The late Basil Kybird’s family came from Thetford, and in 2012 I published an article by him giving a fascinating account of life in THETFORD before the war. Thetford has the distinction of being the oldest town in Norfolk to get a mention in an historical document. Venta Icenorum (Caistor St Edmunds) is older, but has not counted as a town since Roman times. Dereham is described as the place where the nun St Withburga died in 743AD, but if this was West Dereham this has never been more than a village. Thetford is recorded as the town where the Danes set up camp in the year 869 on the way to kill King Edmund. At the time of the Domesday survey the Bishop of East Anglia was based in Thetford- he did not move his see to Norwich until later; it is obvious that it is a very historic place.
It has long been a transport hub in the centre of Norfolk and Suffolk. Norwich and Ipswich looked eastwards to the sea for their connections with the wider world, but Thetford is oriented inland. The river Little Ouse took traffic along to Brandon and thence to the Great Ouse river basin. Peddars Way went a few miles east of Thetford and joined the area with the Ickneild Way to the south west. It went where you could cross into Norfolk without getting your feet wet (the rivers Little Ouse and Waveney flow west and east from within about a mile of each other). The A11 (which used to go through the middle of the town) is now the main road to London, but in the past the route from Thetford to London passed through Bury St Edmunds and Chelmsford. It would have been the most direct way to the capital, and that mattered if you were going on foot or by ox cart!
The first railway line to link Norfolk with London opened to Thetford in 1845. Thetford went on to be the junction with the line to Bury St Edmunds and the end of the branch that joined that town with Watton and Swaffham. These branch lines closed in the 50s and 60s and Thetford ceased to be junction. The train is still the quickest way to get there from Norwich; it takes under half an hour by rail, compared to three-quarters of an hour by dual carriageway road. It should soon be possible to get a direct service to Stansted Airport from this Norfolk town. It is true that you could get a direct train from Thetford to Stansted a hundred years ago, but that was before the word ‘airliner’ had entered the travellers’ vocabulary.
In the age of steam it was the place where Burrell traction engines were built. (Basil’s granddad worked for the firm.) The railway was the crucial element in enabling them to dispatch this agricultural machinery across the world. Burrell’s factory once employed hundreds of people in Thetford. It was one of the largest suppliers of powered road vehicles before the dawn of the internal combustion engine age.
In the more distant past the town was a centre of the paper making trade; in the 18th century it was the principal industry in the town. The linen rags required were not available in sufficient quantities in Thetford itself and were brought to the mill by river from places along the Great Ouse. The mill was established shortly before 1735 on a site where a watermill had been since before 1066. After producing an inferior grade of white paper for many years, in the late 19th century the Patent Pulp Manufacturing Co. Ltd. turned its attention to producing articles of papier-mâché like trays and bowls. They used jute sacks to produce pulp for this purpose, and they would have brought them in by train. The mill finally closed in the 1950s.
The Forestry Commission was set up in the 1920s as result of the severe shortage of native grown timber that became apparent in the First World War. The largest forest established in the UK as a result is Thetford Forest. The farms in the area were not very productive – irrigation was not then available and despite the Scots pine windbreaks that were a feature of the Brecks sandstorms were a common occurrence. The purchase of large tracts of land to grow Corsican pines was broadly welcomed by the local estate owners.
Thetford Grammar School claims to have been founded in 631. In that year St Felix certainly established a school to train his priests somewhere in East Anglia; there is no proof it was in Thetford, but an ancient town there is a good chance that this was so. If this is the case it is the oldest school in the country and it is incredible that it is still going strong. There may have been a brief period in the sixteenth century when it ceased to function, and from 1944 for nearly forty years it was a part of the State School system. It is again an independent school taking pupils from the ages of 3 to 18 and is coeducational. Its most famous pupil was the son of a weaver Tom Paine, perhaps better known in the US as a major agitator for the War of Independence.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
St Edmund and the Vikings 869–1066
Joseph C. W. Mason
Paperback, 234×156 mm, 168 pp. With 7 maps, 27 colour and 7 b/w illustrations
THIS IS THE PUBLICITY BROCHURE FROM THE PUBLISHER, THE LASSE PRESS
King Edmund’s short reign over the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia was marred by invasion by Vikings from Denmark. Edmund himself was killed by them. He won no great battle. But he became the most celebrated of all Anglo-Saxon royal saints: dedicatee of dozens of churches, whose relics were the object of great pilgrimages, and regarded for some time as the national saint of England.
