Coinage in Anglo Saxon England

by Pete Jennings

Towards the end of the Roman occupation of Britain in 410AD, their coin production seems to have stopped. Nevertheless, some coins may have remained in circulation. Some Roman solidus coins later re-appear pierced as Saxon jewellery pendants. When the Saxons, Angles & Jutes first occupied the country (from about 450AD onwards) they did not immediately start to mint coins. Most trade was done by barter, but some Merovingian coins crossed the channel from France to be used in higher value transactions such as gifts or fines.

Merovingian coins from the Sutton Hoo purse.

The 37 Merovingian gold coins that were found in the Sutton Hoo purse helped date the find, since the latest was produced in about 620-623AD. There were also three blanks and two ingots giving a total of 42 units = coincidentally the number of oar rowlock positions on the ship. It is possible that these were a sample set brought over to persuade the East Angles’ King Raedwald Wuffing to start a mint, but as far as we know he did not. He is believed to be the person from the ship burial of Mound 1, Sutton Hoo. His royal residence was at the recently excavated area of nearby Rendlesham.

Coins found at Rendlesham, the royal centre of Suffolk.

Bishop Udehard of Canterbury first minted coins in 590AD. The thrymsa (also known as tremissis or shilling) coins that were first minted here were often copies of the Roman, Frisian & Merovingian imports, and were created in Kent from where the practice gradually spread from about 680AD.

Thrymsa of Eorcenberht of Kent (655-675).

Initially thrymsas contained approximately 1.3 grams of gold, which was a third of a Roman solidus coin. Then they debased to a poorer quality of gold, and then later still were made of silver. Those silver coins are generally called sceattas. Some of those have a porcupine or wolf symbol. They were worth roughly £30 in today’s values, so were still too valuable for everyday purchases.

Penny of Aethelstan (924-939) minted in Norwich by Burdell.

When Carolingian silver pennies were introduced in the mid-8th century, English coin production ceased in most areas. The new coins were the same weight but much thinner and wider, due to them being produced from thin sheet metal rather than thicker ‘flan’ castings. The exceptions were those produced by the Archbishop of York and the kings of Northumbria. Their silver pennies became poorer quality, and some copper stycas also circulated alongside them. A few solid gold mancus coins were produced in the late 8th century, and were worth 30 pennies. Only 8 have been discovered. The Viking invasions of 9th century created new Danish mints within the Danelaw area, although they also often traded with hacked up pieces of silver or gold.

Mancus of Ceonwulf of Mercia (796-821).

Very Approximate values: these vary drastically between 450-850AD

In later periods, Kings would often exchange people’s old coins for newer ones, often as frequently as every three years. Since the old ones may have been ‘clipped’ i.e. pieces shaved off them, or even quartered to make smaller denominations this exchange regulated the quality. New coins may have contained less precious metal, or be exchanged at a premium, thus creating a revenue for the king.

1 Saxon penny = 20 (but also £10 - £30)
1 Saxon shilling = £120 (5 or 6 pennies at various times.)
1 Saxon pound = £4800 (240 pennies)

A male slave cost approximately £197 = 306 grams of gold
Female slave cost approximately £131 = 204 grams of gold.

Modern prices of 14 carat gold can be calculated at £14.60 / gram, giving values of £5256 & £2978 respectively. Gold & silver prices are very low now comparatively to the period we are considering of 450-1066 AD.

A high status warrior buying a helmet (265 pence), mail shirt (529 pence), shield, sword & scabbard plus spear etc. (396 pence) would need to pay out a total of about 1190 pence, which would be the equivalent today of spending approximately £24,000! Even a knife would cost about 2 pence, or £40.

A cow cost about 325 pence and a horse 193 pence, the equivalent of 300 grams of silver or £3870 in today’s money.

An Ealdfaeder moneyer will be pleased to strike an imitation coin of the type found at Sutton Hoo for you at a small charge.