The Great Sedlescombe Hoard

by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Edward the Confessor listens to Earl Harold who has been forced to swear oaths of allegiance to Duke William

Sedlescombe is a small but beautiful village to the east of Crowhurst – north of Hastings in East Sussex. It is six miles from the sea and has a Roman road nearby. The river (now a brook) that flowed through the village was used by the Romans to transport iron ore to the coast through a landscape covered by great forests. This river was tidal, and the sea touched the edge of the village two thousand years ago. After the Romans left and the Saxons came, then the village belonged to Earl Godwin who had a manor there. Earl Godwin was King Harold Godwinson’s father. There is a legend that King Harold’s handfasted Danish wife, Edith Swanneck, hid in the woods at Sedlescombe before being called upon by monks from Waltham Abbey to identify her husbanded butchered remains. So Sedlescombe is suffused with a fascinating history.

The Ditch Digger

If you read the Hastings Independent Press, you may remember another article I wrote in that vibrant newspaper, concerning a ditch digger at Bulverhythe who was employed to help construct a small airfield on land reclaimed from the medieval harbour of Bulverhythe. He was using a bulldozer not a spade – and uncovered a Norman longboat in the 1930s. He was ordered to bury it again. Ditch diggers never seem to profit from their efforts. Now we look at the spadework of another ditch digger – at Sedlescombe.

One morning, nearly 150 years ago, on 26th August 1876, our Sedlescombe ditch digger was toiling away cutting a field drain, when he struck something hard – the remains of an iron pot, rusted and broken into shards. Inside those shards were the remains of a leather bag containing 3,000 silver coins of four different types and a small bar of pure silver – a shock and a wonder to this workman.

Some of the coins were very badly broken. However, it seems there were no ‘early type’ coins in which the reigning monarch Edward the Confessor (1042-1066) is shown as young and beardless with his upper body facing left. The average weight of the coins was twenty grains and there were 3,000 coins so the total weight must be the order of 137.14286 ounces or 8.5 lbs in weight. The silver bar weighed 1.5 ounces and was half an inch square and 2.5 inches long.

In those far off days, coins were made at many locations in local Mints (see below). These coins had been made at many Mints, but some had been made at the Hastings Mint which was probably located inside the Iron Age fort where Hastings Castle is now on its clifftop above the sea. Another example of a Mint inside an Iron Age fort is at Cissbury Ring in East Sussex.

At first the coins were thought to be hop tokens and they were given to children to play with. Due to the honesty of the ditch digger, the landowner soon grabbed back this treasure haul, and because there was no Portable Antiquities Scheme, Finds Officers or Treasure laws at the time, he sold off some of the coins to collectors. No list of the coins was made at the time and so we do not know how many coins of the missing 1502 silver pieces were made for kings other than Edward the Confessor. But we do know that of the remaining coins, the last issue of coinage marked for Edward is not present. As we have seen above, there no early coins either, so the currently known contents of the pot were mid-period for Edward’s rule.

At least 1,498 of these coins are still known and can be located in collections worldwide. The trouble is – since around half of the coins went missing then it cannot be fully proved that at the time of discovery by the ditch digger, there were no early coins for the reigning monarch or coins struck near the time of his burial, shown in the Bayeux Tapestry – 1066. No King Harold Godwinson II coins have been found in the remaining coins.

Silver coin of Edward the Confessor in British Museum – dulled red possibly from the rust of the hoard container.

Such a find nowadays is called a ‘hoard’; a mass of coins buried perhaps in a panic or to hide a crime in the distant past. Coin collecting, known as ‘numismatics’ is a hobby based on science rather than art. Numismatics has many unusual terms not found in everyday conversation – for example, ‘cupellation’ and ‘sylloge’. An informative website search will reveal that: ‘Cupellation is a refining process in metallurgy where ores or alloyed metals are treated under very high temperatures and have controlled operations to separate noble metals, like gold and silver, from base metals, like lead, copper, zinc, arsenic, antimony, or bismuth, present in the ore. A ‘sylloge’ is a collection or compendium or documents, coins, or antiquarian objects.’

The knowledge of ancient coinage is growing yet there is still much to amaze. Many of the coins found by the ditch digger were made or ‘minted’ in Hastings by ‘moneyers’. But where was the Hastings Mint physically located when Edward ruled – the Iron Age fort location is a fairly logical guess? How did the silver coins come to exist in that Sedlescombe bag when there are no silver mines in the area? At the time of 1066, it is thought the primary site for silver mining was the Hartz Mountains in Germany. Traders would have brought the silver to England in bars ready to melt down and form into coin blanks before stamping both sides using a die.

