The Iceni tribe lived in the area now known as Norfolk (this name was given to the area by the Anglo-Saxons). This Celtic tribe appears to have introduced their coinage sometime between 40 and 10 BC, after Julius Caesar’s invasions but a generation before the Roman occupation of Britain. This shows that the British were economically advanced even before the advent of the Romans. The effect of trading with Western Europe had brought them into contact with a moneyed economy and this must have led them to adopt a coinage themselves. By contrast the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who invaded Britain after the Roman legions left did not adopt coinage until more than a century after they had moved to England.
After the fall of the Roman Empire successive waves of barbarian invaders swept across Europe and brought with them a return to a pre-money economy. At the end of the 9th century the Scandinavian peoples still did not have a currency. This was introduced by one of their leaders, Guthrum, who had settled in Eastern England. So by coincidence this economic advance also happened in East Anglia. Although other Iron Age British tribes introduced coins at about the same time as the Iceni, only this tribe included their tribal name on some of their coins. These coins also include the names of their rulers, another unique feature among the coins of Britain. To have used the Roman alphabet shows that by no means all the members of the tribe were illiterate, and that they were already familiar with the basic elements at least of the Latin tongue.
The Iceni were advanced not only in their use of lettering but also in the physical production of coins. They had to produce the stamps that were used in the making of them and also they had to exercise advanced metallurgical techniques to establish a consistent value in the alloy used. This was 20% silver, 40% gold and the remainder copper. The weight of the coins was consistent too, as it needed to be for a successful coinage. These skills were almost certainly imported from Europe along with the moneyers who would have issued the coinage.
Although barbaric to Roman eyes, the appearance of the coins was highly artistic. This was specially so compared to Anglo-Saxon coins which were crude when they first appeared. The design of these Anglo-Saxon coins was more of a debased Roman model, although by then the Romans themselves had ceased to produce coins. The Iceni used stylized animal motifs quite unlike anything produced by Rome. These animals were mostly horses but they also included a boar and a wolf. The number of coins in existence suggest that they were produced on a relatively massive scale. Hoards have been found which number up to a hundred and, in a hoard discovered at Wickham Market in Suffolk in 2008, the best part of a thousand.
We must all have heard of queen Boudicca’ s rebellion against Roman rule but many may not realise that she was woman of Norfolk. Until the Iceni uprising in 61 AD the coinage remained current and was even still being minted. Thereafter it stopped being produced and the Romans would no longer tolerate its use. The coinage thus lasted about 70 year. The tribe was centred on Norfolk with a small part of Iceni territory extending into Cambridgeshire and north west Suffolk. In spite of the restricted area it is known in larger numbers than the early Saxon coinage of East Anglia, which in theory should have been greater as it covered a larger area.
Although coins continued to circulate in Norfolk after Boudicca’s death these were Roman coins and as such were current over the whole Roman Empire. It was not until the 7th century that East Anglia again began producing coins, and they were much more primitive than the Iceni coins of 600 years before. It was not until the time of East Anglia’s King Beonna in about 750 that the ruler’s title and name appeared on the coinage. The Iceni had included this information from the start. Again unlike the Iceni coins those of Beonna shunned the use of the Roman alphabet an instead used Anglo-Saxon runes.
A hoard of nearly 350 Iceni coins was found a few miles from where I am sitting as I write. It was discovered by a farmer hoeing sugar beet when I was six years old. They had been buried in a pot, possibility at the time of Boudicca’s revolt when Roman retaliation made it wise to hide your wealth. If so it appears that the owner of the hoard came to a bad end in the uprising and never returned to claim his wealth.
THE BLOG FOR THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA