Monthly Archives: September 2012

Mons Graupius

Yesterday afternoon I took a walk to my drummer’s house just off the Leith Links in Edinburgh. My purpose was to get a container for the bramble wine I am about to start brewing (its been a bumper crop this year), but I also came away with a few books. He is moving out soon & on hearing he was going to take a load of them to a charity shop, the poet in me reveled at the chance to gain a few additions to my own library. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was welcomed warmly, but I also gained a copy of Tacitus’s Agricola & Germania. Now, I knew that the Agricola was the only source on the Battle of Mons Graupius, & I also knew that no-one had been able to identify the battle-site. Yet, this same state of affairs had existed before, from Brunanburh to King Arthur’s grave, & I thought it wouldn’t hurt if I made a pot of tea & had a look at the battle. It occurred c.83AD, somewhere in the north of Scotland, & was said to be a great victory over the allied Caledonian tribes by the great Roman general Agricola. Within about an hour or so I’d worked out where it took place.

We have two main pieces of evidence for Agricola’s campaign in Scotland – the account by his son-in-law, Cornelius Tacitus, & the remains of a chain of a dozen ‘marching forts’ that the Romans erected as they pressed further north. David Breeze, in his ‘The logistics of Agricola’s final campaign,’ tells us; The known Roman marching camps north of the Forth point to all roman armies following roughly the same route, skirting the south eastern flanks of the highlands to pass around the mounth at stonehaven & continue north-westerly along the edge of the mountains. This same route, incidentally, was used in 1746 by the British army on their way to face another Caledonian army at Culloden.

Many of the camps are sited near the sea, so Agricola could maintain contact between his fleet & his soldiers, confirm’d by a passage in Tacitus;

In the summer in which he entered on the sixth year of his office, his operations embraced the states beyond the Forth, and, as he dreaded a general movement among the remoter tribes, as well as the perils which would beset an invading army, he explored the harbours with a fleet, which, at first employed by him as an integral part of his force, continued to accompany him. The spectacle of war thus pushed on at once by sea and land was imposing; while often infantry, cavalry, and marines, mingled in the same encampment and joyously sharing the same meals,

Knowing that Agricola withdrew to winter quarters after the battle, which was the high-water mark of the invasion, common sense tells us that the battle took place at a fort near the end of the chain. Indeed, it is upon the area around the penultimate fort at Balnagieth, just to the west of Forres, that all the topographical clues found in the account of Tacitus coalesce. These can help us paint a mental picture of the battlefield, which would have contained, in the following order;



Few in number, dismayed by their ignorance, looking around upon a sky, a sea, and forests which are all unfamiliar to them; hemmed in, as it were, and enmeshed, the Gods have delivered them into our hands (Calgacus speaking about the Romans)


And so you and I have passed beyond the limits reached by former armies or by former governors, and we now occupy the last confines of Britain, not merely in rumour and report, but with an actual encampment and armed force.

He arrayed his eager and impetuous troops in such a manner that the auxiliary infantry, 8,000 in number, strengthened his centre, while 3,000 cavalry were posted on his wings. The legions were drawn up in front of the intrenched camp;


The plain between resounded with the noise and with the rapid movements of chariots and cavalry. Agricola, fearing that from the enemy’s superiority of force he would be simultaneously attacked in front and on the flanks, widened his ranks


The enemy, to make a formidable display, had posted himself on high ground; his van was on the plain, while the rest of his army rose in tiers up the slope of a hill.

The effect of tiers indicates the hill quite steep. We can also infer from the text that Mons Graupius was not a smooth, single-peaked feature, & instead possessed several peaks, as in;

Those of the Britons who, having as yet taken no part in the engagement, occupied the hill-tops


When, however, the enemy saw that we again pursued them in firm and compact array, they fled no longer in masses as before, each looking for his comrade; but dispersing and avoiding one another, they sought the shelter of distant and pathless wilds

In addition to the above, we must note that the battlefield was close to several settlements & hills;

Meanwhile the Britons, wandering amidst the mingled wailings of men and women, were dragging off their wounded, calling to the unhurt, deserting their homes, and in their rage actually firing them

The silence of desolation reigned everywhere: the hills were forsaken, houses were smoking in the distance

Nelson's Tower on Cluny Hill


There is only one place in Scotland that combines the correct topographical features given above with an appropriate Roman fort, & that is Forres, twenty-five miles east of Inverness beside the Moray Firth. This means that the steep multi-peaked’ hill known as Cluny Hill was once named Mons Graupius. The Cluny Hills today house the eco-living lovers that are the Findhorn Foundation, & a impressive monument to Nelson, yet 2000 years ago it was home to a massed confederacy of Caledonian tribes, all ready to face the alien invaders. Interestingly, a nineteenth century O/S map shows that there was once a ‘British Camp’ on Cluny.

