A cautionary tale

Obverse of a gold laurel of James I of England and VI of Scotland, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, BR0025

Obverse of a gold laurel of James I of England and VI of Scotland, Birmingham, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, BR0025; coins like these were the ‘Jacobuses’ referred to in the post below

This week, here is an excellent story to frighten young archaeologists and numismatists in their methodological cradles! I encountered this while reading up for an article that still hasn’t come out about changes in the coinages of the post-Roman world; I’m assured it’s now in final stages… But that doesn’t matter for these purposes. I will not, therefore, paraphrase what John Kent, no less, wrote better:1

One of the few comprehensive accounts of the collection, concealment and recovery of a hoard is related in Pepys’ Diary. At the Restoration of 1660, Samuel Pepys declared himself to be earning £50 a year, and to have £40 cash in hand. By the end of 1666, his average annual income exceeded £3,000, and he ‘was worth in money, all good’, above £6,200, beside two-and-a-half dozen silver vessels. Like many of his thrifty contemporaries, he kept his surplus cash under lock and key in his own house; the unfortunate Mr. Tryan, of Lime Street, who kept the key of his cash-chest in his desk, was robbed of £1,050 in money and £4,000 in jewels held as securities for loans. In June 1667, deeply worried by the penetration of the Dutch fleet into the Thames estuary, Pepys resolved to conceal his money. He was at first undecided whether to conceal it elsewhere in London to to despatch it to the family estate in Brampton, Northamptonshire. The latter counsel prevailed and his father and wife took coach, with a bag containing some £1,300. Finding himself unable to convert his silver in hand for gold – he had been forestalled by others – Pepys sent on another 1,000 gold pieces by special messenger, and carried on his own person another £300 worth, together with ‘directions where to find £500 and more in gold and silver’.
“Recovery of the treasure in October of the same year proved a gruelling experience. His wife gave him ‘so bad an account of her and my father’s method in the burying of our gold, that made me mad; and she herself is not pleased with it, she believing that my sister knows of it. My father and she did it on Sunday, when they were gone to church, in open daylight, and in the midst of the garden, where for aught they knew, many eyes might see them; which put me into trouble, and I presently cast about, how to have it back again to secure it here, the times being a little better now’. Recovery began at night, with a dark lantern, but ‘they could not justly tell where it was’, and Pepys began to fear the worst; but ‘by poking with a spit’, it was at length located, ‘not half a foot under ground’. Frantic digging merely succeeded in scattering the coins in the grass and loose earth. Finally, coins, dirt and all, were raised and washed. To Pepys’ chagrin, he found himself about one hundred pieces short, and fearing that the neighbours might have observed him, and come searching on their own account, he and his servant sieved through the earth until they had recovered a further seventy-nine. Pepys considered it quite acceptable that his special messenger should have lost some twenty to thirty pieces en route, and regarded himself as well content with the matter when all was finally safe back in London, ‘under a bed in our chamber’.
“This true story prompts several reflections. Pepys’ wealth, though certainly a ‘savings hoard’, was assembled over a very short period. It certainly included some old coins – he gave three ‘Jacobuses’ (gold pieces of James I) to his father-in-law and its random origin and rapid assemblage suggests that it would have been indistinguishable from a ‘currency hoard’ assembled ad hoc in 1667. Indeed, since his surplus increased in 1666 by only £1,800, as against £3,000 in 1665, we might suspect that the dates 1666 and 1667 were relatively slightly represented, i.e. that the hoard ended ‘weakly’. The really extensive coinages of guineas lay, in any case, in the future, and we may postulate that Pepys’ fortune consisted predominantly of the old ‘broad pieces’. Great quantities of these were certainly still available; a poulterer of Gracechurch Street died in November 1662 leaving an unsuspected hoard of 40,000 ‘Jacobs’. We may conclude that the recovery of a hoard was not necessarily an easy matter, and that there was a significant risk that it would not be recovered intact. The discovery in modern times of a scatter of twenty or thirty broad pieces at Brampton, or between Brampton and London, would give a totally false impression alike of date, of the circumstances of concealment and of the size of the original treasure.”

I think Kent actually relied on the intelligence of his audience a bit too much here in pushing the full implications of this story. It might be worth just setting out what a likely, nay, reasonable, interpretation of a find of say, twenty-five gold pieces of James I and Charles I in a Northamptonshire garden would be: firstly, that it was a small hoard by someone of moderate means (since it was not larger); secondly, that the owner lived thereabouts, since otherwise why would it be there and how would they recover it? and thirdly, that it was probably deposited because of trouble in the English Civil War, since nothing later than that appeared in it and one would hardly expect the Anglo-Dutch Wars to be troubling people in Northamptonshire, landlocked on the far side of the country from the North Sea. And all of these reasonable deductions would be wrong. On this occasion, there is no actual hoard to interpret and we know what happened. But what of even quite recent cases where it’s the other way about, eh, what about them?

