The law-code of Æthelberht I, king of Kent, describes the fines payable for various offences in terms of shillings and sceattas, and it is evident that a shilling is worth twenty sceattas. The law-code must date to between 597 and 616. It is widely thought to be likely that it was produced round about 603. Coin production may have begun in England by the time Æthelberht’s laws were promulgated, but the units – shillings and sceattas – could well, at the early date of 603, refer to weights of gold, rather than coins.[*] Certainly, there are no coins bearing Æthelberht’s name,[*] though this may not be too significant, since it is not until the second half of the 8th century that it becomes common to find a king’s name on coinage. At any rate, when they did appear (production was certainly under way during the reign of Eadbald, 616–640, Æthelberht’s son and successor), the first English coins were indeed gold ‘shillings’ – frequently referred to as ‘tremisses’ or ‘thrymsas’. The law-code’s term ‘sceattas’ has long been used by numismatists to describe the silver coins that, it is now known, replaced gold shillings – the so-called sceattas and gold shillings were not minted contemporaneously.
Michael Dolley writes: “Not later than the 690s the thrymsa [i.e. shilling], after a period of dramatic debasement with coins from the same dies struck in pale gold and in virtual silver, was superseded by an overtly silver coin of the same fabric. By numismatists today the coins are usually termed sceattas, but there can be little doubt that by their users they were called pennies, and one would like to see ‘proto-penny’ adopted as a generic name for these coins, which with their dumpy, cast flans are essentially different in their fabric from the penny proper struck on spread discs sheared from hammered sheets of metal.”
J.R. Maddicott talks of: “slow beginnings in the early seventh century, with a smallish number of gold coins struck in London and the south-east; the gradual switch to a silver sceatta currency from c.675, again at first largely confined to the south-east; a secondary phase of augmented sceatta production from c.710 to 740, when coinage spread rapidly and widely, up the east coast and into the midlands … Most remarkable is the period of monetary ‘take-off’ in the first half of the eighth century. This was on a massive scale. The secondary sceattas were struck at some twenty to twenty-five English mints – a number unequalled before Ethelred’s reign [978–1016] – and they constitute the commonest single finds of any pre-Conquest coin series.”
From the mid-8th century, coins generally bear the name of the king in whose reign they were issued. Gareth Williams adds: “Except in the kingdom of Northumbria, coins also became broader and flatter, with a transitional phase around 760 followed very quickly by slightly larger coins, and then a coinage reform in the in the early 790s leading to the introduction of both larger and heavier coins. The change in the mid eighth century seems to have taken place at more or less the same time in most of the major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and like earlier developments in the coinage, probably reflects Frankish influence.”[*]
The silver penny remained the main unit of coinage for the remainder of the Anglo-Saxon period – indeed, until long after the Norman Conquest.
The reverse of a coin of Constantine the Great is pictured on the left. VOT=Vota = ‘vows’. VOT followed by a numeral, here XX (20), refers to the public vows made by an emperor for that number of years. On the right is the reverse of a coin of Constantine’s son, the Caesar, Crispus, where the same motif appears on a standard.
The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England (1976), Chapter 8 ‘The Coins’ (p.352).
That is the view expressed by Philip Grierson and Mark Blackburn: “The oldest Anglo-Saxon code, that of King Æthelberht of Kent, which was written down c.603 and so ante-dates the introduction of coinage, has as its monetary units the shilling (scilling) of 20 sceattas, terms which refer not to coins but to weights of gold. The first derives from a Germanic root meaning cut (Old Norse scilja) and implies a weight of gold cut from a ring or bar of precious metal. The second seems to have had behind it initially the notion of something very finely divided (cf. shatter, scatter) and in a pre-coinage context meant a grain of gold … Since Anglo-Saxon gold coins when they came to be struck do in fact weigh 20 grains [1.3 grammes] they can be identified with the shillings of the laws”.
