The lost vellum

Deep in the archives of Lambeth Palace is a repository of ancient documents from the Church. Among these is a Gospel of St John which came from Lichfield Cathedral during the English Civil War and was taken to London amongst the possessions of Lady Frances Seymour, Duchess of Somerset. No-one knows how it came to be at Lambeth Palace, but it is the missing part of the Lichfield Gospels. It dates from the beginning of the 8th century, and has lost its bindings.

Lying between the leaves of this intricately illustrated work is another ancient piece of vellum. One side of this bears a beautiful illuminated script. It is a message from King Ine of the West Saxons to Coelred, the King of Mercia, greeting him and sending him his three sons to conclude a marriage alliance. It describes the sons: Kenelm, Osgar, and Wigmund, with great pride and love. They bear the swords of his house that have been passed down through generations, some of them forged two hundred years ago, and undefeated in battle. The iron gall ink has survived the centuries although it is eating into the vellum, which is nearly ready to crumble to dust, and may not survive being unfolded.

On the reverse side of the vellum are rows and rows of tiny faint marks, almost indecipherable. If the vellum is ever discovered, modern techniques could yet reveal the detail of these letters, which were inscribed in the blood of the writer.

A translation from the Old English, rendering the old place names into the new, would approximate to the following:

‘I, Dunstan, Bishop of Sherborne in the Kingdom of Wessex, deliver this letter unto my confessor, and place my trust in him, that I will not die in dishonour. If any who read this may one day convey my story to my liege King Ine, then he will know that the fault was not mine and I was loyal to him unto the end.

Travelling from Sherborne we went first north to the coast, then followed the River Severn, which offered ample watering for ourselves and our horses, for there were more than four score of us. Our hearts were light, and we were finely dressed, the warriors bearing their ceremonial weapons adorned with pure gold, for we rode, as we thought, not to battle, but to the wedding feast of the three sons of King Ine of Wessex. They were hand-fasted to the three daughters of Coelred, King of Mercia and the marriage ceremonies were to take place upon the day of Beltaine.

Our swords and shields were the work of our best craftsmen over five generations, richly decorated with wrought gold and inset with precious garnets and cloisonne enamel. Kenelm as the eldest of the three princes wore the great golden helmet that had been handed down through the line of the kings of Wessex. I had been the tutor to the king’s sons and so it was meet that I should both represent their father in this matter of state and officiate at their weddings. To that end I myself bore the ceremonial cross from the Minster at Sherborne, which was faced with finely wrought pure gold and rich gems. Even the leather binding of my Gospels was bejewelled with golden crosses and golden corners.

We followed the river for many days, setting up our tents beside it each night, until it took a sharp bend to the west. As we left the riverbank to continue our course to the north I marked a flock of swans upon the water. Of a sudden their wings went into a great commotion and a single black swan flew like an arrow to the north east, in the direction of Lichfield, while the others, all white, flew south along the river, back towards Wessex. I said nothing to any man lest they mocked me, but I remembered that it had been said that Coelred was no Christian, that his mother had been pagan, to some minds a sorceress, and unwed to King Aethelred his father, and that Coelred yet practised in secret the dark arts that his mother had taught him.

From the bend in the river it was a short ride to the settlement of Shifnal, from where the old Roman road of Watling Street would take us to Lichfield. Finally, within sight of Lichfield, we made the last camp of our journey upon a small rise beside Watling Street. This was close to the Ryknield Way and had been a stopping place for centuries. Timber and thatch structures preserved the ancient stone walls of the Romans. Here we ate what seemed like the finest bread in the land. We dined on the delectable beef and poultry of the Mercians and drank their mead, paying freely in coin. Our approach to Lichfield therefore did not go unobserved and no doubt riders went to Coelred to inform him of our approach.

That night we feasted and sang, feeling glad that we had nearly completed our journey as King Ine had commanded, and just in time, on the eve of Beltaine, for the wedding ceremonies to cement friendship between the two rival kingdoms.

But a messenger from Coelred came to our camp as the sun was setting and said that he wanted the bride-prices of the three princesses to be paid that night. In addition he demanded that we should surrender our swords and shields, the golden helm of Wessex, and any other precious articles that we had upon our persons. If we gave up our gold, he said our lives would be spared, otherwise there were three thousand men of Coelred’s personal army around us.

Kenelm replied that the bride-price was Coelred’s with a ready heart, but on the morrow, when the brides were wed, and according to the custom. He had brought deeds granting gifts of lands in Wessex to the three princesses. But the ceremonial swords and shields with their golden insignia, and the golden helm of Wessex, were our heritage from our forefathers, passed on by the authority of Ine our King, and could not be given up. No man would hesitate to defend them to the death.