1. John P. C. Kent, “Interpreting Coin-Finds” in John Casey & Richard Reece (edd.), Coins and the Archaeologist, 2nd edn. (London 1988), pp. 201-217 at pp. 205-206. Links in the text go to the online version of Pepys’s Diary.

7 responses to “A cautionary tale

  1. James VI and I if you please. He was King of Scots first.

    I’ve always been tempted to get my autumn digging done free of charge by claiming to have a found a Roman gold coin (we live on a Roman road) and announcing that in the name of Social Justice our back garden is freely available for anyone to dig. A week should be long enough.

    Friends of ours have an enormously larger back garden and they live in an old Pepys house. Therefore …

    • Well, if it’s the Brampton one then they should think about it. except that it seems certain that someone must have thought about it already… But yes, sorry: my apologies to the author of the Counterblaste to Tobacco for misprioritising his titles. Though it must be said, the reverse of that coin bears a Latin legend that translates as, “I shall make them into one people.” Your correction itself suggests that he did not succeed…

  2. This is a wonderful bit of text, for all the reasons you mention here. When feeling expansive, I sometimes try to imagine stories like this behind the weirder early medieval hoards. The Forum hoard from Rome is fun in this respect: it has a set of inscribed fasteners that clearly identifies it as a gift for the papacy, but the normal assumption is that a gift of this kind would be dispersed and spent. So what happened? Did it ever make it to the pope at all? Was it stolen immediately before or after the handover? Was some papal treasure put to one side for a rainy day (of which there were many in tenth-century Rome)? So many questions, and a real (if unknowable) answer that may well be even stranger than we guess.

    • Hullo, Rory! That very apposite remark and example had me going back to look at the one post I’ve given the Forum Hoard here, a report on a seminar paper by your good self, and I had managed to forget that it was originally recovered in a pot. That, it seems to me, actually rules out the suggestion I made then, that the bag was stolen from Bishop Theodred (or whomever), rapidly stashed in the first good hiding place and never come back for. The hoarder at least had time to find a durable container, and that they used one at all suggests that they meant the hoard to stay hidden for a while. I wonder, therefore, what happened to gifts like this. Would they have been handed out to papal subordinates (or the suburbican clergy) in lumps, like this, and then perhaps secreted as savings hoards by the recipients? Because on re-inspection that’s now the story I find the Forum Hoard most easily tells me. However, I’m a long way from having your grasp on the details of it…

  3. I wouldn’t completely rule out the possibility of theft and swift (if not hurried) concealment. But yes, I agree that the most likely explanation is that it was given to the pope, then handed more or less untouched to a recipient (representing one of the nearby churches?) and buried. If right, this would imply a rapid cycle of gifts arriving and moving on again, maybe also that the popes didn’t keep massive amounts of cash on hand, as the hoard clearly isn’t mixed with the local currency. So frustrating that the pot isn’t identifiable, and that the archaeological context is so thin …

  4. I wonder how you would read this look at the Hoxne hoard: http://www.facesofarthur.org.uk/fabio/app3.htm

    • That is intriguing, and has taught me a good bit about that hoard which I didn’t know. I find your deductions plausible from your premises, but I don’t accept a number of the premises myself, though I can see how the name Aurelius Ursicinus is extremely tempting to the Arthurian theorist. The main premise I don’t accept is that the ‘Saxon revolt’ was a single event, so therefore I won’t use it as a terminus post quem; but the coins in general would make me think of an earlier deposition anyway, mainly because siliquae suffered progressive clipping as the fifth century went on, and these are not too seriously clipped, so were probably not withdrawn from circulation so late as 441/2. The presence of coins of Constantine III is also very unusual, and to me suggests an early date while they might still have been obtained, though I will admit that there’s so many solidi there that a few weird ones isn’t statistically significant. I think I would rather see this as a hoard left by someone who went to the Continent because of Constantine III’s rebellion, and didn’t come back; there were enough battles lost in that rebellion to account for a good few nobles. That would, sadly, make it a bit early for your purposes; but your purposes also make Ambrosius very early for most normal datings of Badon Hill, which some people would put most of a century after 441. I’m sure you cover these arguments elsewhere in your immense project, of course.

      I would also risk the suggestion, which doesn’t conflict with anything you say, that parts of this hoard had been previously discovered much earlier; I suspect that if such stuff had turned up in the late ninth or early tenth century, it would probably have been considered royal and inevitably then associated with St Edmund, whose martyrdom was by then commemorated on most of the silver pennies in circulation and must have been a famous story to which this could easily be attached. I think you’re likely to be right that the association with Edmund came from the story and not the story from a pre-existing association, but I wonder if a part of this hoard were the cause of the association. If so, however, it’s odd that it focuses on gold, since the solidi at least seem to measure out to a complete unit. I suppose they might have been bagged up as pounds, once upon a time…

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