A British Camp on Cluny Hill
A British Camp on Cluny Hill

Forres lies close to the sea, & to its east there is a plain which leads to a Roman Marching Camp at Balnagieth, while to the south of Forres spreads a hilly wilderness. Tacitus tells us Agricola’s army were lightly equipped, indicating he was acting on information that the Caledonians had gathered en masse, & were preparing to give him the set-piece battle the Romans excelled at. It seems they had gathered at a Caledonian ‘power base‘ for just to the east of Forres lies the oldest Pictish hill-fort at Burghead – where a recent dig at Clarckly hill uncovered Iron Age circular stone houses & building foundations. Also found at the fort were carved slabs depicting bulls & a very ancient chambered well, while the fort itself is three times bigger than any other Pictish hillfort, suggesting its great importance.

Sueno’s Stone

We now come to the evidence for Forres that has really been staring the world in the face. The Pictish monument known as Sueno’s stone is the largest (6.5m), most impressive piece of Pictish stoneworking we know. It is dated to c.900 AD, while its name comes from an 11th century Dane. On one side there is a great cross, & on the other we have images from a great battle. Scholars have scratched their heads over which battle it was, but surely now the most magnificent piece of Pictish artwork can be associated with the greatest military moment of the Caledonians. One can imagine the King of the Picts commissioning the monument – which originally had another obelisk standing beside it (Timothy Pont’s Mapp of Murray c 1590) – to honour the great ancestors.

The stone is packed full of battle-scenes, all of which can be connected with passages in Tacitus.

Two cavalry forces
- Agricola… opposed their advance with four squadrons of cavalry held in reserve by him for any sudden emergencies of battle
Meantime the enemy’s cavalry had fled

Archers - The action began with distant fighting. The Britons with equal steadiness and skill used their huge swords and small shields to avoid or to parry the missiles of our soldiers, while they themselves poured on us a dense shower of darts

Corpses and decapitated headsThe open plain presented an awful and hideous spectacle… Everywhere there lay scattered arms, corpses, and mangled limbs

An infantry battle - Agricola encouraged three Batavian and two Tungrian cohorts to bring matters to the decision of close fighting with swords

Soldiers with small shields & large swords
- An enemy armed with small bucklers and unwieldy weapons

Other features on the stone also reflect the battle;

>A tent - This would have been the Roman camp

Three musicians blowing trumpets - Three Roman trumpet brooches were found at Culbin sands just to the north of Forres, which lie beside a perfect natural harbour for Agricola’s fleet

A broch – This would have been the Caledonian hillfort at Burghead, known as ‘The broch’ by locals

A kilted war-leader – This would be either Calgacus, or King Galdus given in the medieval account of the battle by Hector Boece


Archeologically, Agricola’s presence this far north is suggested by a number of Roman finds in coins in the area minted in the name of pre-83AD Roman emperors, such as a Vespasian at Garnout & a Nero at Fortrose. In the streets of Forres Forres, GDB Jones (2) records that in November 1797 several Roman coins and a Roman medallion were dug up, while a coin dating to Domitian (r.81-96AD) was found in the same streets in 1844. Most importantly, a coin dated to the narrow reign of Titus (79-81AD) was found at Forres near Sueno’s Stone. In addition, the temporary camp at Balnagieth has all the hall marks of Agricola’s hand, of whom, ‘It was noted by experienced officers that no general had ever shown more judgment in choosing suitable positions,‘ for n one side it is protected by the River Findhorn just a couple of miles upstream from a beautiful sea-harbour. The fort is 234 metres long, & at least 70 meters wide & surrounded by a 3 metre wide ditch, while , ‘it is possible that the camp was possessed of six-post corner-towers and that the front of the rampart was revetted in timber, which would suggest a more permanent encampment. (Britannia xxii (1991) p.226 & fig.4.)

The Boresti

Forres is looking more & more like it hosted the grand battle of Mons Graupius, & there is more evidence to come. Agricola is said to have; led his army into the territory of the Boresti. He received hostages from them, and then ordered the commander of the fleet to sail round Britain. The name ‘Boresti’ strongly suggests the Varar Aest placed by Ptolemy on the south shore of the Moray Firth in the very vicinity of Forres; ’From the Lemannonis Sin as far as the Varar Aest are the Caledoni, and above these is the Caledonian forest.’ In antiquity, B’s & V’s were often interchangeable – the 9th century Cyrillic script of the Slavs uses the letter b for the v sound for example – the earliest copies of tacitus we have are from he 10th opening it up to many corruptions. It must also be noted that the legion which fought at Mons Graupius was the Ninth, which was Spanish in origin – as is evident in later centuries Spanish dialetic pronunciation of the Latin language changed v’s to b’s. A perfect example of this change in action lies with the Etruscan town of Volsinii evolving ionto the Roman Bolsena.


