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?