As his cult grew, it became impossible to draw a line between the truth and its embellishment by hagiographers with their own messages to promote. Was Edmund the chaste, peace-loving man whom Abbo of Fleury depicted, or was he rather a powerful warrior? And why did the Vikings later play a large part in fostering his legend?
Joseph Mason roots his account in the Viking period: the last days of the life of the real man, and the first decades of the development of his cult. He focuses on the Vikings and Edmund’s interaction with them, both before and after his death, and he draws on unconventional sources of information: the pattern of church dedications to Edmund, place names, and the archaeological record. Mason argues that these traces, albeit sparse, provide valuable evidence that suggests how and where the Vikings travelled, where the impact of their invasion was greatest, and where the source of his subjects’ gratitude to Edmund – which was surely the main factor in his acclamation as a saint – is really to be located. The book concludes with a gazetteer of churches dedicated to St Edmund, in East Anglia ad beyond.
Joe Mason read history at Oxford and worked as a freelance journalist for many years. His blog on memories of East Anglia has recorded 200,000 hits.
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Following its successful launch on Thursday (19th April), the book is now available for the public to buy. The book may be purchased worldwide direct from the publisher, (post free in the UK) LASSE PRESS, 2 St Giles Terrace, Norwich NR2 1NS (Tel: +44 (0)1603 665843) [www.lasse.press.com], or in Norwich from Jarrold’s Book Department. It can also be ordered from your local book store. Don’t forget the title; St Edmund and the Vikings, 869-1066.
A history book entitled St Edmund and the Vikings is due to be published shortly. It will be launched with a reception at Jarrolds, London Street, Norwich, Book Department (Lower Ground Floor) on April 19th. Do come along; arrive from 6 o’clock for the 6.30 start. Drinks will be served and the event is free, but you will need to reserve your place. I look forward to meeting you in person. I will give short talk on the origin of the book. If you are unable to come along it will be available from your local bookshop at a very moderate price, although you may have to order it; do so now. I urge you to place your orders at once, as who knows how quickly it will sell out? If you go to the publisher’s website (Lasse Press ) it is available there. The ISBN is 9 781999 775216 , which may be helpful if you want to go to another bookshop.
This no heavyweight academic tome; this story is quite unlike the dry accounts of most medieval saints. This is all about war and violence. As the Vikings circled the country and preyed upon its people, the English looked to Saint Edmund to protect them. For those who are interested, the book has a full range of footnotes, a bibliography and an index. It includes a gazetteer which lists all the known medieval churches, chapels, carvings and pictures of the saint; it is worth buying for this alone! It has plenty of illustrations (most in colour) including maps, which allow the reader to place the story in its geographical context – an important part of the history.
As you might have guessed by now, I wrote the book. I have been working on it for many years, during which time my knowledge of Anglo-Saxon history has grown enormously. The list of monarchs since William the Conqueror used to be part of every child’s school learning; there was even a rhyme to help you remember them. It began ”Willie, Willie, Harry, Ste…”; children no longer have to memorise such things, but even when they did the list of kings before William the Conqueror was a closed book to them. The brightest pupils might have been able to mention Edward the Confessor, but beyond that they would have looked blank. One of the problems about writing Anglo-Saxon history is the poverty of written texts that you can use as source material. For more recent history you can go to the collection in the local record office, but for Anglo-Saxon history you will find nothing there. Some Old English texts remain, but these have been pored over by historians for centuries and have little new to offer.
This has led me to adopt a revolutionary approach; instead of using the well trodden path of traditional history I have fallen back on the information that lies hidden in the landscape. I can hear you saying ‘How so? What can the muddy acres and hedgerows possibly tell me of events so long ago?’ The answer may surprise you. For a start, the place-names we still use on an everyday basis were nearly all created by the Anglo-Saxons, and these names alone can tell us a lot of history, if only they are used intelligently. For example, we can tell that the river at Attlebridge was crossed by a bridge; at nearby Alderford a tributary of that river was crossed by a ford. This is simple once you think about it, because ‘bridge’ and ‘ford’ are the same words in modern English, but by judiciously using such information with the invaluable scraps we can gather from the few written sources, we can build up a surprisingly detailed picture of long ago events. Place-names also record long-ago battles too. The landscape dictates what is possible and what is not; an army cannot cross an estuary without boats, but a stream poses no such problem. The basic landscape can only give us so much, but once you add in other things like church dedications, the world opens up. You don’t believe me? Read my book and make your own mind up.
