These Ninth-Century Coins Change Our Understanding of Alfred the Great

Two men are now facing jail time for trying to illegally sell 44 coins worth approximately $960,000

Coins view
Ninth-century coins taken from Craig Best upon his arrest Durham Police

Several years ago, police in England conducted a dramatic sting operation to recover 44 missing ninth-century coins. Now, two men, Roger Pilling and Craig Best, have been sentenced to more than five years in prison for conspiring to sell them.

Two of these coins are particularly unusual: Each depicts both Alfred the Great, the king of Wessex, and Ceolwulf II, the king of Mercia. While Ceolwulf is usually considered a minor historical figure, the coins suggest that his role could have been far more significant.

“The coins literally enable us to rewrite history,” says Gareth Williams, the curator of early medieval coins at the British Museum, per the Guardian’s Mark Brown.

History has long portrayed Alfred the Great as a heroic leader who successfully fought off Viking invasions. In contrast, Ceolwulf has gone down in history as a puppet ruler beholden to the Vikings.

Alfred coin
This coin depicting Alfred the Great was found at the home address of Roger Pilling. Durham Police

These coins, however, depict both kings, showing “beyond any possible doubt that there was a political and economic alliance,” says Wiliams in a statement from the Durham Constabulary. “Together the two kings carried out a major reform of the coinage, introducing high-quality silver coins, with the ‘two emperors’ design symbolizing this alliance.”

The coins are part of a larger treasure that two metal detectorists uncovered in Herefordshire, England, in 2015. The find qualified as treasure under the 1996 Treasure Act, which established protocols for when treasure hunters are required to report their discoveries. 

The men, however, did not report the treasure. In 2019, both were given jail time. “The treasure belongs to the nation,” Judge Nicholas Cartwright said at the sentencing, per Steven Morris of the Guardian. “The benefit to the nation is [that] these items can be seen and admired by others.”

Alfred portrait
A portrait of Alfred the Great, who is known as the ruler who successfully fought off Viking invasions Public domain

Police recovered most of the treasure, including jewelry. But the majority of the 300 coins in the hoard were missing.

Authorities now think that Pilling bought some of these coins on the black market in 2016, later turning to Best for help selling them to buyers around the world, according to the London Times’ Peter Stubley. 

A few years later, Best contacted Ronald Bude, a coin collector and radiologist at the University of Michigan, and asked if he was interested in making a purchase. Bude consulted an expert on their authenticity—and eventually, talk of the coins reached authorities. Posing as representatives of an anonymous American buyer, undercover police arranged a meeting with the men at a hotel, where Best was subsequently caught with 44 coins.

The two men received their prison sentences earlier this week. Worth an estimated $960,000, the hoard now resides at the British Museum. 

“Hopefully this verdict sends out a message that the actions of Best and Pilling were denying the country of crucial historical knowledge and that organized acquisitive crime will not be tolerated,” says Lee Gosling, the senior investigating officer for the operation, in the police statement.

“This is an extremely unusual case,” adds Gosling, “as it’s not very often we get the chance to shape British history.”

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