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Image of The Cambridge Hoard

The Cambridge Hoard, pre conservation
Hidden at Chesterton Lane corner c.1350-5,
found in 2000
The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
© Cambridge Archaeological Unit


... AS SEEN BY SUSANNA GREGORY


There can be few places as inspiring to a writer as Cambridge. And there can be few museums with collections as rich as those of the Fitzwilliam Museum. I cannot begin to calculate the hours I have spent wandering through its echoing halls, learning something new with every visit – and taking a few moments to renew an acquaintance with old favourites, such as the Italian Renaissance paintings and the imposing portrait of the dour seventeenth-century Archbishop Laud.

One day, having just finished some research on medieval armour – reading books on the subject is all very well, but there is nothing quite like seeing the real thing – I happened to wander into a small gallery, the Rothschild Gallery. There I saw a little iron-studded wooden box packed to the brim with fourteenth-century coins. My novels are set in fourteenth-century Cambridge, and so the exhibit intrigued me. I read that the coins had been deposited in a secret hiding place by an unknown person shortly after the Black Death. The box had disintegrated through time, but a careful craftsman had been able to garner enough information about the original to replicate it. And there it was, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, filled with the money that had been hidden some 650 years ago.

Who had buried 1,805 silver pennies and nine gold nobles all those years ago? And why? It would have represented a fabulous sum of money, so why had its owner neglected to retrieve it? These are the sort of questions irresistible to the historical mystery writer, and the Cambridge Hoard plays a central role in my book The Devil’s Disciples.

Further research revealed that the Fitzwilliam Museum had played a pivotal role in the retrieval and analysis of the hoard. It had been discovered in October 2000, by men working at the corner of Chesterton Lane and Magdalene Street. Archaeologists moved in, and were able to tell that the coins had been placed in a hole near a wall inside a house. It seems that the hole was then sealed with a stone, and the room overlaid with a new clay floor. Whether the home-improvements were carried out specifically to hide the money, or whether someone just took advantage of a convenient situation will probably never be known.

The hoard was analysed by Martin Allen, from the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Department of Coins and Medals. His published conclusions allow a fascinating glimpse into medieval Cambridge. He points out that this was a vast sum of money compared with finds from similar dates, which indicates that its owner was likely to have been one of the town’s wealthier inhabitants, perhaps a merchant. At the time, it seems the house may have been owned by nearby Barnwell Priory, and that the ‘merchant’ may have rented the house from them.

Whenever I visit the museum, I always spend a few quiet moments with the Cambridge Hoard. I gaze at the bright coins and wonder about the rich person who lived on the corner of Chesterton Lane and Magdalene Street, who saw it fit to hide his wealth in a hole in his floor. But the Cambridge Hoard is just one of the treasures waiting to fire the imagination of visitors. There are many more, and I know the Fitzwilliam Museum will always be a source of education and inspiration for me.

© Susanna Gregory, 2007

Biography

Image of Susanna Gregory

Susanna Gregory

Image of A Plague on Both Your Houses

Reproduced by permission of Little Brown Book Group

Susanna Gregory (b. 1958)

Born in London in 1958, Susanna Gregory was educated at the universities of Lancaster and Durham. A coroner’s officer in Leeds for several years, she completed a PhD at the University of Cambridge and then joined the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. A prolific academic and crime writer, Gregory has published on seals and travel in the Arctic and Antarctic and is the author of the Chronicles of Matthew Bartholomew and Thomas Chaloner series of novels. Set in fourteenth-century Cambridge, the former features a teacher of medicine and investigator of murders at Michaelhouse College, now part of Trinity College. The fourteenth volume in this series, The Devil’s Disciples (due June 2008), draws on the Cambridge Hoard, the cache of gold and silver coins found at Chesterton Lane corner in October 2000 and now in the Rothschild Gallery at the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Susanna Gregory divides her time between Wales, where she writes, and the Antarctic, where she lectures on and researches in Marine Biology.

UCP 2008

Related Links

www.matthewbartholomew.co.uk/camb.htm

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