In the case of St Edmund, for the first time ever (or since the tenth century anyway), we can be almost certain where he died, to within a few hundred yards. Once he was dead, I have a convincing theory of where he was first buried. Next we can trace the spread of his cult in the same way, all with only minimal input from the written sources. Without question the most important of these written sources is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It may only mention King Edmund of East Anglia once, but the Vikings appear on almost every page. By putting this information together with the mute testimony of the church dedications, I have demonstrated how much St Edmund meant to the Anglo-Saxon people. I would like to tell you more, but to read the next instalment of the story of St Edmund and the Vikings you must buy my book.
THE BLOG FOR THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE
St Edmund was king of East Anglia in the 9th century; he was killed by the Vikings in the year 689 AD. In other words a very long time ago; but there is much new information about this Anglo-Saxon monarch, his people and their attitude to him as a saint, and their relationship with the Vikings. This is contained in a new book, St Edmund and the Vikings, to be published on April 19th. This book is a must-read for anyone with an interest in history. It uses a revolutionary approach to the period, one that you have to read to appreciate. The new source material that the author has uncovered offers an amazingly detailed account of the year that ended with the death of the king. All the standard histories of this period use the same religious texts, which give a one-sided and biased view of the way in which contemporaries viewed him. According to the religious authorities he was a peace-loving man of God. This was not at all how he was seen by ordinary Englishmen; to them he was the hero who united the people against the Viking menace. No wonder some people refer to him as the first patron saint of the English. He was certainly that, and with reason.
Let me give you a hint of the way the Saint was invoked by the ordinary inhabitants of England, as they were hounded by the marauding Vikings. In the late ninth century these warriors landed on the island of Mersea in Essex. There the Viking invaders built ramparts to defend their camp against the local Englishmen, and these earthworks remain to this day in the North East corner of the island. When the Vikings left and the immediate danger had passed, the people of this Essex island built a church near the Viking camp that they dedicated to St Edmund, the saint who they hoped would defend them from any return of the unholy Danes in the future. In case you think this is just an isolated example, this pattern can be seen time and again round the coast of England. Even two hundred years after this attack on Mersea Island, the Viking were still descending on the English people, intent on warfare. When, for the last time, these Viking warriors tried to take over the country, they were defeated at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire. This victory was commemorated by a chapel built on the bridge; these river crossings frequently possessed a chapel in those days, but there was something special about this long-vanished building. Is it just a coincidence, or does the fact that the holy place was dedicated to St Edmund tell us something about his opposition to the Vikings? Surely it was to commemorate what the people saw as St Edmund’s help in defeating the Scandinavians that the chapel was dedicated to him.
So you must not expect this book to refer only to the way the Vikings killed the king; this martyrdom was obviously a very important event, but it was only the start of a long period of Viking aggression against the English. We can trace the various raids and battles between the two sides, and at every turn the saint appeared to support the English; nor is this only moral support. The most dramatic event was when the long-dead king returned to kill the Danish monarch Sweyn Forkbeard as he slept in Grantham, Lincolnshire; or at least this was what everybody believed at the time. There can be no doubt that this East Anglian king became the symbol of Anglo-Saxon resistance to the Vikings; this is the most important aspect of the saint, and it is the theme of the book.
The book has other insights into the story of St Edmund. It sets out a convincing case for the location where the saint was killed, and the village where his body was first interred. His final resting place was of course in Suffolk at Bury St Edmunds, but initially his cult began in Norfolk. To find out where you must read the book.
The book, which is well illustrated with photographs in colour, is due to be published in April this year. It will be available from the launch day from Jarrold’s shop in the city, and from the publisher’s website on-line, via Ebay or you can order in from you friendly local bookshop. Do not hesitate to spend a few pounds on this exciting new work.
