September 2009


What a hoard! I was mesmerised by the beauty of the gold and silver artefacts when they were shown on the TV news this week. Easy to believe this hoard is the most important collection of Anglo-Saxon objects ever found in England.

Gold eagle's head

Gold eagle's head from zoomorphic mount, courtesy of the Staffordshire hoard website

 It consists of over 1,500 trophies of war – sword-hilt fittings, decorated helmets, pommel caps and the like, most gold but some silver. The swords themselves have been removed and, possibly, re-used. Many items are decorated with precious stones like dashing red garnets, and the quality of the craftsmanship is exquisite, indicating possible royal ownership.

 It seems unimaginable these items can have been buried in the ground for 1,400 years. Now much of the dirt has been cleaned off, the gold, silver and garnets gleam and impress almost as they must have when new. What breathtaking design and workmanship!

 The field in Staffordshire where these war trophies were found lay in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. In the early 8th century, which seems to be when these artefacts were made, Mercia was a growing kingdom lying at the westernmost limit of Anglo-Saxon influence in the English Midlands. It bordered Wales, which was held by the Britons.Indeed, the name Mercia derives from the Anglo-Saxon word mierce, meaning frontier or march. Mercia’s influence would soon reach the whole of middle England from the Welsh border to the River Humber in the north and the River Thames in the south.

Logo from Offa coin (OFFA REX) as displayed on Offa's Dyke Path Centre at Prestatyn, Wales

Logo from Offa coin (OFFA REX) as displayed on Offa's Dyke Path Centre at Prestatyn, Wales

 This may all seem a long way from North Hertfordshire, where I live, but my area was part of Mercia under King Offa in the mid-8th century. So this hoard must have belonged to one of three previous Kings in Mercia during the late 7th and early 8th centuries: Penda, Wulfhere or Aethelred.

 Offa came to the kingship of Mercia after the death of King Aethelbald (who was a disreputable and somewhat depraved chap in his old age, by all accounts, so we won’t go into his doings here). Offa rose to become Bretwalda, the most senior king in England, so he certainly built on the successes of his predecessors. These trophies represent steps along the way to his kingship and status.

 There is a credible but as yet unproven story that Offa founded a Benedictine monastery at Hitchin, my neighbouring town, in the late 8th century, near what is believed to be his Royal Manor at nearby Offley. Legend has it he died at this manor. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us merely that he was buried by the river in Bedford in August 796, so he certainly spent time in this area in his old age. 

 Recent excavations and radar surveys in Hitchin’s town and St Mary’s Church revealed there was continuity of Christianity from pre-Saxon times through the Dark Ages. The archaeologists say this strongly suggests there was an early Christian church in Hitchin and gives credence to the story of the monastery. There may well be a Norman, even a Saxon, building under the present church, and Offa’s association with Hitchin looks ever more likely. St Mary’s may indeed stand on the site of Offa’s religious house.

 So the foundations of this important site were laid as the result of Offa’s success, and that success rested on the results of battles fought by previous Mercian kings against neighbouring kingdoms. This treasure from a field in Staffordshire may represent an important step in the train of events that led from Mercia to the founding of Hitchin’s Benedictine monastery and, indeed, the importance of the Hitchin itself.

 Funny old world, isn’t it?

1911Census.co.uk, which at present is the only source for viewing the 1911 census, is making the census available on a subscription basis on its sister website, http://www.findmypast.com from 21st October 2009. The final records were completed in June 2009 and from October we will be able to search the records “at your leisure”, as they put it, at findmypast.

Findmypast will offer a free search facility, but to view original pages you’ll need to take out a subscription. Whether having to spend a great deal of money in order to see public records which used to be free can be described as “leisure” is debatable: it pushes my blood pressure right up even thinking about it. That’s not what usually happens when I’m “at my leisure”.

Anyway, if you’re already a subscriber to www.1911Census.co.uk your sign-in details will work at findmypast and you can spend any unused 1911Census credits on findmypast too. 1911Census will still work on a pay-as-you-go basis.  Details of the various subscription packages and prices are at Findmypast.com.  Keep calm, and don’t blame me for your soaring blood pressure: I’m just the messenger.

Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies (HALS) have released a vast online resource of documents from their manorial records at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/mdr.

This Hertfordshire Manorial Records Database is not original images or transcriptions, but an index of documents for more than 2000 Hertfordshire manors whose records are held by HALS and other repositories throughout the country. The database now forms part of the main index to the national manorial records of England and Wales maintained by The National Archives at Kew, which provides brief descriptions of surviving documents for various counties in England and Wales, along with details of their locations.

See my Sources for Research page (on the right) for a description of Manor Court Rolls and what you can expect to find in them. They’re fascinating but tricky little (and not so little) things – but bite the bullet and give them a go. You don’t need to know Latin to read the later ones and they have such detailed content, you sometimes almost feel you are in the court (the local inn, most likely) with them, with all the accents, smells, glasses of ale, spectacles perched on noses and farm workers in their smartest clothes . Good luck!

New records on ancestry.co.uk this month include British Army prisoners of war. The Institute of Heraldic and Genealogical Studies (IHGS) reports that these include those held in Austria and Poland as well as Germany in World War II.

Drum and Colours of the Wiltshire Regiment c.1905

Drums and Colours of the Wiltshire Regiment c.1900

Ancestry has also released the UK Army Roll of Honour for 1939 to 1945, but if you’re not signed up to Ancestry you can see this free at http://www.roll-of-honour.com/. This site is dedicated to the men and women who fell fighting for their country in wars from the Napoleonic period right through to Iraq and Afghanistan. It contains the names inscribed on many UK war memorials and in cemeteries as well as some overseas. Not all UK memorials are on there yet as it’s a work in progress by volunteers, but there seems to be something from most counties. So if you’re looking for details about someone who died in battle it’s well worth a look.

In a slightly different vein, Ancestry has also released a database of criminal registers 1891 – 1892 for England and Wales. This is a list of individuals charged with crime and gives information about the individual, the trial and, if convicted, the sentence. It’s compiled from Home Office Criminal Registers and Ministry of Security records held at The National Archives.

Good news for everyone with early ancestors in Essex. In September Essex Archives put its pre-1700 parish registers online at http://seax.essexcc.gov.uk/. This searchable database contains about 80,000 images of original parish register pages. It also contains their catalogue of parish registers so that you can see at a glance which parish registers they hold and in what format. Note though that parish registers for the London Borough of Waltham Forest (formerly in Essex) are deposited at the Vestry House Museum in Walthamstow, not at Essex Archives.

If telling a family history story on television appeals to you, Icon Films, a UK documentary production company, are looking for “fascinating 1911 census stories” which they can use for the BBC’s One Show in the lead-up to the 2011 census, according to Findmypast (www.1911census.co.uk).

Suggestions for stories include the discovery that you live in a house once occupied by your direct ancestor; or that there are “amazing coincidences” between your family and the family who lived in your house in 1911; or even that something about the occupants of your house 100 years ago has moved or inspired you.

Lots of scope there for anyone interested in describing their discoveries on camera!

If you have a suitably moving story to tell, email marketing@1911census.co.uk.