The quest for Mons Graupius has been going on for centuries, but as with many things like this, no concensus has ever been reached. A spenner in the works was Ptolemy’s secod century naming of a fort in the Perthshire area as Victoria, or victory. This sent many scholars scampering to that part of Scotland & ignoring Tacitus when he said that the Romans were at the ‘furthest bounds’ of Scotland & that Agricola ordered his fleet to round the northern tip of Britain (with them being so close, I presume)

Several sites have been suggested for Camp Victoria, but the best candidate for is the Roman marching camp called Battledykes, near Fortrose. Jamieson, writing in 1786, states the fort possessed five gates, & was double ramparted, except for a portion of the western side which was a marsh. It is the mention of the marsh – & of course the ‘battle’ element in the name of the fort, that connects with this passage from Tacitus concerning a battle that took place the year before Mons Graupius.

This becoming known to the enemy, they suddenly changed their plan, and with their whole force attacked by night the ninth Legion, as being the weakest, and cutting down the sentries, who were asleep or panic-stricken, they broke into the camp. And now the battle was raging within the camp itself, when Agricola, who had learnt from his scouts the enemy’s line of march and had kept close on his track, ordered the most active soldiers of his cavalry and infantry to attack the rear of the assailants, while the entire army were shortly to raise a shout. Soon his standards glittered in the light of daybreak. A double peril thus alarmed the Britons, while the courage of the Romans revived; and feeling sure of safety, they now fought for glory. In their turn they rushed to the attack, and there was a furious conflict within the narrow passages of the gates till the enemy were routed. Both armies did their utmost, the one for the honour of having given aid, the other for that of not having needed support. Had not the flying enemy been sheltered by marshes and forests, this victory would have ended the war.


We can now see that Agricola pushed beyond the Forth & fought a battle near Fortrose. The next year he built a series of marching camps as far as Forres, where the Caledonians were waiting for him. History is written by the victor, & Tacitus tells us that, ‘About 10,000 of the enemy were slain; on our side there fell 360 men.‘ However, the scottish historian, hecto boece, tells a different story;

Our annals record that twelve thousand Romans died in that unhappy conflict, and about twenty thousand Scots, Picts, and auxiliaries. Among these was the Danish leader Gildo, who was surrounded by the enemy while fighting with great ferocity and ardor, together with a few chosen comrades.

What is true, is that after the battle of Mons Graupius the Romans hardly ever ventured this far north again & it is easy to see how the Caledonians would have slowly but surely looked upon Mons Graupius as the moment they dismissed tribal rivavlries, bonded as a fighting force & met the might of rome in open conflict. They may have lost many men, but their combined strength was enough to convinve the romans to build a wall across britain to keep them out of the empire, rather than attempt to subdue them. It is to celebrate this, then, that the Picts erected their fabulous memorial of the day the Romans came to town – Sueno’s Stone.


On my return from Greece last December I arrived in London & spent my first night in Britain for 2 months. The next morning I awoke to a news story that announced the discovery of a new Viking king called Airdeconut, a version of Harthacnut. The name turned up on a coin found in 2011 at Silverdale in Lancashire, & the so-called top numismatist in the country, Gareth Williams of the British Museum, declared the king as ‘not previously known.

However, numismatists are not proper historians, & with my mind full of Parnassus I set about finding the true identity of Harthacnut. An early insight propelled me to approach Mr Williams, who found my theory ‘completely unconvincing,‘ & added, ‘I do not have the time to spare on further correspondence on this subject.‘ Appreciating his entrenchment in a staid academic system I carried on with my investigations, for every new generation of an enlightened society has the means, will & wherewithal to push on from the restrictions of the past. I even approached The Press newspaper in York, who were happy to print my story. I believe there is enough evidence in the Gesta Danorum (GD) of Saxo Grammaticus, the anonymous Ragnarsson Pattr (RP) & Adam of Bremen’s ‘History of the Archbishops of Hamburg‘ to paint a fairly accurate picture of his life.

The Birth of Harthacnut (c.890)

In the 9th century, the sons of Ragnar Lodbruk, a Danish emperor, took Northumbria, slaying its King, Aella, in the process. On Ragnar’s death his empire was divided between his sons, of which parts Denmark was taken by a certain Sigurd. One by one the sons of Ragnar died, leaving Sigurd as the king of all Ragnar’s lands.

Thus SIWARD, by the sovereign vote of the whole Danish assembly, received the empire of his father. But after the defeats he had inflicted everywhere he was satisfied with the honour he received at home, and liked better to be famous with the gown than with the sword. He ceased to be a man of camps, and changed from the fiercest of despots into the most punctual guardian of peace. He found as much honour in ease and leisure as he had used to think lay in many victories. Fortune so favoured his change of pursuits, that no foe ever attacked him, nor he any foe.

