It may come as a bit of a surprise to many that although Celtic coins have not (yet) been discovered in Ireland, there have been a lot of Roman and Anglo-Saxon coins found – especially the latter. Conservative Irish historians have always said the Romans never got here but they rarely even mention the Anglo-Saxons in the Early Medieval context. We also see modern cartoons and paintings of Vikings with ‘horned helmets’ but, although the Vikings never wore them, the Anglo-Saxons certainly did. Has this fact been distorted over a long period of time and remains with us via a sub-conscious memory manifesting itself in our rich oral tradition of story-telling ?
The history of Anglo-Saxon coinage spans more than five centuries, from the end of Roman rule in Britain in the 5th century, down to the death of Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066. It can be divided into four basic phases:
- Phase 1: c. 450–c. 550
- a very low level of coin-use in Britain, characterised by re-use of Roman coinage, though often in a non-monetary context. A small number of coins continued to be brought in from Gaul and elsewhere in Europe
- Phase 2: c. 550–c. 680
- the ‘gold’ phase of currency, which began with an increase in the rate of importation of continental gold, principally in the form of tremisses. From around 620 AD, English gold coins of similar format were produced, often known to numismatists as thrymsas. By the middle of the 7th century the quantity of gold in these coins was falling quickly, such that by the 670s they were more or less completely silver.
- Modelled on coins produced at the same time in Merovingian Francia – geographically the rough equivalent of modern France – these early Anglo-Saxon gold shillings were often inscribed with words borrowed from either Merovingian or Roman coinage, although examples have been found which instead bear such names as those of King Eadbald of Kent, the moneyers Witmen and Pada, or the names of mints in London and Canterbury
- Phase 3: c. 680–c. 750 (867 in Northumbria)
- The age of the sceattas – small, thick silver coins which evolved out of the latest, debased gold coins. These should more correctly be referred to as pennies or denarii as in weight and fineness they approximated the form the English penny was to retain for centuries, and contemporary references suggest this is how they were known.
- Most sceattas do not bear an inscription and are thus difficult to attribute.
- Early silver pennies were typically decorated with geometric or pictorial designs
- Over time, they began to show the name of the moneyer on their inscriptions (legends)
- It should be noted that in Northumbria, coins of this format continued to be struck under closer royal control until the 860s, though by the early 9th century they contained only a negligible quantity of precious metal
- The moneyer’s name remains because it was a personal guarantee of quality and value.
- There is evidence that moneyers worked for several monarchs – even in the event of a hostile takeover or over a period of bitter feuding.
- The moneyer, it seems, was a valuable asset to a medieval ruler.
- At Christmas 1124 all of the English moneyers were summoned to Winchester, where most of them were castrated and had their right hand amputated, on the orders of Henry I. The king seems to have suspected the moneyers of malpractice, and he acted with typical ruthlessness.
- Some of the moneyers escaped the drastic punishment by paying large fines
- e.g. When the sheriff of Pembrokeshire accounted for the revenues of the Henry I’s new Welsh county in 1130, they included £2 from Gillepatrick, probably in part payment of a fine imposed to avoid corporal punishment in the Purge of Moneyers
- Phase 4: c. 750–1066
- the silver coinage of sceattas petered out in Southumbrian England in the middle of the 8th century, to be replaced by a broader, thinner model of silver coinage modelled on that of contemporary Carolingian coinage
- These new coins carried legends naming the king, moneyer and (later) the mint of origin
- This new type of penny was apparently first introduced in the reign of the Mercian King Offa in about 760
- With various modifications in weight (within the range 1g–1.7g) and fineness this format of coinage remained standard for the rest of the period
From the 9th century, monarchs and their governments gained greater power over the control of coin production, and the designs used by different moneyers became standardised.
- Silver pennies of similar design remained the basis for the English currency and subsequent Hiberno-Norse currencies until the 14th century. Pennies of this form were made by English kings from Offa onwards, and also by Viking rulers of Dublin from the later 9th century.
- In the 860’s, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex formed a monetary alliance by which coinage of a common design could circulate through both of their lands. This was an important step in the introduction of a ‘common currency’ across two separate political entities. The ubiquitous silver penny had arrived !
- In order to do this, they must have ‘centralised’ the production of the dies
- One ‘master die-maker’ must have cut the dies and distributed them to each of the local mints
- When new dies were required, the local moneyers could request them
Towards the end of the reign of King Edgar, there was an important ‘reform’ of the Anglo-Saxon series and it inflluenced the design and production of English coins until the reign of Henry II – the Norman king that oversaw the invasion of Ireland in 1169.
