The End of Roman Britain: Instability and the Hoxne Hoard

Whatever shortages Britain’s facing due to Brexit and Covid, it hasn’t run short of archeology. The country entered this strange time of ours rich in buried history and since the stuff in question hasn’t gotten up and walked out of the ground, it’s still rich.

The tale I’m about to tell you comes from before Brexit, though, and before Covid. Never mind the logic of that. I needed an opening paragraph. 

 

The tale

Let’s begin in 1992 with a tenant farmer, Peter Whatling, losing his hammer. And since–well, you know how attached you can get to a hammer, he got hold of a friend, Eric Lawes, who’d taken up metal detecting when he retired, and out they went to the field where Whatling had been when his hammer wandered off.

Before either of them had time to get cold and go home for a nice cup of tea, Lawes picked up a strong signal and started to dig, but instead of the hammer he brought up shovelfuls of silver and gold coins. Lawes was an experienced enough detectorist by then to knew when stop digging. He contacted the police and the local archeological society. 

The next day, archeologists came and dug out the treasure with the earth still around it so they could move it, intact, to a lab and work out both its age and how it had been stored before it was buried. What Lawes had turned up was 60 pounds of silver and gold in the form of 15,234 (or 14,780; take your pick) Roman coins and what’s technically known as a shitload of fancy thingies of one sort and another.

Lawes got £1.75 million for the find, which he split with Whatling, although legally speaking he didn’t have to. 

Whatling also got his hammer back, and it’s now on display along with the older and more expensive stuff, which is called the Hoxne Hoard, after the village where it was found. And because the English language is insane, that’s pronounced Hoxon. 

Try not to think about it. It won’t help.

The hoard is particularly valuable not just for what it contains but because it was excavated whole instead of being scattered by a plow or an over-eager detectorist. 

Irrelevant photo: Once again, I’m not sure what these are. Let’s just call them some of the many red berries that cheer us through the fall and winter.

 

Why people bury treasure

Every time someone digs up a pile of treasure, someone else asks what it was doing in the ground to start with, and it’s a good question. Who buries these things, and when and why? 

In the case of the Hoxne Hoard, the who is easy to answer (sort of), because some spoons included in that shitload of fancy thingies had a name engraved on them: Aurelius Ursincinus. That can give us the illusion that we’ve answered one of the questions, although we haven’t, really. We know he was male and that he had a Latin name. After that, the record’s blank. We don’t even know for sure that he was alive when the hoard was buried.

As for when, the coins give us something more solid to work with: The newest ones were minted between 407 and 408 C.E. So logically speaking, they’d have been buried sometime after that. 

Why someone buried them, though, draws us into the land of speculation, which is a nice place to visit but it’s always foggy, so it’s hard to be sure of what we’re seeing. What we do know is that some clever devil thought to make a graph of all the dates of the treasure hoards in British Isles and found spikes in three time periods: when the Roman legions left Britain, when the Normans invaded, and when England divided up into two teams and fought a civil war. 

In other words, people bury treasure in troubled times, hoping they’ll be around to dig it back up when the danger’s passed. The ones we know about? Those people didn’t come back. The ones we don’t find and that no one will? Someone came back for those.

 

Roman Britain

I’ve read about the Roman legions leaving Britain and always kind of assumed they got a telegram from Rome: “Troops withdrawn Stop. Expect you home soonest Stop.”

Well of course they used telegrams. They didn’t have email yet. The problem is that you paid for telegrams by the word. Or maybe it was by the letter. Either way, no legionnaire would expect an explanation–it would’ve been too expensive. So off the legions toddled, leaving Britain to fend for itself.

Which goes to show what I know. It turns out that they didn’t all pack up and leave at once. But as we usually do around here, let’s take a step back before we go forward: 

In the mid-fourth century Britain was being raided by an assortment of barbarians–a word I use under protest and only because I don’t have a better one. We attach all sorts of judgments to it, thinking it describes people who are hairy and unwashed and brutal. Also uncivilized, as if civilization was a guarantee of good behavior. But all it means here is that they weren’t Roman. 

Mind you, they might also have been unwashed and hairy and brutal, but except for the unwashed part, so were a lot of Romans. And I’m not convinced that modern well-washed brutality is an improvement, but that’s a whole different issue. 

Let’s go back to late Roman Britain: In the barbarian corner and raiding Britain, we’ve got Picts and Scots (with the Scots coming from Ireland, just to mess with our heads) and Attacots, who I’ve never heard of either. It doesn’t look like anyone knows who they were. Also the Saxons, who we recognize from other storybooks. 