As for his family, we learn of his marriage to a Northumbrian princess, & the son they sired, our very own Airdecnut.

Sigurd Snake-in-Eye married Blaeja, the daughter of King Ella. Their son was Knut, who was called Horda-Knut RP

Harthacnut inherits Denmark (891)

Sigurd died in the great battle of Leuven, september 891, when the Annals Fuldenses tell us that the bodies of dead Northmen blocked the run of the river, &;

This year went the army eastward; and King Arnulf fought with the land-force, ere the ships arrived, in conjunction with the eastern Franks, and Saxons, and Bavarians, and put them to flight.
(Anglo-Saxon Chronicle)

Sigurd Snake-in-Eye and Bjorn Ironside and Hvitserk had raided widely in France. Then Bjorn headed back home to his kingdom. After that, the Emperor Arnulf fought with the brothers, and a hundred thousand Danes and Norwegians fell there. There also fell Sigurd Snake-in-Eye, and Gudrod was the name of another king who fell there. RP

A certain Helgi Hvassi managed to escaped from the battle with Sigurd’s standard & presented it to Sigurd’s mother, Aslaug. The empire was now under threat, & only Sigurd’s young son, Harthacnut, remained of the bloodline. The RP tells us;

But because Horda-Knut was young, Helgi stayed with Aslaug for a long time as protector of the land.’

Harthacnut flees to Northumbria (c.900)

Around about the year 900, Denmark was conquered by a by a Swedish adventurer named Olof the Brash. According to Adam of Bremen he & his sons, Gyrd & Gnupa, invaded Denmark, & ‘took the realm by force.’ Swedish tradition tells us Olof’s sons ruled Denmark side-by-side, perhaps a power partition made by their father, who preffered to remain in Sweden after the conquest. Faced with such an onslaught I feel that Sigurd’s widow, Queen Blaeja, would have fled for safety with her young son. Northumbria was the obvious choice, for Blaeja was a member of its pre-Ragnar ruling house. In addition, the Viking dynasty there had been set up by Harthacanute’s uncle, Ivar, giving him a strong claim to the throne.

Harthacnut becomes king of Northumbria (c.911)

Harthacnut would have appealed to the mixed Anglian-Viking society of Northumbria, & he appears as CNUT REX on a number of Cuerdale coins minted at York, whose Christian symbolism mirrors that of the Airdeconut coin, suggesting they were indeed the same person. His accession to the throne probably came in 911, at about the age of twenty, when the ASC records the deaths of Northumbrian kings Eowils & Healfden.

Adam of Bremen

Harthacnut reclaims Denmark (917)

As he grew up this disenfranchised prince would have burnt with the desire to one day reconquer his father’s empire. Across time there has been many tales of young dispossesd princes growing up in exile, gathering an army & attempting to seize back the lost throne, from the triumph of Romulus & Remus, to the disaster of Bonnie Prince Charlie. In 917 it was in the hands of Sigtrygg, the son of Gnupa, whom Adam of Bremen tells us came to power at some point during the tenure of Hoger, the Archbishop of Bremen, 909-917.

Adam then asserts (on the testimony of Sweyn II) that prior to Archbishop Hoger’s death in 917, a certain Harthacnut came to Denmark & conquered it. The fact that he, ‘came to Denmark,’ suggests that he had been in Northumbria, & when Adam corrupts this name to ‘Northmannia,‘ a place he says had been colonized by the Vikings not long before, we get a perfect fit for Jorvik Northumberland. Adam goes on to tell us that Harthacnut immediately deposed the young king Sigtrygg, and then ruled unopposed for approximately thirty years. 


Saxo Grammaticus

The above sequence of events is confirmed by the Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus. On analysis of his text, I realised that the accounts of his kings often get shuffled about in chronology, & it is up to a discerning eye to recreate the correct order. Let us begin with;

…and the royal stock of the Danes, now worn out by the most terrible massacres, was reduced to the only son of the above Siward

The son is evidently Kanute, but at this point Saxo mistakenly interposes Erik Bloodaxe. However, it makes more sense to assume he had his names mixed up when we read;

While this child remained in infancy a guardian was required for the pupil and for the realm…

This is essentially the same account as the RP’s Helgi Hvassi. Saxo actually names him as Enni-gnup. As we have seen, it was true that a king called Gnupa ruled Denmark after Sigurd, but he belonged to the House of Olof. Saxo hints at the confusion when he describes Gnupa as ruling, ‘The affairs of the whole people. For which reason some who are little versed in our history give this man a central place in its annals.’ Saxo continues with, ‘But when Kanute had passed through the period of boyhood, and had in time grown to be a man, he left those who had done him the service of bringing him up, and turned from an almost hopeless youth to the practice of unhoped-for virtue.’