St Edmund and the Vikings 869–1066
Joseph C. W. Mason
Paperback, 234×156 mm, 168 pp. With 7 maps, 27 colour and 7 b/w illustrations
Available from the publisher, firstname.lastname@example.org, Amazon or any new bookshop.
The author, JOSEPH MASON
FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
In the ninth century the English East Coast was at the centre of a wave of invasion and warfare. Danish warriors from across the North Sea were making determined efforts to deprive the Saxons of their gold and silver and then rule the land. Eastern England was colonised by Vikings; York was the seat of Viking power in Northumbria from 867 for nearly 90 yeas, and East Anglia had Viking kings from 880 until 917. For the rest of the Anglo-Saxon period the influence of the Vikings was never far away. The Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard terrorised the country in the first years of the eleventh century; he briefly ruled England, and after his death his son Cnut became king of the land.
In Norfolk we can still trace the evidence of Vikings occupation in words and place-names. They soon intermarried with the local Anglo-Saxons, but they changed our language in the process. The Norfolk dialect includes many Danish words. Staithe is a term unknown in England outside the East Coast (this includes Yorkshire as well as Norfolk); it means wharf and comes from Old Norse. Flegg is the name of the old hundred just outside Great Yarmouth and the word means the yellow flag iris in the Danish language. The area around the upper reaches of the river Wensum is particularly rich in such memorials of a time over a thousand years ago. The village of Elsing takes its name from a Danish chieftain ‘Elesa’. The forest called Normans Burrow Wood near Whissonsett has nothing to do with rabbit burrows; it is a corruption of ‘Norseman’s Barrow”. Further west the village of Grimston takes in name from the pagan god Grim, while further east the second part of the name of the village Newton Flotman comes from the Old Norse word for seaman.
Nor is it only words which remind us of the Vikings. There are many archaeological finds which date from the Viking age. A brooch depicting a Valkyrie was found in Norfolk and may be seen in the collection at Norwich Castle Museum. A silver pendant decorated with Thor’s hammer was discovered by a metal detectorist near the river Wensum and hoards of coins from the period when Norfolk was ruled by Danish kings regularly turn up across the county. It was the Vikings who established Norwich as a major town, and the first reference to the name comes from one of these coins, where the inscription records that the mint was located there. They were fierce and ruthless warriors, but they reinvigorated the sleepy economic life of Norfolk.
It is thought that the huge development of the peat industry (that gave rise to the Norfolk Broads) was a result of the initiative of the Danish community. It is significant that in the past a quarter of the landmass in Denmark consisted of peat bogs, and these have been used as a resource since Neolithic times; there is no direct way of linking the origin of the Broads with the Vikings, but this seems highly likely. Long before the coal mines of the Midlands and the North produced the fuel that powered the industrial revolution, the Norfolk wetlands were a hive of activity. Peat dug out across the marshland and carried by river to Norwich provided the inhabitants with fuel. Within two hundred years of the arrival of the Danes in the small town they called Norvic, Norwich was vying to become the second most populous conurbation in the land. The peat was needed to heat their homes.
The Vikings came into the country and things would never be the same again. History has buried the bloodshed and paganism deep in the realms of the past, but the words we use, the landscape we live in and the blonde gene that remains in our bloodline bear mute testimony to the continuing influence of these fair haired warriors. As the Viking age recedes into the past these things will slowly fade, but they have lasted for over a thousand years; we are still Vikings in many ways.
THE BLOG FOR THE STORY OF EAST ANGLIA
[TO SEARCH FOR A SUBJECT IN THIS BLOG ENTER ‘joemasonspage’ and the subject from the list on the right into Google; this should show the relevant blogs]
Alfred came to the throne of Wessex in 871. He was immediately thrown into the continuing war with the Danes; they were fresh from their victory over the King of East Anglia, which had involved the death of Edmund. Previously the Danes had successfully defeated the Northumbrians at York, so they appeared invincible. King Edmund had been killed by the invading Danes eighteen months before Alfred came to the throne, when his brother was killed in battle with the Danes.