Since the small print of Britain’s contract with Rome specified that Britons couldn’t be armed, the country relied on Roman power to protect it. Or at least the part of Britain that Rome had conquered did.They never did hold the whole thing.

In the midst of this, the more central parts of the Roman Empire had troubles of their own by then. Barbarian invasions. Uprisings. Emperors. The deaths of emperors. Battles over who was going to be emperor. 

In 383, in response to an uproar in the empire that we won’t go into, the Roman army in Britain revolted and named its leader, Magnus Maximus, emperor. He could only be the emperor of the west by then, since the east now had its own emperor, but hey, an emperor’s still an emperor, and the title was worth fighting for. So he–and presumably some sizable chunk of his army–invaded Gaul and killed enough people for him to actually be the emperor. Until he was killed, that is, which disqualified him forever after.

What happened to the soldiers who left Britain with him we don’t know. It seems to be a fair assumption that they didn’t go back, so color the Roman army in Britain depleted.

 

Emperors and clipped coins

After 402, the bulk importation of Roman coins into Britain ended, and from that point on the British started clipping coins–shearing bits off of them and using at least some of the metal to make new coins, which were local imitations of the imperial ones. Since the metal itself was what made coins valuable, this meant the coins were worth less and less.

A good 98% of the Hoxne coins had been clipped, with some of them having lost a third of their weight. If you’re trying to get back into your pre-Christmas wardrobe, you should know that this strategy doesn’t work for humans.

In the midst of all this, we can pretty safely assume that the army wasn’t happy, because soldiers don’t like it  when they’re paid in coins that aren’t worth what they used to be. Or when they’re not paid at all. In 406, a rebellion of Roman soldiers in Britain declared someone named Marcus as their emperor. Then he was deposed by someone named Gratian, who was replaced by someone named Constantine, at which point he and his followers toddled off to Gaul–that was in Europe and a far more central piece of the Roman Empire’s jigsaw puzzle–to see if they couldn’t really make him emperor. 

He was beheaded and once again there’s no record of what happened to his followers, but it couldn’t have been nice.

And that telegram still hadn’t arrived. That was the problem with telegrams back then. They had to be carried by guys in sandals. On foot. If you paid extra, they’d jump on a horse or they’d set sail, but it was still slow. And precarious.

 

Not-so-Roman Britain

Soon after Constantine and Co. left, in 408 or thereabouts, Saxons invaded, and sometime after that what was left of Britain’s Roman government faced a rebellion. The Britons armed themselves, ran off the barbarians, and then, for good measure, ran off the Roman magistrates and set up their own government. Or so said the historian Zosimus.

It sounds good, but according to the far more contemporary historian Marc Norris, it was a disaster. Britain’s links with the empire were cut and the archeological record shows a country rapidly moving backward. The economy and social structure collapsed, along with trade and distribution networks. Cities, towns, and villas were abandoned. Norris assumes widespread looting, along with a couple of synonyms–pillaging, robbing, that kind of thing. 

Archeologists can’t find much stuff left in the ground from this period. Good-quality pottery disappears, along with things like iron nails. Entire industries, they conclude, failed.

In the absence of a working government and army, the rich would have privatized security for as long as they could–and buried their wealth, because they couldn’t know when their privatized security squad will notice that it doesn’t actually need them, all it needed was their hoard of coins and expensive goodies. The person who hired them didn’t actually contribute anything.

Norris assumes that barbarian raids increased, although as he points out raiders don’t leave much in the way of hard archeological evidence, so we can’t know for certain. 

According to Bede, writing much later, the Britons of this period were “ignorant of the practice of warfare” after so long under Roman rule. Which is why, fatefully, their leaders seem to have made a deal with the Saxons to defend them from the Picts. Emphasis on seem to. History goes a little hazy during this stretch of time. But the going theory is that they swallowed the spider to catch the fly, and that’s how Anglo-Saxon England came to be: The spider did indeed eat the fly by inviting the Anglo-Saxons in, and that left Romano-Celtic Britain with a Saxon spider that wriggled and jiggled and jiggled insider ‘er.

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In addition to the two links I’ve tucked in above, I’ve relied heavily on Marc Norris’s The Anglo-Saxons: A History of the Beginnings of England. It’s a highly readable and very useful book. I’ve lost track by now of who recommended Norris to me. Sorry, I have a note somewhere but I put it someplace safe and I’ll never see it again. So I apologize for not thanking you by name. But I really do appreciate the recommendation. Let me know who you are and I’ll include a link in my next post.