The history of the coinage of Viking East Anglia is important for a number of reasons. Although coinage had a long history in the Anglo- Saxon context, as far as the Danes who arrived in East Anglia as settlers in 880 are concerned coins were a novel means of exchange. Some metallic method of payment was a necessary part the Vikings’ trading activities, but it was in the form of bullion, or more specifically hack-silver. Pieces of precious metal were exchanged at a set value, and the bullion was weighed and marked to establish its worth. Although this system worked, it was an inefficient and time-consuming procedure compared to the use of coins.
The Danes had never used coins before Guthrum became King of East Anglia in 880. Previously when through pillage the Danes had come across the coins of other nations they used them as hack-silver. Thus. when they produced a coinage in about the year 885, the East Anglian Danes were embarking on an experiment that was new to them. The first coins to be issued in the Eastern Danelaw were copies of the coins of Alfred the Great. In many cases the inscriptions on the coins are blundered; that is having spelling and other mistakes (for example some letters could be reversed). As the legends on the coins represented not only a foreign language for the Danes (i.e. Latin) but also they were written in what was to them an entirely new alphabet; they had previously used runes. A degree of illiteracy was therefore inevitable; although unsurprisingly the Danes used continental moneyers to issue the coins on their behalf. The production of the dies used may have been done by the Danes themselves. The setting up of mints to produce large numbers of coins was in itself a major undertaking, though the local Anglo-Saxons would have had over a century’s experience to call upon, and were undoubtedly used to assist.
At first glance these copies of Alfredian Anglo-Saxon coins might appear to be English, but there is a reliable way to distinguish them from Danish coins. Alfred the Great had reformed his coinage during the early part of his reign by increasing the weight. The Danes did not copy him in this respect, and the Danish coins were all produced to the earlier lighter weight as employed by the Anglo-Saxons before the Alfredian reforms.
I must stress the importance of East Anglia in this new departure for the Vikings. The colleagues of Guthrum who had conquered York in 865 and established the Danish kingdom of Northumbria do not appear to have introduced coinage until the very last years of the ninth century. Guthrum by contrast seems to have brought out his first coins soon after setting up his kingdom in East Anglia. He was only king for ten years, dying in 890 (local tradition places this in Hadleigh in Suffolk), but he produced a succession of coin issues, including a few under his own name, not merely imitations of Alfred’s coinage. The name he used was Æthelstan, the name he had received from Alfred when he was baptised prior to receiving the kingdom of East Anglia. The area known as the Five Boroughs (Lincoln, Stamford, Nottingham, Leicester and Derby) was also involved in the use of this new currency and there were Danish mints in (among other places) Lincoln and Stamford. Meanwhile the continental Danes were still using hack-silver.
These East Anglian coins are of the greatest historical value, providing a great deal of evidence from a period of history in Norfolk and Suffolk that is completely devoid of written documents. Unfortunately the downside of this information is the difficulty in interpretation. Nonetheless some things we can say with a degree of certainty. The names of the mints occur on some of these coins, including the name NORDVICO which can only be Norwich. This is the first known reference to this town, which only rose to prominence after the Danes came to power in the East.
Our information on these historic coins comes largely from hoards, not necessarily found in East Anglia itself. Since the increasing use of metal detectors the number of single finds has also grown. We can only tell so much from the location of these hoards; the circumstances of their deposition can only be guessed at, and both their preservation from earlier looting and their ultimate discovery are matters of chance. The date of the hoard is much easier to ascertain, for the coins fortunately can be dated. Without doubt the largest hoard from this period is the Cuerdale hoard, discovered on the bank of the river Ribble near Preston. It included over 8,000 items including ingots and jewellery. This was found in 1840 and has long been dispersed; most of the coins in the hoard can still be traced however. The date of deposition of this hoard is probably between 905 and 910, but it includes several earlier coins which fit into the picture which I am endeavouring to paint. Despite its discovery in Lancashire, the area from which the greatest number of coins came was East Anglia.
I have not mentioned the coins of the kings Æthelred and Oswald. Although these are sometimes treated as the very earliest of the Danish issues, they were produced by Anglo-Saxon kings. Although these kings reigned after the death of King Edmund at the hands of the Vikings, they obviously belong to the Anglo-Saxon tradition. These two kings of East Anglia are not mentioned in any surviving documents from the period and are notably absent from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. They are only known through the small number of coins that have been identified as belonging to their reigns. All except one were found in East Anglia. In date these two kings fit into that period from the death of Edmund to the arrival of Guthrum (the ten years 869-879). The design of the coins of Æthelred in particular was identical to those coins produced in the reign of Edmund. Even the name of the moneyer that appears on one of the coins of Æthelred’s reign, Sigered, also appears on some of the later examples of Edmund’s coins. These kings were Anglo-Saxons and the coins they issued were entirely English, not Danish. There is an example of Æthelred’s coinage in Norwich Castle Museum, although last time I enquired it was not on display.
- Blackburn, Viking Coins and Currency in the British Isles (London, 2011).
- E. Blunt, The Anglo-Saxon Coinage and the Historian (Medival Archaeolgy, 1960).
- Dolley, Viking Coins of the Danelaw and of Dublin (London, 1965).