At this point in the text, Saxo mistakenly replaces the name Kanute with that of Frodo, but it evident that they were actually the same man. Adam of Bremen tells us Harthacanute carried a status as the High King of the Vikings. This moniker is similar to one used by Henry of Huntingdon uses during his account of the Battle of Brunanburh, where he mentions a certain Froda as being ‘chief of the Northmen.’

Saxo Grammaticus’s description of Frodo completely fits with Harthacanute; ‘This man’s fortune, increased by arms and warfare, rose to such a height of prosperity that he brought back to the ancient yoke the provinces which had once revolted from the Danes, and bound them in their old obedience.’

This tallies with Harthacanute’s defeat of Sigtrygg in 917.

Saxo continues; ‘

But he desired that his personal salvation should overflow and become general, and begged that Denmark should be instructed in divinity by Agapete, who was then Pope of Rome. But he was cut off before his prayers attained this wish. His death befell before the arrival of the messengers from Rome:. 

That Frodo’s death came during the papacy of Agapetus II (946-955) ties in with Harthacanute’s 30 year reign ending, according to Adam of Bremen, in 947.

King Gorm

In addition, where the RP tells us that Harthacanute’s, ‘…son was Gorm,‘ & Adam of Bremen mentions ‘Hardecnudths son,Vurm,‘ the GD say, ‘Frodo’s son ‘GORM, who had the surname of “The Englishman,” because he was born in England, gained the sovereignty in the island on his father’s death.‘ With Frodo being another name for Harthacanute, we have further proof that Harthacanute was present in Northumbria, & indeed had ‘sovereignity in the island,’ enough to have coins struck in his name. These coins, then, were most probably struck between 911 & 917, offer further proof that the Cuerdale hoard has been incorrectly dated, as I claimed in a recent post.

Orsnaford – Burnley’s Viking Burh

In Dark Age Britain money talked. A sophisticated trading sytem stretched from England via Europe to China along the old Silk Road, while to the north the Vikings traded from the Caspian Sea to Ireland. This vast panapoly of goods, along with everyday products, were bound together by silver coins, stamped with the names of kings & the moneyers who issued them. Towards the end of the 9th century, the dominant economic force in Britain was Alfred’s Wessex, whose coins influenced the designs of the Vikings, forming a universal coinage from the Firth of Forth to the Channel. Some of these Viking imitation coins were issued at a place called Orsnaford, by a moneyer named Bernvald. Baring the name of King Alfred the Great, they give us a rough date of 880-900 for their issue.

The River Brun

In an earlier post (Brunanburh) I speculated that Orsnaford was once a Viking settlement at a place called Heasanford in Burnley, renamed as ‘Brunanburh’ by King Athelstan. Following certain investigations through Scandinavian sagas I have come to the conclusion that Heasanford was named after the Asen, another name for the family of Nordic gods known as the Aesir. To confirm the association, we must turn to Osnabrück, a city in Lower Saxony, whose ‘brück’ element means bridge. Through the city runs the Hase river, named after the Aesir, & as Orsna became Heasan, so the river Osna became the River Hase. The name probably originated during the reign of the Viking king, Rorik of Dorestad (d.882), who ruled over Lower Saxony. The slight difference between Orsna & Osna is probably down to some ancient Teutonic dialect dispersion.

In Norse mythology there was another family of gods known as the Vanir, or VAN. Suddenly we have the elements for VINheath & WENdune, alternate names for the site of the battle of Brunanburh. It must be noted that name Wendune remains in sWINDEN Water, to the south of the suggested battlefield (where Walton Spire stands today) & the Vin element in the village of WINEwall, to the north. This reinforces the Vanir supposition, for the name Vanir was anglicized to Wane. The battlefield was probably named after the action, for the Vanir were involved in a great war with the Aesir, & would have been a very poetic naming made by a local Viking who had just witnessed Britain’s greatest battle on his home turf! It is also possible that Hell Clough was given that name after the battle, for the goddess Hel ruled over the realms of the dead & funerary urns containing human burns were found by the river.

It was during the 9th century that the Vikings began to settle in ever increasing numbers throughout England, predominantly in the eastern parts. Their principle city was York, capital of the kingdom of Jorvik, which formed a central role in a line of communications that ran between Scandinavia, via the Humber, to Viking Ireland, via the Ribble. Slap-bang on this very line lies the town of Burnley, at a three-way junction of ancient trade-ways. A days march from the Ribble estuary where the Viking ships would have moored, after a night’s accomodation & refreshment, Heasanford offers the Viking merchant two land routes to York; one due east along the Longcauseway & the other north-east to the old Roman Road via Skipton.

The area was also the meeting place between the two different blocks of Scandinavian settlement in northern England. William Bennet tells us; ‘At some point during the invasion, Norsemen who had landed on the coasts of Lancashire & Cumberland, & the Danes who had invaded Yorkshire, eventually joined hands across the north of England… Norse penetration into this district came from the Lune valley & via the Wenning into the Ribble Valley, from which the invaders passed into the Whalley area. At the same time Danes pressed from the Craven district towards Colne; the names Skipton, Earby, Barnoldswick, Icornshaw (nr Cowling) represent settlements to the north-east of Burnley.

Very few physical remains have been found for the Scandinavian occupation of Britain, & we must rely on Sacndinavian words to identify their places of settlement.TT Wilkinson wrote that in Burnley, ‘almost every local name that is not saxon is either Danish or Norwegian in origin.’ Examples given by SW Partington include;

Thursden Water – named after the God Thor
Hell Clough – named after the Goddess Hel
Finsley – finn’s Hill
Raven-Holme - land liable to be flooded
Ayneslack – enclosure in the valley
Carr – wet ground overgrown with bushes
Booth – farmhouse
Gawthorpe – hamlet of Gaukr

Harle Syke from the battlefield

In addition, the area seems to have been of high-status – important enough to mint coins – for above Heasanford, the area known as Harle’s Syke means the ‘Defensive ditch of the Jarl (earl).’ There is also a ‘Daneshouse,’ which could have been the site of the Earls chief residence. In the area around Burnley we also find many other Viking place names, proving the Vikings settled therein some numbers, such as Buckflatt (Whalley), Hycornehurst (Accrington), Kyrkebank (Haslingden) & Woluetscoles (Clitheroe). Even today, the Old Norse ‘skrika,’ meaning scream, remains in the local dialect as ‘skriking,’ or loud & heavy weeping.

Thus far we have can confirm both the presence of a Viking mint in the area & that the Battle of Brunanburh took place on the moors above the burh. This brings us neatly back to the Orsnaford coins, which we must look at in more detail. Modern scholars presume Orsnaford is Oxford, a mis-guided supposition based on the text of a couple of the coins being blundered to Ohnsaford, & then the oh- element perhaps once sounding as ‘ox’ (see ‘The Inscription on the Oxford pennies of the Ohsnaforda type by Alfred Anscombe – 1908). However, not one of the Anglo-Saxon coins known to have been minted at Oxford coins mention the ‘-ford’ suffix, as in Cnut’s Oxsen or Athelstan’s, ‘Ox Urbis.’

Adding to my supposition that Orsnaford led to Heasanford, James Parker suggests; ‘Horsaford, however, would have been a good name of a place. There is one spelt in Domesday Horseford, now Horseforth, five miles north-west of Leeds in Yorkshire ; and, in the same county, Hoseford, the name of which does not seem to have survived. In Norfolk also there is a Hosforda, now Horsford, four miles north of Norwich. The omission of the H on the inscription would surely be more reasonable than the insertion of an R where it did not exist ; and so those who argue on the theory that the word represents the name of a place ought to choose one of those here named rather than Oxford.’

The coins have been found at only three deposit sites, with almost all of them at Cuerdale, between Preston & Blackburn on the River Ribble. The first was found among the Harkirke hoard, discovered in 1611 near Crosby to the north of Liverpool, while another was discovered in the river Ouse near York in the 18th century. These three sites are all found in a narrow band that stretches across northern England & strongly suggests they were minted in the north. With York being on the eastern side of the band, near the Humber & subsequently Scandinavia, it makes sense there was another mint in the west, & the site of Burnley fits the bill accordingly, being only a few miles from the Ribble estuary, & thus Dublin.

We must now look at the name of the man who minted these famous silver pennies, Bernvald. In my ‘Brunanburh‘ blog I suggested that Orsnaford had been renamed in his honour during the reign of Athelstan. The king spoke West Saxon, a different Teutonic dialect to that of the Northumbrians in East Anglia & the Jutes of Kent. On coming to power he standardised the English tongue, & it is during this period that the northern, Danish-influenced ‘Bern’ element became Brun, confirmed by Layamon‘s, ‘
& the names of the towns in saxish speech…
& in saxish he gan speak the names of the men.‘ The antique metathesis between these two names occured several times in the early middle-ages. In the early 12th century, the Anglo-Norman chronicler Geoffrey Gaimar gave the names Bruneswerce & Burneweste for the battle of Brunanburh itself. Other examples include Saint Brynstan/Burnstan & Roger de Burne/Brun.

According to the History of the Counter of Lancaster (1911), in antiquity the town was ‘more commonly’ known as Brum-ley. This connects with Ranulf Higden’s naming of the battle site as Brumford (Bruneford – William of Malmesbury), which seems to have derived from Orsnaford/Heasanford, reaffirming my conviction that a major Viking settlement stood on the banks of the Brun near Heasanford.


