CURRENT FROM CIRCA AD 895 – 917
These coins are the first indication we have that Edmund was regarded as a saint. They circulated throughout the northern and eastern part of England for the first two decades of the 10th century. The puzzle about this is that celebration of the saint is that the Danes who introduced this very successful coinage were the children or relatives of the same East Anglian Vikings who had murdered the king some thirty years earlier.
A large hoard of St Edmund pennies was dug up in Cuerdale in 1840 by a gang of workmen who were repairing the river bank. Cuerdale is on a bend of the River Ribble near Preston in Lancashire, so you see how widely known the coins were. This hoard of silver, which numbered over 8,000 items (including jewelry and ingots), included 1,800 St Edmund coins, almost none of them with identical markings on the reverse side. The deposition of the hoard is thought to date from about the year 905, by which time the coins had been minted for ten years. They continued in production for another decade. It is remarkable that no Danes, either in this country or on the continent, produced any coins until the East Anglians began minting them a few years before the introduction of the Edmund Memorial Coinage. Prior to this the Danes used so-called hack silver as a means of exchange, i.e. any silver jewelry, coinage or plate marked with “hacks” or marks to indicate its weight. Coins were obviously a much more convenient way of paying for goods.
The coinage was the first indication that the late king Edmund was regarded as a holy man in East Anglia, but in official circles in Wessex he was not regarded as a saint. Both Bishop Asser (who wrote the Life of Alfred in 893) and the compilers of the Winchester Chronicle, (the first known copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) although they refer to the death of Edmund, it was as the king of East Anglia. If word of his new status had reached them they did share the belief in his saintlyness. There was no Papal canonization of saints until this was introduced by Urban II at the end of the eleventh century, so it was normal for the reputation of a saintly character to spread from area to area.
What was not normal was the administration of the church in East Anglia at the time. When the Edmund Memorial Coinage appeared there were no bishops to regulate religious life in East Anglia. The two bishops who had managed the ecclesiastical affairs of the kingdom were both eliminated at the time of St Edmund’s martyrdom. Although the Dane (Guthrum) who took over the East Anglian kingdom ten years later had been baptised, he did not bother to institute any new bishop. The church in East Anglia was effectively leaderless for 50 years, and even when a bishop was reintroduced when the Danes were defeated, it was the Bishop of London who supervised East Anglia for several years.
Why did the Danes make such a big deal of having a saint on their coins? It was an unusual step to take. Unfortunately they did not tell us why, and we have to make our own minds up. I like to think that as Edmund had died fighting a force of foreign invaders, the Daish king of East Anglia (Guthrum’s successor, of unknown name) promoted him as a saint against his current enemies, the army of the Anglo-Saxons. The English king, who defeated the Danes at the end of the second decade of the tenth century, took no time to replace the coinage with his own. If the king had any respect for the saint, he had none for the coinage. Perhaps this was because it had represented the saint of an independent East Anglia, which he was intent on eradicating.