Sunday, 10 July 2016

The Staffordshire Hoard comes to Stafford

Coinciding with the 7th Anniversary of the discovery of the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found, the  Staffordshire Hoard comes to the county town of Stafford.

Treasure! The Discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard
From Tuesday 5th July to Saturday 10th September items from the Staffordshire Hoard will be on display at the Ancient High House, Greengate Street, Stafford, in the “Treasure! The Discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard History Exhibition”, telling the story of how the Hoard was found and saved for the nation.

Running concurrently, and in support of the Staffordshire Hoard exhibition, will be “Anglo-Saxon Stafford: Throwing light on the Dark Ages” a history exhibition exploring the emergence of the kingdom of Mercia and the foundations of Stafford.

The Staffordshire Hoard was discovered on 5 July 2009 when metal detector Terry Herbert uncovered more than 3,500 items in a field near the village of Hammerwich, near Lichfield, in Staffordshire, England.

Consisting of over 5kg of Gold and 1.4 kg of silver the Hoard was purchased jointly by the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery and the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke on Trent for £3.3 million. Mainly all martial, or warlike in character, including sword pommels possibly as old as the mid 6th century, it is the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon precious metalwork ever found anywhere in the world.

Stafford Ancient High House
While viewing the Staffordshire Hoard exhibition in Stafford it is worthwhile delving into a little history the Ancient High House. This Elizabethan town house, constructed in 1594, is said to be one of the finest Tudor buildings in the country and the largest remaining timber framed town house in England. Although now a historic house museum operated by Stafford Borough Council since 1986, the High House has a history of its own and featured in the conflict in the Midlands during the English Civil War, 1642–1651.

The Ancient High House Stafford (Wikimedia Commons)
On 17th and 18th September, 1643,  Charles I stayed at the Ancient High House shortly after raising the Royal Standard at Nottingham; the act of calling his loyal subjects to arms is seen as marking the start of the English Civil War. Charles made the High House his temporary headquarters, taking counsel and planning the forthcoming campaign. A local story claims that while staying at the High House with King Charles, Prince Rupert demonstrated the accuracy of his cavalry pistol by shooting the weather on St Mary's church.

The Royalists had steadily gained ground in the Midlands, establishing garrisons at Tamworth, Lichfield, and Stafford by the end of 1642.  After defeating the Royalists at Stratford-upon-Avon the the Parliamentarian forces marched on Lichfield in an effort to break the Royalist hold on the Midlands. Following his success at the Siege of Lichfield, in March 1643, the Parliamentarian Sir John Gell had turned his attention to Stafford and arrived at Hopton Heath, about 3 miles north of the town, on 19th March. On hearing of Gell's arrival Spencer Compton, the Earl of Northampton, marched his Royalist forces out of Stafford to engage the Parliamentarians.

The Battle of Hopton Heath did not result in a decisive victory for either side following withdrawals by both Parliamentarian and Royalist forces after nightfall. The Royalists captured several pieces of artillery but the Earl of Northampton was killed and Gell carried away his corpse demanding the return of the artillery lost at Hopton for the body. The Royalists refused to pay the ransom and the Earl's body was buried at All Hallows Church in Derby.

The Hoard continues to reveal its Secrets
As research and conservation work continues in the largest study of its kind ever undertaken on Anglo-Saxon gold the full story of the Hoard continues to unfurl with new discoveries being revealed. Scientific analysis has revealed that the goldsmiths of Mercia treated gold objects to improve their colour and make them appear even more golden by removing alloys such as copper and silver from the surface. The study has revealed that this technique was being widely used in the Anglo-Saxon period.

Helmet fragment from Staffordshire Hoard (Wikimedia Commons)
Two rare items have been discovered among the Staffordshire Hoard. The first is a 7th century helmet. Helmets from the Anglo-Saxon period are very rare, this being only the fifth to be discovered. Around 1,500 thin, fragile silver sheets and fragments, consisting of around a third of the Hoard in size, have been painstakingly pieced together to form a band around the circumference of the helmet, featuring warrior friezes gilded with gold.

The Sutton Hoo helmet found in the royal ship-burial in 1939, was silver, and possibly made for the East Anglian King Rædwald, the decoration directly comparable with finds from cemeteries in eastern Sweden. In comparison, the gold decoration on the Staffordshire Hoard helmet suggests it too was probably worn by a King or someone of great importance from Mercia.

The other item is a unique sword pommel. There are are over seventy pommels (the decorated end of a swordgrip) among the Staffordshire Hoard. Conservation and research teams have identified one that is unique, reconstructing it from 26 fragments. This pommel is Anglo-Saxon in style, but features British or Irish influences; its central garnet with glass inlaid disc forms an early Christian cross, while on its opposite side is a motif formed of three serpents, seemingly representing both Christian and pagan beliefs. The pommel has a round hump on the shoulder, know as a 'sword-ring', and displays evidence that there would have been one on each shoulder. Many swords from the Anglo Saxon period in England and Europe display similar rings, but the Hoard pommel is the first to feature two.

Sword Pommel from Staffordshire Hoard (L) and reconstructed sword (R)

The Mercian Trail
The Mercian Trail has been developed as a partnership between Birmingham Museums Trust, The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Lichfield Cathedral, Lichfield District Council, Tamworth Borough Council and Staffordshire County Council. The aim being to promote the emerging story of the Staffordshire Hoard and the history of this region of  Anglo-Saxon Mercia through a series of permanent and temporary displays.

There are four Staffordshire Hoard permanent displays at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, the Chapter House display at Lichfield Cathedral and the ancient capital of Mercia at Tamworth Castle.

A touring exhibition led by Staffordshire County Council is visiting schools, galleries, visitor centres, bringing the story of the Staffordshire Hoard and Anglo-Saxon Mercia to a wide audience.

Warrior Treasures
About a hundred items of Saxon Gold from the Staffordshire Hoard collection is now on the first UK-wide tour. Providing visitors with the opportunity to view a large number of items from the collection outside the West Midlands where the Hoard was discovered.

The Warrior Treasures exhibition will visit the Royal Armouries, Leeds from 27 May 2016 - 02 October 2016, and at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery from 22 October 2016 - 23 April 2017.

The Staffordshire Hoard permanent exhibitions at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery- Stoke-on-Trent, Tamworth Castle and Lichfield Cathedral will remain open during the tour.

For further information visit the Staffordshire Hoard website.

Copyright © 2016 Edward Watson

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