Alfred,which according to Dr Gareth Williams at the British Museum, sources in Alfred’s court ‘forgot’ to mention. 

Ceowulf may well have been a legitimate descendant of earlier kings of Mercia possibly of his namesake Ceolwulf I (821-3), brother of Coenwulf (796-821).

‘The coins I have seen so far add significantly to our understanding of the political history of England in the AD 870s. 

‘Around the time the hoard was buried,probably in AD 879, Ceolwulf mysteriously disappeared, and Alfred then took over Ceolwulf’s kingdom as well as his own.’ 

Speaking to The MailOnline, Dr Williams added: ‘I think that the coins show that Ceolwulf II was in an alliance with Alfred of Wessex, and not a puppet of the Vikings as suggested in sources written at Alfred’s court a few years later, by which time Ceolwulf had disappeared without trace from history and Alfred had taken over his kingdom. 

‘Sources from Alfred’s court, writing more than fifteen years later, describe as ‘a foolish king’s thegn’, who was only made king by the Vikings. 

‘However, the coins show a working relationship with Alfred which the sources ‘forgot’ to mention, and his name suggests that he may well have been a legitimate descendant of earlier kings of Mercia.

‘Some of the coins show the name of Ceolwulf and the images on their back show two emperors standing side by side, and was almost certainly a deliberate choice to symbolise their alliance.’ 

‘This isn’t a completely new idea, but until recently coins of this period were too rare to prove the idea. 

‘The discovery of this hoard strengthens the case that Ceolwulf and Alfred were allies, and that Alfred’s spin-doctors later re-wrote history to suit the political situation of the time.’      

Some of the coins show Alfred the Great (pictured) while others show a minor historical figure which experts say suggest that he was in fact a powerful King who could have played a major role the defeats

WHO WAS KING ALFRED?  

Alfred the Great is an Anglo-Saxon kingwarrior king who protected the country from the Vikings. 

Alfred ruled from 871 to 899 was instrumental in setting the foundations for the England known nowadays without whom the English may have even spoken another language.

His defeat of the Vikings earned him the name Alfred the Great.

Professor Barbara Yorke, Professor emerita of early medieval history at the University of Winchester said he was the only Anglo-Saxon ruler who was able to prevent his kingdom from falling into the hands of the Vikings.

‘He did this by winning a decisive victory over the Viking leader, Guthrum, at the battle of Edington in 878, and then by protecting and ringing his kingdom of Wessex with a series of garrisoned, fortified sites. 

Embarrassed by the poor standards of Latin learning in Wessex, Alfred decided that more texts should be translated or composed in English instead, and even participated in the project himself. 

Alfred was revered by the Victorians, partly because he was the only Anglo-Saxon king with a full biography and he was often accredited with many achievements which did not actually originate with him.

In 1901, a famous statue of Alfred was raised in Winchester as part of a major celebration of the millenary of his death in the Hampshire city.

Professor Yorke said: ‘Alfred was probably not quite as remarkable as the Victorians believed but he was an impressive warrior, inventive and intellectually curious, and seems something of a micro-manager, which may have been the real key to his success.’ 

The iconic figure of King Alfred is widely believed to be the man who saved England from the Vikings and is currently being portrayed by David Dawson in the BBC epic The Last Kingdom. 

He spent several years fighting the Vikings, who were wreaking devastation in England, and won several decisive victories.

Alfred ruled from 871 to 899 was instrumental in setting the foundations for the England known nowadays without whom the English may have even spoken another language.

His defeat of the Vikings earned him the name Alfred the Great. 

But in recent years, his role has been called into question by a number of archeological finds.

More than 200 pieces of Viking silver including coins, ingots and jewellery were discovered buried in a field in Oxfordshire in 2015 which shedd fresh light on King Alfred and the little-known ally, Ceolwulf II.

A spokesperson for Durham Police has said the investigation is ongoing and a number of people have been arrested on suspicion of dealing in ‘culturally tainted objects’.  

THE VIKINGS IN BRITAIN FROM 800 to 1016: RAIDS AND PEACE 

 Viking raids on Britain began at the end of the 8th century, Professor Edward James of University College, Dublin, wrote for the BBC.

In 1793, the bishop of Lindisfarne wrote to Ethelred, King of Northumbria, telling him the monastery had been attacked by Viking raiders and in the coming few decades, attacks intensified.

In 866, the Vikings captured York and a year later took over part of Northumbria. By 878 they had conquered almost all of England.

But the story goes that Alfred the Great, who hid in the marshes near Athelney in Somerset to survive, reformed his army and defeated the Vikings at Edington in Wiltshire, later that year.

He forced peace on the invaders and the Viking army seems to have across the channel for a few years, leaving Alfred time to build fortresses.

When the Vikings returned in the 890s, the West Saxons were able to resist, leaving Alfred, at his death in 899AD, king of the only independent English kingdom.

His son, Edward the Elder (899 to 944AD) captured the south of England from the Danes and incorporated Mercia into his kingdom.

For several rulers afterwards there was peace, with England largely converted to Christianity, But then came the ‘second Viking age’ with large-scale raids to plunder wealth from the land.

By the end of the 9th century, Vikings were living in different parts of Britain and in 1016, king Cnut of Denmark became king of England too. 

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