There is no written record of any Anglo-Saxon kings who might have succeeded Edmund in East Anglia, and for many centuries it was assumed that none did, but the names of two kings are now known from the discovery of coins that they issued. The names of these two East Anglian rulers were Oswald and Æthelred. For simplicity’s sake I will restrict my comments to King Æthelred, and from his coinage we can state a few basic facts. One coin from his reign bears the name of the moneyer (i.e. coin-issuer) Sigered, who had also acted in the same capacity for Edmund. The design is also identical with the coinage that had been issued by Edmund. The coins issued a few years later by the Danes were very different; from this information we can assert that there was continuity between the reigns of Edmund and Æthelred, and the change to Danish rule came after 880.
We know that these coins circulated outside East Anglia, as one example was found in Kent, which by then was part of Wessex. This means that it is impossible that the Wessex court was unaware of the King Æthelred’s existence; in spite of this, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (that work of Wessex propaganda) gives the clear impression that Edmund was the last English king of East Anglia, although (perhaps significantly) they did not explicitly say so. Were the authors of the Chronicle trying to hide something? And if so what?
Knowledge was something that Alfred prized above almost everything else. He was an avid collector of travellers’ tales, and we have the details of what he heard about the far north of Norway, and of Ireland too. If he was that interested in distant lands, how could he not have known the king of an adjacent realm like East Anglia? Surely the Wessex court was not only very interested in what was happening there, but they would also have been very well informed. If the writers of the Chronicle were unforthcoming about the king, it was not because of a lack of knowledge. Why was the Wessex establishment so keen to give the impression to posterity that East Anglia had already fallen under Danish rule in 869, with the death of Edmund?
Between the departure of the Danish army from East Anglia late in the year 870, and the return of this army as settlers in 880, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has nothing to say about what was happening in East Anglia. However, we can be certain that its future was high up on the list of concerns discussed at Wednore, after Alfred’s victory over the Danish army. Alfred had emerged from his low point in hiding at Athelney with a radical solution to the problem posed by the Danes in Wessex. After his defeat of Guthrum’s army Alfred was able to put his plan into effect. Despite his victory, he knew that the best way to protect Wessex from future Danish attacks was to give them somewhere else; if they were occupied in setting up another kingdom, they would have less time to bother Alfred. Northumbria they had already taken over, and Alfred had plans to annex the kingdom of Mercia; that left the kingdom of East Anglia as the place to give Guthrum, and he was duly dispatched thither in 880.
For an English king to impose a Danish monarch on an Anglo-Saxon nation was certainly a betrayal, but if it protected Wessex then Alfred could live with that. What he could not contemplate was to impose a heathen king on a Christian people. That is why it was so important for him to have Guthrum baptised, and anointed as a Christian king. This was achieved in 878, but then there was a long delay.
In 878 -880, with the decision to establish the Danes in East Anglia, we have now reached a period of inactivity on the part of Guthrum and his army. Between his baptism and his eventual arrival in East Anglia there was a period of about 18 months. This posed a problem of provisioning; as the Danish army could no longer forage for itself as predators on the people of Wessex they would have to be provided with food. That difficulty however paled into insignificance compared to that task of keeping so many fit young warriors idle for so long. Eventually they became too much for the people of Wessex to deal with, and they were moved across the border to Cirencester in Mercia. This was not a wholly satisfactory solution, for the advantage of putting a reasonable distance between them and the kingdom of Wessex was offset by the difficulty of supervising and controlling them. The question that must be asked is ‘why were these hungry and impatient Danes not sent straight to East Anglia’? The answer must lie in East Anglia itself.
It is sometimes stated that in 880 Guthrum returned to East Anglia, but this implies he had been there before. However, it is clear from reading the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that he had never before been to East Anglia. He had not arrived in England until after the Danes had left the despoiled lands of Norfolk and Suffolk for Wessex. The nearest he had got to East Anglia was in 874, which year he spent in Cambridge. This has never been a part of the province of East Anglia, and in any case he was only in Cambridge to muster his troops for a renewed assault on Wessex; all his attention was directed west, not east.
When Alfred was arranging the future of East Anglia with Guthrum in 878, they were dealing with a kingdom that neither leader had any legitimate claim to. Even if King Æthelred of East Anglia was (against all the evidence) a Danish puppet king, he owed his allegiance to the dynasty of Ragnar Lothbrok, members of which family had led the earlier invasion of East Anglia which had led to the death of King Edmund. Æthelred could not have been the puppet of Guthrum under any circumstances; if he had been a puppet, Æthelred’s strings would have been pulled from York, the city Ragnar’s sons had retired to after 870. Guthrum was not a part of this family, and the fact that he could walk into East Anglia suggests to me that York had no influence over East Anglia after 870.