Bennet – History of Burnley – Volume 1 (1941)

Gaimar – L’Estorie des Engles – edited and translated by TD Hardy & CT Martin, C.T. (1888-89)

Layamon – Brut – Edited by Frederic Madden - Society of Antiquaries of London (1847)

Parker – The Early History of Oxford (1885)

Partington – The Danes in Lancashire & Yorkshire (1909)

Wilkinson – Transactions of the Historical Society of Lancashire & Cheshire - vol 9 (1856-57)

Redating the Cuerdale Hoard


Scholars have dated the depositing of the fabulous wealth of Viking treasure known as the Cuerdale Hoard to c.905. The purpose of this blog is to question this assumption by moving the date of the deposition to a very possible later year. The horde is the most significant find of Viking silver ever to have been unearthed in the British Isles. It was discovered in May, 1840, by workmen digging in the banks of the River Ribble, & it is these same workmen who shed the initial doubt on the academic dating of the hoard. The hoard itself is made up a thousand pieces of silver bullion, & parcels of coins minted from as far away as the Hindu Kush, & had been assembled piecemeal. A thousand or so coins were minted during the reign of Alfred the Great (d.899), while a number of the other coins, such as the Carolingian & Kufic pieces, have a terminus ante quem of between 895 & 910 AD. In light of this, the hoard has been tentatively dated at 905.AD.

The thing is, we can never know the true dating of the Curedale hoard for the simple fact that not long after the discovery, about fifteen percent of the coins were syphoned away by anonymous private collectors or melted down by the workmen who found the hoard in the 19th century. One workman was found with 26 secreted in his boots & was allowed to keep them! Elsewhere, even the 149 coins selected for Queen Victoria largely vanished without trace.

There was no unifying mind behind such a random & disparate collection, & the normal rules of dating such hoards may not be applied with confidence. It has been over a millennium since the deposition, & Viking banking habits are unknown to posterity. The owner of the treasure was evidently a rich man, & also a collector as attested by a coin at Curedale dated to the seventh century. He could well have hung onto certain parcels of coins for years. In light of this, I shall now present a number reasons why the traditional dating of the Cuerdale horde is incorrect;
Of the 8,000-10,000 coins reported early on, only 6700 coins were ever officially recorded. This means fifteen percent of the find went missing, & if a single coin in that 15 percent was minted after 905, the whole assumption would be wrong

Of the 1000 or so Anglo-Saxon coins in the hoard, most were minted during the reign of Alfred the Great (d.899), but over a hundred belong to the flourits of his successor, Edward, & Archbishop Plegmund. With Edward dying in 924 & Plegmund dying in 923, the coins in their name could well have been minted after 920. Indeed, modern scholarship (Graham-Campbell) has stated that, ‘there is no way of putting a precise date on the latest west saxon coins in Cuerdale.’

Plegmund coins

1,800 coins belong to the type known as the St Edmund memorial issue. These are all undated, however, CE Blunt suggests a later date than Cuerdale; ‘The late coins on small flans with increasingly & illiterate & curtaile legends, some of which are present at Cuerdale, continued to be issued for a short-time into the post-Cuerdale period.’

The likeliest date for the minting of the coins is c.925, when King Athelstan founded the abbey of Bury St Edmunds around the shrine of St Edmund, as suggested by WA Abram; “The type consists of the letter A on the obverse, with the name of the sainted king as legend ; on the reverse is a small cross, with the name of the moneyer. It has generally been supposed that the coins of St. Eadmund were struck at the mint of the abbots of St. Edmundsbury, the earliest notice of which is a grant made to them by Edward the Confessor, in 1066. The name of the place does not occur upon the coins, but has been supposed to be intimated by the name of the mint.‘ Here, the ‘A’ on the coins should represent Athelstan, & it is his founding of the burh (Bury) of St Edmunds that created the mint which struck the coins.

Of the Carolingian coins, some are minted in the name of King Charles (the Simple), who ruled France from 898 to 922. Hawkins adds that the latest possible date of the French coins is 928.

King Charles the Simple

An arm ring found at Cuerdale is identical to ones found at Lough Ree in Ireland, & Deptford in England, with both hoards being dated to the 930s.

There were many coins found at Cuerdale minted with the name Cunnetti. Michael Dolley tells us; A further specimen has come from the Morley St Peter hoard of 1958 which is of good Cuerdale style… The latest coin in this hoard carries the name & portrait of an Athelstan.’ This links the Cunnetti coins with Athelstan, who died in 939.