- Old coins disappeared from circulation
- A single ‘standardised’ type was introduced at around forty mints across the country
- bearing the royal portrait and title on the obverse
- and the names of moneyer and mint around a small central cross on the reverse
- Initially, all new dies were distributed from a single die-cutting centre located at Winchester
- Such centralisation was unusual, and occurred in only a few of the other types that came after
Previously, the same type was used throughout the country but die production devolved to a number of regional die-cutting centres which distributed dies to nearby, smaller mints. Even within the nine-month reign of Harold II in 1066 coins were struck with a new design in his name at forty-eight mints. Now, just one mint, controlled all of the others.
Around seventy places in England (and in Wales under the Normans) were active as mints during this period, ranging hugely in size and productivity: the largest was London, though York and Lincoln remained important throughout the period, and other major mints included Winchester, Norwich and Stamford.
At the other end of the scale are places that were never important mints in the Anglo-Saxon period and are little more than villages, hillforts and market towns today, including Melton Mowbray, Milborne Port, Castle Gotha, Cadbury Castle and Dunwich. Mints of this kind were often only active during short periods, such as a number of ’emergency’ mints set up during the reign of Æthelred II because of Viking depredations.
This first type, usually known as the First small cross or Reform type, remained in currency for Edgar’s last years, the whole of Edward the Martyr’s short reign and even into the first years of Æthelred II, who came to the throne in 978/9 AD.
Within the reign of Æthelred, for instance, seven different design types can be seen in the progression of the following consecutive issues: First Small cross; First hand; Second hand; Crux; Long Cross; Helmet; and Last Small cross.
- This has implications for the Hiberno-Norse, Phase I coinage
- because the Dublin Vikings copied Æthelred’s coinage from about 996 AD onwards.
Numismatists have sometimes tried to discern a very rigid system of organisation in the late Anglo-Saxon coinage: one, Michael Dolley, believed that until the death of Cnut in 1035, each type lasted six years, with a few exceptions – such as the Last Small Cross type at the end of Æthelred’s reign – lasting longer under very unusual conditions. Recently, numismatists have begun to question the validity of this strictly ‘sexennial’ issue theory.
These coin (Anglo-Saxon, Phase 4) types are commonly found in Ireland, although the reason for them being there is hotly debated. The prevailing view is that the Vikings brought them to/from Ireland to facilitate trade, although a lot of them seem to have been found in native Irish held lands.
The first Irish coins were the Hiberno-Norse, Phase I coins produced by the Dublin Vikings under Sihtric.
- These Phase 1 coins were “imitations” of the Anglo-Saxon coins of the time
- At a casual glance, they looked like ‘current’ Anglo-Saxon coins of the day, except …
- the name of the king was Sihtric
- the moneyer’s name (some moneyers worked at more than one mint)
- the location of the mint was Dublin
For almost a hundred years prior to this, the Dublin Vikings and others in Ireland used Anglo-Saxon coins for trade purposes. Just like coins ‘imported’ from Gaul were the precursors to Celtic coinage in Britain, ‘imported’ Anglo-Saxon coins were the precursors to the Hiberno-Norse coinages of Ireland.
Vikings in other places had been copying / imitating the silver pennies of Aethelred, including those at York and the first native-produced coins of Denmark and Sweden were also Anglo-Saxon imitations.
Mints located in the old Danelaw, like York and Lincoln, contained a preponderance of moneyers with Scandinavian names, whilst one sometimes comes across moneyers all over the country with continental names, or even more exotic names in Old Irish
The table below contains those moneyers with Old Irish names
|Moneyer||Mint||Cn 1||Cn 2||Cn 3||HCn 1||Hr 1||Hr 2|
- Source: “Moneyers of the Late Anglo-Saxon Coinage 1016-1042” by Veronica J. Smart for her PhD disseratation at the University of Nottingham (1981)
- Abbreviations (Reigns of English kings during which these ‘Irish’ moneyers minted coins)
- Cn 1 Cnut, Type 1
- Cn 2 Cnut, Type 1
- Cn 3 Cnut, Type 1
- HCn 1 Harthacnut, Type 1
- Hr 1 Harald, Type 1
- Hr 2 Harald, Type 2
The Hiberno-Norse coins are imitations of Aethelred II’s coins, therefore these Irish moneyers were practising their craft some time after the first Hiberno-Norse coinages.