At night we sent out scouts who confirmed that the messenger spoke the truth. Behind us at the top of the rise was a twisted and gnarly forest with low hanging branches through which no man could penetrate. Between us and Watling Street a great army of warriors was massing. We could not be certain of the number but a multitude of weapons glinted in the moonlight.

The three princes debated what to do. They were each mighty men in the field of battle but the odds were impossible. They swore that Coelred would never dishonour the heritage of Wessex. They would fight, fight to the death, and would rather die in battle than live to be enslaved.

With that Kenelm called for someone to bring him an empty sack, that had held provisions for our journey. Then he held aloft the golden helm of Wessex, the helmet given to the first-born son and heir, that he was to have worn on his wedding day; that he would have worn to mark the day when his father had planned to abdicate the throne and start his final pilgrimage to Rome. The helmet glittered in the setting sun, its red horsehair plume glowed like blood in the light, and then its glory was no more as he dropped it into the sack. He took his sword and with the point of his dagger he prised off its gold ornamentation and likewise cast that in. He cut the golden studs from his shield and the golden bands from his scabbards, and threw those in. Then he threw in the deeds of grant.

One by one now we filed past him, until all the sword-hilt pommels and hundreds of shield and scabbard jewels, the finest work of our smiths, were cast into the sack. When it was my turn I gave up my illuminated gospels in their rich bindings. The gold from the Minster cross, that should have led three wedding processions, was stripped and crumpled up into the sack. I was left in the end with the bare wood of the cross and nothing else. Finally Kenelm and his brothers took our embroidered standard, the golden Wyvern of Wessex, and from the cross-bar they cut the golden trim on which was engraved in Latin the proud inscription: ‘Let God arise and his enemies be dispersed and those who hate him flee from his face.’ That was the last of our gold to be put away.

After that the three princes went under cover of darkness to the edge of the forest and beside a lone hawthorn they buried the sack that held the glory of Wessex.

The men came one by one that night to me for shriving and I gave each of them their last blessing. The day dawned all too soon, the early dawn of Beltaine, which should have been the day of the princes’ weddings, but instead they prepared to enter another world.

I cannot list the horrors of that day. They fought bravely, but what could eighty men do against three thousand? I would not leave them, and went with my denuded crucifix amongst them, giving blessing to the dying even as their comrades were stabbed, slashed, and hacked to pieces beside them. One by one the three sons of Ine, whom I had educated from their boyhood, died a warrior’s death.

Even Coelred’s men would not kill a priest, but they bound my wrists and Coelred led me away behind his horse from the deadly field. It was a grievous day, and doubly so to hear the people chanting Coelred’s name as he rode into Lichfield. He held up the bags of golden coins that had been sent for the bride-price and they cheered as he proclaimed his act of treachery as if it had been a noble deed.

I will not describe the torments to my person which were visited upon me by Coelred, who desired to know the location of the gold. He even took one of the captured swords, that had been denuded of all its ornaments, and was still stained with the blood of many men, and held it to my throat. I told him that he had had his bride-price, for his daughters who would never marry, and I bid him to be content with that. To all his questions after that I responded only with prayer.

I had no hope of rescue. King Ine had been deprived not only of his sons, but also of the finest flower of his warriors in the treacherous attack. I demanded that Coelred release me to the care of my holy brethren in the Minster at Lichfield, which he denied, saying that I had treacherously stolen and concealed that which was his. I was confined in a tiny cell, and began a fast to the death.

As I grew weaker I prevailed upon my gaoler to admit a priest to hear my confession. So, in hunger and thirst have I passed my few remaining days, which now come to an end, and write this my story with a splinter of wood, and what blood I can squeeze from the dried-up wounds of my scourging. Into the hands of my confessor I render this vellum, and unto the mercy of Almighty God I render my soul.’

Some time after these events, King Coelred died at a banquet, “gibbering with demons and cursing the priests of God”.

The gold of the sons of King Ine was not discovered until 2009, when a metal detectorist, Terry Herbert, found it in a farmer’s field not far from the A5. The vellum and the lost part of the Lichfield Gospels have yet to be found, so in our times, the origins of the Staffordshire Hoard have remained a mystery.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Author’s Note:

The above is fiction, for entertainment purposes only. What we actually know about the Staffordshire Hoard is presented in an excellent lecture ‘Wealth and Warfare: interpreting the contents of the Staffordshire Hoard’ by Dr Gareth Williams, of the British Museum, which can be viewed on YouTube.

While it is a fiction, I have thought in a lot of detail about the facts, and what is known about that period of history. Separately on this website I have posted a discussion of how I thought up the story:

An authoritative textbook ‘The Staffordshire Hoard: An Anglo-Saxon Treasure’ edited by Chris Fern, Tania Dickinson and Leslie Webster, is published by the Society of Antiquaries. But I haven’t yet been able to get hold of a copy.

©ChateauxEnEspagne 2020