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English Coins

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Early Britain

It is generally supposed that coins were not used in Britain before about the first century B.C. As in earlier civilizations before the invention of coins, the medium of exchange before this period would have been barter and since the inhabitants of these islands were primarily an agricultural people living in small closely knit communities, the medium would certainly have included cattle. During the first century B.c., however, the need was felt for a more convenient medium of exchange and consequently copies were made of those coins that had found their way to these islands in the course of trade. They consisted principally of Gaulish coins, these having been struck in central Gaul around the Saone Valley. The British copies were very crudely made of tin, having been cast in moulds, usually retaining part of the `git' which joined one mould to another; these are considered to be the earliest of the British coins and bear a very crude representation of a head facing left on the obverse and a bull butting right on the reverse.

At the same period or perhaps a little later, other Gaulish coins of the Bellovaci tribe circulated over roughly the same south-eastern district to which the tin coins have been attributed. The Bellovacian coins are of a much higher standard of workmanship than their British counterparts and although the design is extremely crude, it can be traced to its prototype in the gold stater of Philip of Macedon bearing the head of Apollo on one side and a two-horse chariot on the other.

The two Belgic invasions of Britain-the first can be placed at about 75 B.C., mainly on evidence provided by Caesar-are important landmarks in British history. New coin types appeared some partly inscribed, by the Regni, Atrebates, Catuvellauni and Cantii and many of these types are again barbarous copies of the Philip stater. It is interesting to note that there are inscribed staters struck by Cunobolin, king of the Catuvellauni, who is the Cymbeline of Shakespeare's play. The Belgic tribes settled in an area roughly extending from Hampshire and Surrey in the south-west, to Kent in the east and along the Berkshire downs in the north. Outside this area tribes native to Britain, the Iceni, Dobuni, Brigantes, Durotriges and Trinovantes also struck their own coins somewhat in imitation of the Belgic types.

With the Claudian invasion in A.D. 43, the native coinage was demonetized and the Roman coins took their place. Although all the emperors since Julius Caesar had counted Britain as one of their possessions, it was naturally not until the Claudian invasion that any reference to British victories was made on the coinage and it was in fact not until the usurper Carausius became emperor in A.D. 287 that mints were established in Britain at London and Colchester. Coins in gold, silver and copper were struck at the London mint, the commonest being the antoninianus. Carausius also struck what are known as `Legionary' coins; coins struck in honour of various legions which were stationed in Britain and Gaul. The reverse of these coins makes reference to a particular legion e.g. LEG IIII FLAVIA with two lions facing each other. This type is in honour of the IV (Flavia) legion whose badge was a lion or a centaur.

The supply of Roman coins for circulation in Britain was at first far from adequate and this resulted in local copies of the official coinage being produced; the commonest of these is the copy of the dupondius of Claudius. In the second century A.D. the supply of official coinage became adequate so that the imitations were not necessary.

Carausius was murdered by his financial minister Allectus who then assumed power. Allectus's reign was short (A.D. 293-6) and was comparatively uninteresting numismatically speaking except for the introduction of a new denomination, the bronze quinarius or half antoninianus, it being easily distinguished by the letter Q before the mintmark on the reverse.

Constantius Chlorus defeated Allectus in battle somewhere in Hampshire, the latter being killed in the melee that followed and by his death the Roman province of Britain was restored to the government of Rome. Constantius had found the island defences in a state of decay and an ever-increasing number of piratical raids by the Franks and Saxons would have to be dealt with drastically. It is not surprising, therefore, that the arrival and subsequent victory of Constantius were received by the population with some enthusiasm. Presumably because of this, or perhaps for other political reasons, a very handsome gold medallion was struck at the mint of Trier. It depicts an equestrian figure of the emperor arriving at the gates of London personified by a female figure kneeling and with the legend REDDITOR LVCUS AETERNA suggesting that Britain had been restored to the eternal light of Roman civilization.

The coins of Constantius are quite common and have been found in large numbers in this country. The follis, a bronze coin with a silver wash on it, introduced by Diocletian (A.D. 284-304), continued to be issued by Constantius and from this time on it remained the only coin that was struck at the London mint. On the death of Constantine the Great in 337 no further coins were struck in London and for the remaining years of Roman rule coins were imported from Gaul.

In 410 the Romano-British population, feeling that Constantine II was neglecting their interests-he was in fact busily engaged in defending the Rhine frontier against the Gothsrevolted and expelled his governors. The coinage of Britain from this period consists entirely of `barbarous radiates' so called because of their being crude copies of the antoninianus on which the emperor wears a radiate crown. These coins reached the lowest point of degradation at the end of Roman rule when the average size was 22 mm. diameter.

At the beginning of the fifth century the remaining Roman legions withdrew from Britain and darkness descended upon the island. Presumably some vestiges of Roman civilization remained, but it is not until the sixth century that any definite information exists as to the state of the country. By this time Angles, Saxons and Jutes had begun to settle in this country and a native coinage emerged. Initially these coins were copies of Merovingian types, some of which had found their way to this country through commerce, as is evident from examples found in southern England. The Merovingian kings had struck gold tremisses and small silver coins known as sceats, their design being evolved from Roman coins, and the first coins struck in Britain were gold coins of a type similar to that of the tremisses. This issue of gold was, however, shortlived and subsequently a silver sceat coinage, took its place in the middle of the seventh century. In many cases the types bear a distinct Merovingian flavour, whilst the later issues show the beginnings of Anglo-Saxon art. Others again show their derivation from Roman art forms as is apparent from one type in particular which is a copy of a Roman coin bearing the figures of two captives before a standard. Some of the coins are inscribed LVNDONIA and bear an attempt at portraiture on the obverse; these are rare, however, and the vast majority of Anglo-Saxon sceats at this period do not have legends on them.

The sceat coinage lasted until the end of the eighth century when it was superseded by a new coin; the penny. Aethelberht II of Kent (748-62) is credited with introducing the penny into the British monetary system; only two examples of these coins are known and it is apparent that the reverse design of the wolf and twins is copied from a Roman original. By this time a mint had been established at Canterbury which produced coins for the kings of Kent and the archbishops of Canterbury who had been granted the right to strike coins by their Mercian overlords. Those coins of Archbishop Aethelheard (793-805) for example, have the name of Offa on them: obverse AEDILHARD PONT, reverse, OFFA REX MERC. During the eighth century Mercia became the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and following the subjugation of the kingdom of Kent at the battle of Otford in 774, Offa copied the penny and so began the first of a series of coins which was to last for the next hundred years until 874 when Burgred was deposed and Mercia became no more than a vassal state of the Viking invaders. During this hundred years, however, some of the most delightful coins in the whole Anglo-Saxon series were issued. The art form is truly Saxon and there are many pleasing portraits. One of the most interesting of them is the rare penny of Offa with the name and portrait of his wife Cynethryth; this is the only example of a Saxon lady appearing on a coin.

The kingdom of East Anglia is rather an unknown quantity. Probably it was a mere vassal state of Mercia and apart from some silver sceats of Beonna which should, perhaps, be more accurately assigned to the kingdom of Northumbria, no coins are known of East Anglia until Aethelstan I (825-840). By this time Mercian power was on the decline and the kings of East Anglia continued to strike coins until this kingdom too was absorbed into the Danelaw at the end of the ninth century. In 870 Edmund, the last Anglican king, was murdered by the Danes for refusing to renounce Christianity and after his death those Danish settlers who had adopted his religion struck a `memorial' coinage; large quantities of these coins must have been produced as they are quite common today.

Halfdene, the earliest of the Viking invaders of whom coins are known, occupied London in 872 and from the mint he set up there issued both pennies and, for the first time in the English coinage, halfpennies. The coins of Halfdene are extremely rare. The whole of his coinage was from the London mint and may be assigned to the period 872-5 since he transferred his capital to York in 875. Two years later Halfdene was expelled from Northumbria and was succeeded by Guthrum who later assumed the name Aethelstan when he was baptized into the Christian faith. Some rare pennies are known of Aethelstan and were probably struck after the Peace of Wedmore in 878 by which treaty after an exhausting struggle with Alfred of Wessex (871W9), he was recognized as king of East Anglia.

The coinage of the Viking invaders presents a variety of Danish symbols such as the Danish standard on coins of Sihtric (921-6), a hammer-Regnald (942-4) and a sword on coins of Eric (952-4) son of Harald Blue-tooth. The fortunes of England after the peace of Wedmore became centred in Wessex and on King Alfred. Coins had, however, been struck by the kings of Wessex as early as Beorhtric (786-802) but again these early coins are rare and it is not until the reign of Aethelwulf (83958) who was responsible for a wider variety of types, that they become somewhat commoner. On the accession of Alfred, Canterbury was the only mint in operation, but as the power of Wessex increased and that of Mercia diminished, mints were opened at London, Gloucester, Winchester, Oxford and Exeter. Of these new mints the coins from London are perhaps the commonest; the mint of Canterbury, however, still remained very prolific. Some of Alfred's coins have portraits on the obverse and the moneyer's name on the reverse. The moneyer, the person responsible for striking the coins, placed his name on them in order that in the event of any deficiency in the standard of weight the offender could be detected at once.