Over time, much has been learned about the process of coin-making. Firstly, coins are tokens of value. They are worth a fixed amount defined by respect and agreement. They are respected in trade because they look and feel ‘right’ and usually bear the King or Queen’s head – a sign of the authority or worth.

The Mints of Sussex in pre-Conquest days were at Hastings, Pevensey, Lewes and Steyning. There was also an outside chance of a Mint at Bramber and a Mint at a mysterious place called Sithesteburh which numismatists have speculated might be Cissbury Rings. The makers of the coins – the ‘moneyers’ put their names on the coins – immortalising their skill. At the Hastings Mint these coin-makers were called Wulfstan, Alfred, Elfwine, Leva, Brid, Leofwine, Dunninc, Colswegen and so on, over the ages.

Leofwine, Dunninc and Brid made most of the coins at Hastings in the time of Edward the Confessor. When the childless King died, then Harold Godwinson took the throne and Colswegen, Dunnic and Theodred worked away at Hastings making coins for the new King. When Harold was killed at Hastings (or spirited away wounded from the Battlefield by Edith Swan-Neck to Chester via Dover or Waltham Abbey if you believe the tales of monks) then William the Conqueror – having laid waste to the Hastings area and massacred the population of Old Romney, still permitted Colswegen and Dunnic and their compatriot Theodred, to make his coins at the Hastings Mint. They were joined by a new moneyer called Cipincc – and it seems that good old Dunninc was still making coins for William II and Henry I (1100-1135). What a hero! Long-lived, respected, and good at his job. So it is important to note that the Hastings Mint was not laid to waste.

Look at the breadth of its work – according to East Sussex County Council record HER307/20, the Hastings Mint began in the reign of King Athelstan, the son of Edward the Elder, who reigned from 924 to 927. It shut down then until 985 in the reign of Aethelred II (the so-called ‘Unready’ or ‘poorly counselled’) and then continued while Vikings ruled England, to produce coins for King Canute (Cnut:1016-1035) – with Brid the significant Hastings moneyer of his rule. Then Hastings Mint went on to serve a range of kings including Harold I (Harefoot – 1035-1040), Harthacnut (1040-1042), Edward (1042-66), Harold II (Jan to Oct 1066) and Stephen (1135-1154). Obviously, when the Normans came to Hastings, they erected a wooden castle, which may have been prefabricated and bought over by longship. Then they built a stone castle, still there in a somewhat ruinous state today – with half of it having fallen into the sea during the great storm of 1287.

Let us take another look at moneyer Dunninc – he would have served an apprenticeship and might be perhaps 20 years old when he struck his first coin (with sceptre and fleur-de-lis emblems) of Edward the Confessor’s reign and put his name to it. Let us speculate that he was born in 1030, started making coins in 1050 and was still making them in 1135, then he would have been around 105 – far too old perhaps! So if we go for the very least of the dates for coins he made – the last year of the reign of Edward the Confessor (1066) and the first year of the reign of Henry I then we have a life as follows: Dunninc, born 1046 and ceased making coins in 1100 – at the age of fifty-four. I speculate therefore that Dunninc was between 54 and 105 years old – say around 80 years old when he died, taking the midpoint of both sets of speculative ages. Since he seemed to be the chief moneyer of the period of great turbulence then I put forward the theory that he was the person who buried the Sedlescombe Hoard.

In late September 1066, in great alarm, he realised that the Normans were coming – yes – but also that all the coins in the bag were now out of date as there had been a new and final issue for Edward the Confessor and then completely new coinage in January 1066 for King Harold Godwinson. So numismatists consider that these 3,000 coins and the little silver bar or pure silver, were what is called ‘bullion’ – redundant coins to be melted down. At the point of burial of the hoard, probably around the end of September 1066, he did not know how the invasion would turn out. Would the bag of coins be useful to melt down along with the small silver bar to make more coins for Harold or would Duke William become king and thus all the coinage would be null and void with a Norman treasury dominating from then on?

When you go into hiding until the results of the Battle are known, you must tremble. But then the Normans come to Hastings and ask who the moneyer is because he has skills, then shaking with fear you come forward and are immediately employed on new coinage. Why bother to dig the bag up again when William the Conqueror is still willing to employ you at the Hastings Mint, even though he has laid everything in the area to waste? You breathe a sigh of relief.

Dunninc grows in stature as an important man. He was provably making coins after the Conquest and a Medieval silver penny of William II ‘Rufus’ (1087-1100), Cross in quatrefoil type minted by Dunning (DVNIC) at Hastings has been dated to 1089-1092 AD.

So what else can we say about him? What was the Sedlescombe Hoard for? What was its nature? Why was it buried in Sedlescombe and not in Hastings? Our Dunninc was probably an early member of the Dunning family ‘Dunn’ means swarthy or of dark hair or complexion). He had to obtain silver to make coins. He needed a furnace and a coin die to stamp the image of the king and his own moneyer’s name.

