Select Page

King Alfred and King Ceolwulf II

Coin of King Alfred and King Ceolwulf II

Until recently, our view of Ceolwulf, King of Mercia, has been heavily influenced by the references in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which described him as an ‘unwise thegn’ who was put in place by the Viking great army and who promised to hold the kingdom for them until they required it:

Her for se here of Lindesse to Hreope dune, ⁊ þær winter setl nam, ⁊ þone cining Burgred ofer sæ adrefdon ymb .xxii. wintra þæs he rice hæfde … ⁊ þy ilcan geare hie sealdon Ceolwulfe anum unwisum cyniges þegne Myrcena rice to healdenne, ⁊ he him aðas swor ⁊ gislas sealde, þet hit him georo wære swa hwilce dæge swa hi hit habban woldon, ⁊ he geare wære mid him sylfum, ⁊ mid eallum þam þe him ge læstan wolden to þæs heres þærfe.

In this year the army travelled from Lindsey to Repton, and there took up their winter quarters, drove the king, Burhred, over sea, when he had reigned about two and twenty winters, and subdued all that land … And the same year they gave Ceolwulf, an unwise king’s thane, the Mercian kingdom to hold; and he swore oaths to them, and gave hostages, that it should be ready for them on whatever day they would have it; and he would be ready with himself, and with all those that would remain with him, at the service of the army.

Anno 874 (actually 873), Laud Ms

The Chronicle also describes Ceolwulf being given lands in Mercia when the Viking army returned in 877:

… ⁊ þa on herfeste ge for se here on Myrcena land, ⁊ hit gedældon sum, and sum Ceolwulfe sealdon.

In the harvest the army entered Mercia; some of which they divided among them, and some they gave to Ceolwulf.

Anno 877, Laud Ms

As the Chronicle was compiled by order of King Alfred the Great, who was brother-in-law to the deposed King Burgred, it was always seen as a politically biased account, but the discovery of a Viking hoard in South Oxfordshire in October 2015 has revealed just how biased that account is.
The hoard, which was discovered by a metal detector user, consists of 186 silver coins, 1 item of gold jewellery, 6 items of silver jewellery and 15 silver ingots, and was probably deposited in the late 870’s.

Most of the coins show two emperor-like figures, representing Alfred and Ceolwulf.
Hitherto, only one example of this type of coin was known, and many numismatists thought that it might be from a “one-off” mint.

The examples from the hoard, however, are produced in both Ceolwulf and Alfred’s names and from a number of different mints.

The fact that these coins are now known to have been produced extensively in both kingdoms indicates that Ceolwulf had a powerful alliance with Alfred, a very different situation from the one portrayed in the Chronicle.

Gareth Williams, of the British Museum, said that Ceolwulf had been “airbrushed out of history” by the increasingly powerful Alfred “because he’s no longer convenient”.

Part of the Watlington Hoard
(click on the image to enlarge)