Medieval European Coinage, 1: The Early Middle Ages (1986) Introduction (p.15).
There is, however, a unique coin-type object, the ‘Liudhard medalet’, which was found in Canterbury in the early-19th century. It is, in effect, a gold coin with an attached loop, so that it can be worn like jewellery. On the obverse, around an imperial-style bust, is an inscription which is read as: LEVDARDVS EPS (in fact the inscription is reversed, showing the inexperience of the craftsman who produced the die from which it was struck), i.e. Leudardus Episcopus, who is identified as Bishop Liudhard. Liudhard had come to Kent, in the company of Æthelberht’s Frankish wife, perhaps around 580. It is thought likely that the medalet was produced in Canterbury during the time that Liudhard was there (it seems probable that he was dead by 597), and worn as a demonstration of the owner’s Christian faith. Gareth Williams, though, notes: “The Liudhard pendant is often referred to as a ‘medalet’, but its discovery with other coins re-used as jewellery raises the possibility that the LEVDARDVS piece is also a coin.”
Early Anglo-Saxon Coins (2008) Chapter 3 (p.17).
‘Prosperity and Power in the Age of Bede and Beowulf’, the Raleigh Lecture on History delivered at the British Academy in 2001, published in Proceedings of the British Academy Vol. 117, text freely available online.
The basis for the first English coins was the late-Roman ‘tremissis’ (one-third of a ‘solidus’).
Like ‘sceattas’, ‘thrymsas’ is a term used inappropriately by numismatists. Thrymsas appear, centuries later, as units of value in a list of wergilds known as ‘The Law of the North People’, in which (§6) it is stated: “A ceorl’s wergild is 266 thrymsas, which is 200 shillings according to the law of the Mercians.” (The price put on the life of “a king of the North people” is 30,000 thrymsas.)
‘The Law of the North People’ is part of a compilation attributed to Wulfstan, archbishop of York 1002–1023, but presumably it originated during the period from the later-9th to mid-10th centuries, when Viking conquered southern Northumbria was ruled, from York, by “a king of the North people”.
Pennies issued in the name of Jænberht, archbishop of Canterbury, who died on 12th August 792, are of the lighter type, whilst those issued in the name of his successor, Æthelheard, who was consecrated on 21st July 793, are of the heavy type.
‘The Coinage of King Aldfrith of Northumbria and Some Contemporary Imitations’, in The British Numismatic Journal Vol. 76 (2006), freely available online.
At the time D.M. Metcalf was writing (2006), three of Aldfrith’s coins had been found at North Ferriby. He wondered: “whether that place may not have been performing some or all of the functions of a wic [trading centre] – and even whether (as at Hamwic [Southampton]) it was not the location of the mint.”
Early Anglo-Saxon Coins (2008) Chapter 5 (p.31).
Northumbrian coins (which, incidentally, were issued in the names of archbishops of York as well as kings) retained the small thick format, and became progressively more and more debased. By the middle of the 9th century, when, thanks to the Vikings, production ceased, they contained almost no silver. The debased, copper alloy, coins are known as ‘stycas’. As a rule of thumb, Northumbrian coins from the second reign of Æthelred I (790–796) onwards are regarded as stycas.
Styca: “is the Northumbrian form of the OE word stycce (‘piece’, cognate with Germ. Stück) used in the Lindisfarne Gospel to translate the duo minuta (‘two mites’) offered by the poor widow in the temple (Mark 12.42), though there is no evidence for its ever having been applied to these coins.” (Philip Grierson and Mark Blackburn, Medieval European Coinage, 1: The Early Middle Ages, 1986, Chapter 10, pp.296–7)
Bede quotes two letters from Pope Boniface V – one (HE II, 10) to Edwin, king of Northumbria (616–633), the other (HE II, 11) to Edwin’s wife, Æthelburh – in which Eadbald’s name takes the form Audubald.
Wergild: the monetary value, based on rank, of a person’s life.