Where there’s muck there’s brass
The Monetization of Northumbria
Scarborough Archaeological & Historical Society, 19th October 2015,
Leeds Philosophical & Literary Society, 22nd October 2015
Tony Abramson gave an illustrated presentation on the evolution of early Anglo-Saxon coinage with specific reference to Northumbria in the period from the late sixth century to the fall of York, to the Viking Great Army, in 866/7AD. What was previously thought to be a centuries-long discontinuity in the use of coinage in England, has now been reduced to a gap of around a hundred years, c. 470 - c.570, when economic exchange was satisfied by bullion or commodity money.
Fig. 1: Gold shilling (or thrymsa) of York, mid C7thAD, c. 11mm.
The Northumbrian gold coinage of the seventh century (Fig. 1) is distinguished from the various southumbrian gold shillings by its greater longevity, literacy and better organised production. Clearly this was an episcopal emission.
The expansionism of the seventh-century Northumbrian monarchs was brought to a bloody end when, against advice, Ecgfrith led his army to annihilation at Nechtansmere near Forfar in 685. Though this may have resulted in the loss of Northumbrian influence in peripheral northern areas, when Aldfrith succeeded Ecgfrith, Northumbria still stretched from the Humber north to the Firth of Forth and west to the Irish Sea. Aldfrith (685-704) introduced the silver sceat or proto-penny (Fig. 2) as in the previous decades the gold content of the coinage had been heavily diluted. The sceat was very much a mercantile currency and, outside Northumbria, regal and episcopal issuers remained largely anonymous. Aldfrith was the first monarch to be named on this coinage.
Fig. 2: Silver sceat of Aldfrith, 685-704.
Despite Aldfrith being highly praised by Bede, the immediate heirs were not sufficiently competent to continue the coin production. The Golden Age of Northern Culture demanded a vibrant economy to support it and coinage from southumbria, Merovingian Frankia, Frisia and Denmark were drawn in, matched by an outflow of exports, probably mainly sheep and wool. All these regions shared the common currency of the sceat though designs varied enormously. Clearly the North Sea trading zone was a thriving economic community in the seventh and eighth centuries.
The iconography of the imported sceats, initially conservative, was infused with Romanitas to enhance the authority of the issuers and the authenticity of the coinage. Subsequently, designs show an explosion of creativity mainly associated with Conversion Period theology and the use of symbolism, often ambiguous or syncretic, to promote Christianity. There are now more than 630 different designs recorded, most of which circulated simultaneously among a largely illiterate population. As the political hierarchy crystallized in the tenth century, the coin types narrowed until a unified England had only one design of coin current.
Fig. 3: Silver sceat of Eadberht, 737-58.
Eadberht took the Northumbrian throne in 737 and reformed the currency, introducing a handsome ‘fantastic beast’ sceat after a thirty-three year lapse in production (Fig. 3). Northumbrian sceats are distinguished by their literacy and consistency of design despite the murderous rivalry of the eighth-century Bernician and Deiran dynasties. In the 750’s, Offa of Mercia emulated Frankish developments and introduced the more familiar medieval broad penny. However, Northumbria, Frisia and Denmark continued the smaller module of the sceat for another half century. Sceats and pennies seem not to have been interchangeable as they are not found in the same hoards.
The ‘fantastic beast’ sceat was continued by Eadberht’s successors, though as in Mercia, the third quarter of the eighth century appears to have been an economic recession. In the late 780s Ælfwald I (779/80-88) replaced the ‘fantastic beast’ reverse, possibly for theological reasons, but certainly to transfer responsibility for the integrity of the coinage to the moneyer, Cuthheart, now named on the reverse (Fig. 4). Cuthheart continued in office under the next three monarchs.
Fig. 4: Silver sceat of Ælfwald I, 779/80-88.
In 793, the Viking attack on Lindisfarne was not merely a loss of life and property but decisively undermined the vital commercial confidence underwriting North Sea trade. Though king Eardwulf (796-806) is described as a powerful monarch (he had Æthelred I assassinated in 796) we know of a mere seven sceats issued by him. After an unknown period Eardwulf’s son Eanred (810-841) issued a silver-rich coin (Fig. 5), presumably an attempt to resurrect the sceat. The duration of this further lapse in production is limited by the presence of Cuthheart among eleven named moneyers, placing this emission as most likely in the 820s before Northumbria submitted to the Ecgberht of Wessex at Dore in 829. This event, possibly disrupting silver supplies, is the probable cause of yet more delays in coin production, and it was not until the end of Eanred’s long reign that a new coin denomination was issued – the uniquely Northumbrian brass styca (Fig 6). Only one moneyer survived from the earlier silver-rich emission so that this lapse was perhaps of ten to fifteen years duration. Both the sceat and styca were a similar diameter to the thrymsa.
Fig. 5: silver-rich emission of Eanred, 810-841. Moneyer Herreth.
For the first time in England, since the Romans, the denomination was commensurate with daily dietary needs. Until recently the styca was much derided, but it is now regarded as a major step towards full monetization. However, in the decade before the fall of York to the Vikings in 867, production became chaotic.
Fig. 6: Brass styca of Aethelred II (first reign, 841-43/4)). Moneyer Vendelberht.
In a remarkable work of dedication, the Curator of Archaeology at Leeds City Museum, the late Elizabeth Pirie, catalogued in full detail all the known stycas. Unfortunately, the classification was flawed and further research stymied for nearly twenty years. However, by recovering her catalogue, converting it into digital format and augmenting it with specimens recorded elsewhere, the speaker has created a powerful tool for understanding Northumbrian monetization. This database has been interrogated alongside a database of artefacts extracted from the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) finds website and cleansed of numerous inaccuracies by the Department of Archaeology at York University.
By characterising monetization as the occurrence of coins and portable artefacts in the same parish, the speaker has drawn conclusions on differential regional monetary evolution within Northumbrian, on the balance of power, the fiscal expropriation of surplus and the likelihood that Fishergate was the wic or emporium of Eoforwic, early Anglo-Saxon York.
Abramson, T., 2012d, Sceatta List with Stycas Simplified supplement, (Charlesworth).
Blackburn, M. A. S., 1984, 'A chronology for the sceattas', BAR128, 165-74.
Gannon, A., 2003, The Iconography of Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage, Sixth to Eighth Centuries, Medieval History and Archaeology, (OUP).
Metcalf, D. M., 1993-94, Thrymsas and Sceattas in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Royal Numismatic Society Special Publication no. 276), vols. 1-3, (London).