The commonest coins have only a central cross on the obverse surrounded by the king's name, thus: AELFRED REX and the moneyer's name in two lines on the reverse. A departure from the normal by Alfred was the title REx ANGLOR (King of England); and it is the first time this title was used by a king. The coin illustrated on , is a penny from the London mint, bearing the bust of Alfred on the obverse and the monogram LONDONI on the reverse.

It was during the reign of Edward the Elder (899-925), who succeeded Alfred, that the highest peak of artistic achievement was reached. The portraiture on the coins became more delicate and there is a rare type of penny that has a building on the reverse. Some coins have the Hand of Providence on them, whilst others again depict a bird holding a twig. One delightful coin has a drawing of a church which probably refers to the Minster at Winchester which was completed in Edward's reign.

Aethelstan (925-39) continued the fight against the Danes and the title AETIIELSTAN REX TOTIVS BRITANNIE is to be found on some of his later coins. It was Aethelstan who decreed at a Witanagemot at Grately in 928, that every burgh or town should have a mint with from one to eight moneyers depending on its importance, thus providing that a single coinage should be current throughout the country, and that the dies were to be engraved in London. Thus eight moneyers were appointed to London, seven to Canterbury, six to Winchester, etc. At Grately, too, it was decreed that the penalty for forgery should be the loss of a hand which was then to be nailed up in the smithy or, if the accused desired to clear himself of the charge, the hand that struck the coin should be submitted to `the ordeal of the hot iron'.

It is to Edgar (959-75) that the credit for finally conquering the Danes must go and by this he became the first real king of all England. Thirty-one mints were in operation during Edgar's reign, producing well-made pennies and from one particular mint, round halfpennies. These latter coins had occasionally been struck in the past by other kings but sometimes pennies cut in half were used as a more convenient method of producing a smaller denomination. Although Edgar had conquered the Danelaw, the country was now troubled by the Danish raiders who were plundering the coasts and during the reign of Aethelred II (979-1016) these raids became ever more frequent. Eventually the position became so desperate that Aethelred was forced to buy off the raiders by payment of `Danegeld'. In all, payment was made to a total of 155,000 lb. of silver, a very large part or perhaps all of it in coin: many large hoards of Aethelred's coins having been found in Scandinavia testify to this fact.

Upwards of sixty mints were in operation during Aethelred's reign. All of the coins bear his portrait and for the first time the king is shown holding the sceptre. Many of the coins bear a long cross on the reverse, thus facilitating their division into smaller denominations.

On St Brice's day (13 November) Aethelred arranged for the massacre of all the remaining Danes in England for fear of assassination. In retaliation for this Swein, king of Denmark, invaded England in 1003, penetrating farther inland than any earlier raiding party. In succeeding years Swein returned with armies led by his two sons Harald and Cnut, the latter eventually becoming king of England on the death of Aethelred.

Harald died in 1019 and Cnut by his brother's death became both king of Denmark and England and married into the Saxon dynasty by marrying Emma, the widow of Aethelred II. The coins of Cnut are notable for the introduction of the crown on the king's head.

Harthacnut, Cnut's only legitimate son, succeeded to the kingdoms of England and Denmark in 1035 on the death of his father but his half-brother Harald, who was in England at the time, seized power and reigned until 1040 when Harthacnut succeeded in establishing himself on the throne of England.

The coins of Harald I (1035-40) consist of only two types, the first being similar to the last type of Cnut, i.e., the reverse design consisting of a central cross formed of four jewels surrounded by the moneyer's name and mint. Harthacnut also issued only two types, the first again being similar to that of Cnut's last type.

In 1042 Harthacnut died whilst drinking at the wedding feast of one of his father's retainers and Edward `the Confessor', son of Aethelred II was elected king and crowned at Winchester on Easter day 1043. The coins of Edward's reign are of interest if only because of three departures from the normal Saxon coin types. The first had a seated figure of the king on the obverse, another type was struck on a smaller flan than usual, thus giving the impression that the coins are halfpennies and the third was the facing portrait of the king as against the usual profile.

On the death of Edward in 1066 Harold Godwinson, earl of Wessex was elected king. Owing to the short duration of Harold's reign only one type of penny was issued. It bears the bust of the king on the obverse, the sceptre in front of it sometimes being omitted. Despite the fact that there is only one type of penny, the coins of Harold are fairly common due to their being upwards of forty mints in operation at the time.