Thursday, 2 September 2010

Buried Treasure in Cornwall

Nobody seriously doubts that great treasures lie hidden beneath the soil of Cornwall. They have, after all, been found often enough. The vast majority of these treasures are of ancient coins. While their quantity and value may vary greatly, they do tend to have a common origin.

In past centuries when there were no such things as bank accounts, credit facilities or even bank notes, most people kept their wealth in the form of coins. Before around 1920 these coins were made of bronze, silver and gold and contained the precise quantity of metal worth the face value of the coin. Thus a florin coin, with a face value of two shillings, contained twice as much silver as a shilling. There were occasional alterations caused by fluctuating relative values between the three metals, but generally the coinage was composed of precious metals. The design on the coin was simply a guarantee from the king that it contained the prescribed amount of metal.

While most actual wealth lay in land, buildings and goods, hard cash was the main way in which transactions were carried out, taxes paid and surplus wealth stored. Since coins were easily stolen, moved and it was hard to prove ownership, it made sense to hide them. Most homes had a hiding place that was not immediately accessible. A popular place was under the hearthstone, as this could not be reached unless the cooking fire was put out. These ruses were designed to frustrate casual burglars or passing bandits.

When serious danger threatened more secure hiding places were needed for coins. If an enemy army came by, they could be relied upon to seek out and unearth coins hidden in the more usual places. Only treasure hidden in less obvious places would survive. It was for this reason that men buried pots of coins in fields, under trees, beside bridges and the like. Such hoards usually date from times of invasion or civil war. The Wars of the Roses, the Civil War between King and Parliament, the Viking invasions and the collapse of the Roman Empire all led to violence and looting - and so to the burial of treasure hoards. When the owner of the hoard was unable to retrieve it - usually by having been killed - the treasure remained where it was hidden.

Sometimes these treasures have been turned up by accident. Ploughing has unearthed some, building works have revealed others. The sheer scale of these treasures is often staggering. Some contain thousands of coins which, even at the time they were hidden, must have been astonishingly valuable.

The recovery of these treasures could deeply affect not only those who found them, but even the history of nations. In 1199 a peasant ploughed up an enormous mass of gold. The bulk of the gold was promptly seized by the landowner, Ademar of Limousin. Ademar in turn sent off a share of the gold to King Richard the Lionheart. Richard, however, found a lawyer who declared that all such treasure belonged to the king, not merely a share of it. He marched an army against Ademar of Limousin and in the petty skirmish that followed, King Richard was mortally wounded. So died the Lionheart, hero of the crusades, in an unimportant squabble over buried treasure.

If even kings and lords could come to blows over treasure, it is no wonder that more ordinary folk would treat the subject of buried treasure with awe and a great deal of interest.

This is an extract from Mysterious Cornwall by Rupert Matthews

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