A vital hoard of 44 rare coins from the late 800s has been recovered by British police and safely delivered to the British Museum. 

Valued at approximately GBP 766,000 (USD 963,000), the currency sheds light on the relationship between Alfred the Great of Wessex and his less well-known contemporary, Ceolwulf II of Mercia.

Featuring likenesses of both rulers, the coins suggest that the two may have been allies in the fight against the Vikings rather than enemies.

Ceolwulf, ally or Viking puppet?

This fills a gap in the common understanding of British history of this period, which suggested that Ceolwulf of Mercia was more a puppet of the Vikings and a minor nobleman rather than a proper king in his own right.

According to Dr. Gareth Williams, curator of Early Medieval Coins and Viking Collections at the British Museum: "The coins, in this case, have already begun to transform our knowledge and understanding of the political situation of the late ninth century.

"The coins show beyond any possible doubt that there was a political and economic alliance between Alfred and Ceolwulf II.

"Together, the two kings carried out a major reform of the coinage, introducing high-quality silver coins, with the 'Two Emperors' design symbolizing this alliance, followed by a second joint coinage.

"As more coins emerge, it is clear that this monetary alliance lasted for some years, while an individual coin from the Durham hoard proves that the more symbolic 'Two Emperors' type was the earlier of the two."

Crime and punishment

The hoard would have never come to light had it not been for the swift work of the British police, in an investigation led by Durham Constabulary.

The coins are believed to have been discovered in Leominster, Herefordshire, in a multimillion-pound hoard found by two metal detectorists in 2015. 

Instead of declaring the find as "treasure" – as outlined by the UK's Treasure Act 1996 – they instead sold the items to dealers. In 2019, they were sentenced to a total of more than 18 years of imprisonment.

According to the law, treasure is defined as having at least two coins that are at least 300 years old and contains a minimum of 10 percent precious metal or at least ten coins at least 300 years old. Such finds should be reported to the authorities.

The coins recovered in Operation Fantail. Photo: Durham Police

King Alfred inflicted a major defeat on the Vikings in 878, forcing the Danes to retreat north. Experts from the British Museum believe the coins belong to an undeclared hoard consistent with the location of the Viking army at that time.

Forty-four coins from this original find were later recovered from properties in County Durham and Lancashire during a police investigation in 2019. 

Two men from each area have recently been found guilty of conspiracy to convert criminal property and possession of criminal property between September 2018 and May 2019. 

In 2018, Best contacted a US-based professor, who had a passion for ancient coins, and tried to interest him in buying some of the hoard.

Unsure if they were real, the academic contacted a UK-based expert, which is when the police were informed. The pair are due for sentencing on May 4.

Detective Superintendent Lee Gosling, Senior Investigating Officer for Operation Fantail, at Durham Constabulary, said: "This is an extremely unusual case, as it's not very often we get the chance to shape British history."

"It is astonishing that the history books need rewriting because of this find. These coins come from a hoard of immense historical significance relating to the Vikings, and we are delighted that they are now with the British Museum."

"Hopefully, this verdict sends out a message that their actions… were denying the country crucial historical knowledge and that organized acquisitive crime will not be tolerated."

"As this case shows, even if criminals travel across police force boundaries, they are still very much within reach."

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