The other party to the arrangement, Alfred, had no authority over East Anglia either. His own view of himself as protector of all Anglo-Saxons would not have been shared by the people of East Anglia, who he was engaged in delivering to the mercies of a foreign king. We may imagine that once Æthelred got wind of the fate that Alfred and Guthrum had cooked up for him frantic representations were made, not only to the West Saxon court but also to anybody else who would listen. We may also imagine that some important people in Wessex itself must have had some serious misgivings about Alfred’s intentions.
The fact that not a word of all this appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is not surprising. Like the silence of the Chronicle on the existence of King Æthelred, the propagandists of Wessex were keen to leave the impression to posterity that nothing stood between Alfred and the smooth implementation of his plan. The long delay gives the lie to this story. We cannot know how this situation was eventually resolved, but it is cannot have been done in a pleasant manner.
There is some evidence that Alfred himself had some conscience about the fate that he was wishing on his fellow Englishmen in Norfolk and Suffolk. For all Guthrum’s apparent conversion to Christianity and his Anglo-Saxon baptismal name of Athelstan, Guthrum had not really changed, and Alfred was aware of this. His new religion was politically expedient, not the result of a heart-felt change in belief. No bishops were allowed to promulgate the faith in the east throughout the period of Danish rule. Guthrum proved to be as oppressive as everyone had feared. What evidence do we have have for this? The violent and unjust nature of Danish rule can be found in the treaty between Alfred and the Danes known as Guthrum’s Peace. This also demonstrates how Alfred continued to feel responsible for the conditions under which Guthrum’s English subjects lived.
This treaty, which is likely to date from 886, has five articles. Numbers two and three both deal with murder in East Anglia; article two begins “If a man be slain we esteem all equally dear, English and Danish.” This is a strong hint of two things; one is that inter-ethnic violence was rife. If murder were a rare occurrence there would have been no need to refer to it in the treaty. Secondly, if when it did occur, Danish and English perpetrators were treated equally, there would have been no need for such a clause either. We can therefore be sure that native East Anglians found themselves second class citizens in their own land, as a direct result of Alfred’s intervention. Alfred’s concern for these victims of discrimination has been attributed to his view of himself as the king of all Englishmen. Although it is is certainly true that he saw himself in his way, there is more to it than that. His responsibility was more direct and personal, and reveals perhaps that he felt a sense of guilt for his treatment of the East Anglians. Surely I am not alone seeing Alfred’s queasy conscience at work here?
It is doubtful if Guthrum took these treaty obligations any more seriously than the other oaths he had taken and then reneged upon when it suited him. Alfred certainly wished to improve the conditions under which East Anglians lived, but his ability to do anything about them was severely limited. Ultimately he intended to extend his kingdom into East Anglia, a policy objective which was only accomplished some twenty years after his death. For the time being, and for the remainder of his lifetime, all that Alfred could do was to demonstrate his good intentions by such things as the treaty with Guthrum.
As ruled over by Guthrum East Anglia was more extensive than it had been as an Anglo-Saxon kingdom; it reached into most of Essex and Cambridgeshire, and into part of Lincolnshire too. Essex was the first part of this kingdom to be lost, becoming part of Alfred’s Wessex before Guthrum’s death in 890. North Norfolk finally fell to the Anglo-Saxons in 917.
This examination of the last period of East Anglia’s existence as an independent kingdom reveals how intimately involved it was with Alfred the Great, despite his having no direct power over the land. He established its last dynasty of Danish rulers, and then plotted to depose them and establish his own rule. He even tried to influence their laws in treaty negotiations with the Danish king. You might think Alfred’s story is all about Wessex; but East Anglia was an abiding concern throughout his life.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
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).
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF EAST ANGLIA
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.
There is a chapter on the Viking coinage in my book, published in April 2018.
St Edmund and the Vikings 869–1066
Joseph C. W. Mason
Paperback, 234×156 mm, 168 pp. With 7 maps, 27 colour and 7 b/w illustrations
Available from the publisher, email@example.com, Amazon or any new bookshop.