The Cuerdale Hoard

The Cuerdale Hoard is an enormous silver treasure that was discovered by workmen repairing the bank of the River Ribble in 1840. Records from the time describe how one workman’s spade hit some loose coins, spilling them into his wheelbarrow. He and his companions began to fill their pockets, only to empty them again at the order of the bailiff. However, they were allowed to keep one piece each. The hoard was taken to Cuerdale Hall, where it was said to cover a sitting-room floor.

The Cuerdale Hoard consists of over 8500 silver objects, weighing around 40kg in total. Most of the pieces are coins, together with ingots (silver bars) and cut-up brooches, chains, rings and other ornaments (hacksilver). It had been buried in a lead container. Five bone pins said to have been found with the treasure suggest that some of it was parcelled up in cloth bags.

The Cuerdale Hoard consists of over 8500 silver objects weighing 40kg

Most of the hoard’s coins were minted in Viking-controlled England, while the hacksilver is mainly Irish or Irish-Viking in form and decoration. Other pieces originated from places further afield, such as Scotland, the Continent, Scandinavia, the Baltic Sea region and the Islamic lands of Central Asia and the Middle East. In this way, the Cuerdale Hoard reflects the Vikings’ extensive international connections across much of the known world.

A hoard of this size represents extraordinary wealth. That suggests it originated from many people, rather than one individual. It is likely to have been collected over time as loot, tribute and through trade. The reasons for the Cuerdale Hoard’s burial are not known. It may have been hidden for safekeeping at a time of unrest. Alternatively, it could represent a secure method of stock-piling riches over time.

The latest coins in the hoard enabled historians to date its burial to between about AD 905 and 910. This, together with the Irish origin of most of the hacksilver, has fuelled speculation that the hoard belonged to Vikings who were expelled from Dublin in AD 902. The River Ribble, where the hoard was found, lay directly across the Irish Sea from Dublin, offering a convenient place for fleeing Vikings to regroup. It was also on an overland route to York. This was the powerbase of the Northumbrian Vikings who could be called upon for support. However, while this explanation for the Cuerdale Hoard is enticing, it remains unproven.


B.J.N. Edwards

On 15 May 1840, across the river from Preston, the banks of the Ribble in the small township of Cuerdale were busy. Workmen (their fourteen names are recorded, apparently uniquely, by F. Coupe) stemming the inroads of the river on the outside of a large bend were marking the new bank with large stones, still to be seen in the river, and filling the space behind with soil brought from further away. In the process, as we know, they discovered what is known as the Cuerdale Hoard. A hundred years later, much of the world, and Britain in particular, was engaged in WWII.

The find spot of the hoard was first marked by a willow, whilst the stone that today marks the place was not erected until after the war. At least one person, however, Joseph Woodrufff, noticed the centenary of the find and evidently felt the need to commemorate the event, recording in his diary: ‘Wednesday May 15th 1940, went down to Cuerdale pastures to celebrate the centenary of the finding of the Cuerdale Hoard, the richest treasure trove ever discovered in England, by workmen repairing the bank of the River Ribble, about a quarter of a mile below Cuerdale Hall . . . 

It was about 6 o’clock in the morning when the Hoard was discovered, so I arrived down about 11 o’clock and in fancy I could visualise the excitement there would be among the workmen when they turned up the treasure . . . A willow tree was planted on the spot where the discovery was made but it has now disappeared altogether. I marked the place with a heap of boulder stone. I got a piece of the root of the tree as a memento. While I was there, a severe thunderstorm came on, with a deluge of rain and I got wet through. I was the only Pilgrim to go to the centenary.

Fifty years after Woodrufff’s visit, the 150th anniversary of the find was formally celebrated by a conference held at Liverpool Museum and entitled ‘A Silver Saga’. Papers given at the conference were published, including an attempt by the present writer to collect references to all finds which might reasonably be called ‘Viking’ or ‘Viking Period’ made In the pre-1974 counties of Cheshire, Lancashire, Cumberland and Westmorland. The purpose of the present paper is threefold: first, to honour James Graham-Campbell; second, to draw attention to new evidence and material not cited in my 1992 paper; and, third, to attempt a brief synthesis in view of the new evidence. It is appropriate to start with the first stirrings of the idea that some kind of Scandinavian incursion into North-West England had occurred.

Such observations were first collected in Robert Ferguson’s The Northmen in Cumberland and Westmorland; the present writer records an apology for attributing, in his publications of 1992 and 1998, this work to Robert Ferguson’s cousin, R.S. Ferguson, Chancellor of Carlisle. A perusal of Ferguson’s chapter heads is instructive. Of the eleven chapters, ignoring the first (Introduction) and last (Conclusion), only two engage with archaeology as we would now recognize it. Otherwise, the book concentrates on supposed traces of pagan worship, legislative and judicial institutions, names (in extenso, including those of mountains, lakes, rivers, persons and families), manners and customs, and, finally, dialect. Chapters on runic inscriptions (seven pages) and sepulchral remains (17 pages) are closer to our concerns. Fortunately, Ferguson wrote prior to the wilder fancies of George Stephens on runes, which, among other enquiries, led the latter to expend considerable energy attempting to elucidate an inscription from Brough, Westmorland, as if it were in runes, though it is, in fact, a Roman-period inscription in Greek, known to Romanists as RIB 758.

Perhaps Ferguson was wary of a man who wrote, in his native language that, ‘The day has now come when I can lay this HANDBOOK before all lovers of our Northern mother-tung, sametimely with my third folio tome. . . ’. Ferguson, however, seems to have known of only two runic inscriptions from Cumberland (apart from Newcastle, which he describes as ‘probably Anglo-Saxon’): (i) the Bridekirk font, where he quotes Professor Munch describing William Nicolson’s reading as ‘complete nonsense’, while admitting that neither Munch nor himself is able to provide a better reading; (ii) the runes on the west wall of the south transept of Carlisle.

In Search of the Cuerdale Hoard

The Cuerdale Hoard is a collection of Viking-era silver coins and bullion that was discovered in the Cuerdale area near Preston, Lancashire, England in 1840. Although not conclusively proven, the hoard is believed to have been buried by Vikings during one of their raids in England during the late 9th century.

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