The Dolley Dublin Incident

A gentleman called RHM Dolley – a respected numismatist, was on holiday in County Limerick and was shown a collection of silver pennies. The man who owned the coins being viewed had obtained them from Dublin and London dealers in the late 1800s. Dolley began to look at the coins in detail and noted that coins of Edward the Confessor were stamped with the name of our hero Dunninc (Dvinnic on Haesti), but also there appeared the name of Brid (Brid OH Haesti) and Colswegen (Colsspeien on Haesti).

Now we come to a further mystery and a wonder that takes some teasing out and may give a different slant. When all the existing coins found at Sedlescombe near Battle were examined there were many coins struck in twenty-seven separate parts of England: Bath, Bristol, Canterbury, Chichester, Cricklade, Colchester, Dover, Exeter, Gloucester, Hastings, Ilchester, Ipswich, Leicester, Lewes, London, Norwich, Oxford, Romney, Sandwich, Shaftesbury, Southampton, Southwark, Thetford, Wallingford, Wareham, Winchester, and York.

Dolley thought these Dublin coins – all of Edward and all in superb condition had certainly come from the Great Sedlescombe Hoard. At the point of discovery in the ground back in 1876, some of the coins were so thin that they fell to pieces – thus eliminating themselves from saleable value. There were a few other coins that Dolley was not quite sure of, and he speculated that they were from Lindsey and Tamworth. He further speculated that the slight reddish stains seen on the Dublin coins were left by the gradually rotting iron-bound coffer that the 3,000 coins had been buried in. Dolley stated that the coins were probably part of ‘the bullion reserve of the Hastings Mint at the time of the Norman Invasion.’

Edward waves his crown – tempting Earl Harold no doubt!

Alternative Theory

Is there another explanation? The non-Hastings coins represent such a vast area of England. King Harold had been in the north at York to fight the Battle of Stamford Bridge (25th September 1066). The fyrd (an army that can be called up from local workers) had been asked to support him from all over the realm of England. The army needing paying. There are records of complaints by Anglo-Saxon troops that they were not paid anything from the spoils of war after the victory over the Vikings at Stamford Bridge. Could this bag of 3,000 silver coins really be a war chest, taken north to pay the troops? Then when Harold resting on his laurels at Stamford Bridge heard that Duke William was landing, he rushed to Waltham Abbey to pray – and then just before the dreaded Battle of Hastings, he had one of his huscarls (senior warriors) bury the war chest at Sedlescombe, where his Danish wife was hiding. His logic: if he lost then Duke William would not be able to find the hoard, but then if he won, he could then give great reward – with three thousand silver coins, his honourable bounty to those who came to help him in both the northern and southern battles?

Admittedly it does look initially as though the coins represent the locations of the fyrd ‘call-up’ – ‘help me in my hour of need you peasants of England!’ Each peasant brings a silver coin for the treasury…but no, I don’t think this alternative has legs, for the following reasons.

Many of the coins were thin and fell to pieces in the hands of children who were given them to play with as hop tokens. Hop tokens were paid to non-local workers who came to help with the harvest from other parts of England or overseas. The tokens were given for work and could be exchanged for food but only at the end of the working week. The hop tokens were usually made by a village blacksmith and are therefore rough and indistinctly marked – so if silver coins are thin and worn then the initial mistake is understandable.

Next, we have to remember what happened after the Battle of Stamford Bridge. The Vikings were wiped out and Harold had killed his own brother Tostig, who was a traitor. The feeling amongst the English army must have been of total jubilation and the spoils of war were gathered up, swords, shields, helmets, rings, gold ornaments of senior Vikings. But Harold was not going to pay out this great bounty because if he did then all the men of the fyrd would melt away into the landscape laughing – and rich. But when the messenger came hot foot from Hastings to say that Duke William had landed with around 770 ships, his men, and horses, then it did not make sense to give away the victory spoils of Stamford Bridge, so Harold gave them to Archbishop Ealdred (sometimes written Aldred) for safekeeping, to be paid out to the fyrd after his expected victory over the Normans at Hastings. This fact is confirmed by the Norman writer Geoffrey Gaimar. This pay-out was not to be – nor do we know what the archbishop did with the spoils. Archbishop Ealdred was a diplomat and warrior, Archbishop of York and greatly trusted by King Harold and later by King William. It is said he crowned Duke William as King in Westminster Abbey. So – where are the Spoils of King Harald Hardrada of Norway, his three hundred ships and 9,000 troops of his great army?

Another mystery indeed!


Coins and Moneyers of the Hastings Mint

Copyright 2021 David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Image source: Wikimedia Commons Public Domain