Hawkins refers to finds at Vaalse Island, dated to the late tenth century, which resemble objects found at Cuerdale

Four of the Cuerdale coins were minted in Scandinavia, one of these is suspected to be of a later date. Archibald shows his surprise at being found so early (c.905); ‘The final Scandinavian coin in the hoard is another Danish issue, of Malmers KG7, which imitates a Carolingian type. According to Malmer, KG7 commenced c.900, making the Cuerdale example the earliest dated deposit of the type, with its occurence in graves & hoards continuing into the third quater of the tenth century.’

An examination of the coin shows that it had not been freshly issued. With almost all of these coins being minted later in the ninth century, a pre-905 minting of the coin seems difficult to accept.

Coins from the Calliphate

Nicholas Lowick identifies Coin 17 of the Kufic coins as being minted at Urmiyah al-salam, with the Salam element meaning’ peace.’ He states, ‘The earliest recorded coins of Urmiyah were recorded in 902 & 903, too late to have served as models for this imitation,‘ adding, ‘the coins must have travelled from the caliphate to Lancashire in no more than 8 years, a fairly short interval bearing in mind that they probably did not come directly but passed through various hands en route. Richard Vasmer, in his important analyses of north european hoards containing islamic coins, lists only two that exhibit a shorter interval between their latest kufi coin & their presumed date of burial.”

According to Herbert Grueber, The St Edmund coinage is ‘very similar in character‘ to what is known as the St Peter Coin, which was ‘assigned to a period extending from about 920-940.‘ Grueber also tells us that ‘several types of the Regnald’s coins are met with on the St Peter money.‘ Regnald ruled & minted at York in the early 920’s, which indirectly suggests the St Edmund coinage was minted at about the same time. In addition, Grueber also tells us these coins struck at Lincoln, in the name of St Martin, ‘in type & fabric somewhat approaches the St Peter money struck at York.’ The terminus ante quem of the St Martin coins is 943, when Eadmund took Lincoln from the Danes, which matches the dates of the St Peter Coin.

Two of the coins found at Cuerdale have the words SIHTRIC COMES inscribed on them. They have all the hallmarks of the Viking imitation coins, & with ‘Comes’ meaning earl, we are looking for an Earl Sihtric. This could well be Sihtric Ceach of the House of Ivar, who ruled Northumbria between the years 921 & 927. His status as an earl is confirmed by a passage in the Icelandic Egil’s Saga, which says, ‘Alfred the Great had deprived all tributary kings of name and power. they were now called earls, who had before been kings or princes. This was maintained throughout his lifetime and his son Edward’s.’ The coins were struck by a moneyer named Gundibert, who also minted some of the St Edmund coins discovered at Curedale, confirming the date given them in section 3 above.


I believe there is now enough evidence to doubt the 905 dating of the Cuerdale hoard & move it forward by at least two decades. As stated in the introduction, it is impossible to say how the Cuerdale collection was put together. The regal instinct is to hoard ones riches & it is possible that parts of it were collected during the raids by Analf in Ireland during the raids of the 930s as recorded by the Irish chronicle, ‘The Annals of the Four Masters;

934AD Amhlaibh Ceannchairech, with the foreigners, came from Loch Eirne across Breifne to Loch Ribh. On the night of Great Christmas they reached the Sinainn, and they remained seven months there; and Magh-Aei was spoiled and plundered by them.

Was the Cuerdale hoard deposited by by Analf during his flight from Brunanburh? In the next blog I shall show you how this took place at Burnley, from where he fled to Dublin. Directly inbetween lies the mouth of the River Ribble. His main fleet, according to Florence of Worcester, was at the Humber estuary. Did Analf, in the mad rush for safety, bury his treasure while searching for a boat. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle tells us that he escaped with only a few followers, which strongly supports the notion. One can imagine Analf burying the hoard at night & returning at some point in the future unable to find the spot where he left his wealth. This in turn led to the antique local tradition recorded by WJ Andrew that, ‘If one stood upon the hill at Walton-le-Dale on the south bank opposite Preston, & looked up river towards Ribchester, ones gaze would pass over the greatest treasure in Christendom..’


Abram - A history of the Parish of Blackburn, county of Lancaster (1877)

Andrew – British Numismatic Journal vol.1 (1904)

Archibald – A Scandinavian coin of Carolingian type from the
Cuerdale hoard’ – Hikuin II 79-82 (1985)

Blunt – The St Edmund Memorial coinage – Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of. Archaeology, xxxi (1969)

Dolley - Anglo-Saxon Coins (1961)

Graham-Campbell – Viking treasure from the North West – The Cuerdale horde in its context (1992 – ed. james graham-campbell)

Grueber – Handbook of the Coins of Great Britain and Ireland in the British Museum (1899)

Hawkins – Account of coins & treasure found at Cuerdale - Archeological Journal (1847)

Lowick – Kufic coins from Cuerdale – British Numistatic Journal ( 1976)