By Michael T. Shutterly for CoinWeek …..
Æthelred II became King of England on March 18, 978 after the murder of his half-brother Edward, known as Edward the Martyr. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says of the murder of King Edward that “No worse deed than this was ever done by the English nation since they first sought the land of Britain.”
There is no evidence that Æthelred – who was about 12 years old at the time – had anything to do with the murder, but it was a miserable start to a miserable reign that lasted almost 38 miserable years. Æthelred’s reign is little more than a long litany of Viking invasions.
After his death, Æthelred became known as “Æthelred Unræde” (pronounced “oon-rehdeh,” hence the modern English “Unready”). This was an oxymoronic pun: “Æthelred” means “Well Advised” in Old English, while “Unræde” means “Unadvised” or “Poorly advised”.
The First Coins of Æthelred The Unready
Æthelred began his reign with the First Small Cross Type penny which his father, Edgar the Peaceable (reigned 959-975), had introduced as part of a major reform of the English coinage system in 972-973. The obverse displays Æthelred’s diademed bust facing left with three small pellets in left field and the inscription +ÆÐELRE + AELON (a somewhat muddled version of “Æthelred King of the English”). The reverse of the coin shown here displays a small cross pattée and the inscription +GRIND M-O LINEC (Grind the Moneyer, at the Lincoln mint).
Æthelred minted First Small Cross pennies for no more than two years. The type includes an extremely rare variety from the Wilton mint that presents his bust facing right and another extremely rare variety that has a scepter in place of the pellets on the obverse.
Æthelred’s Hand Pennies
The later Saxon kings ordered periodic recoinages, wherein a pre-existing coin type would be replaced by a new one. The prior coin type would not be recalled or demonetized, but apparently only the new coin type would be acceptable for certain public transactions. The reason for recoinage is not well understood – it may have been nothing more than a revenue device, as the crown charged the mints a fee for new dies – but recoinages were a regular occurrence during the last century of Saxon rule.
Dolley (1956) believed that recoinages occurred under a rigid schedule, originally based upon intervals of six years and later moving to intervals of two or three years. The “traditional” dating of late Saxon coin types is based on Dolley’s schedule. More recent research has confirmed that Æthelred and the later Saxon kings did order recoinages and that Dolley’s sequence of coin types is accurate, but Dolley’s rigid schedule is no longer accepted, and some coin types appear to have been introduced outside of the official recoinage programs.
Æthelred‘s second coin type, the First Hand pennies, appeared in substantial numbers during the 980s. The obverse depicts Æthelred’s diademed bust facing right and the inscription + ÆÐELRÆD REX Λ(NG)LO. The reverse depicts the Hand of God (Manus Dei) descending from the clouds, with an upper case Alpha and bar (Ā) to the left and a lower case Omega (ω) to the right; the inscription on the coin shown here reads + COLGRIM M–O EOFE (Kolgrimr the Moneyer at the mint in Eoferwic – modern-day York).
The First Hand pennies appeared when Æthelred was under the influence of St. Æthelwold, the Bishop of Winchester, who is probably responsible for the strong religious sentiment. The Manus Dei is not the only reference to God on these coins: Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, and in the Biblical book The Apocalypse (also known as Revelation) – originally written in Greek – God declares at least three times “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.”
The First Hand Type pennies were followed by the Second Hand Type pennies: the new penny adds a scepter in front of Æthelred’s bust on the obverse and several curls and pellets to the Manus Dei on the reverse. The Second Hand Type is much scarcer than the First Hand Type, with perhaps half as many specimens known, but they are priced about the same.
Next to appear was the Benediction Hand Type. It retains the obverse scepter from the Second Hand Type, but the scepter has a more angular design. These pennies depict Æthelred without the diadem he wore on the First and Second Hand Types, and the reverse omits the Alpha and Omega, while presenting the Manus Dei with two fingers raised in blessing: this is the Latin Christian form of a “benediction”, from which the type takes its name. These coins are very rare, with about 180 specimens known from 22 mints.
Æthelred’s Crux Pennies
Æthelred ‘s next series of pennies were the Crux (“Cross”) Type, which appeared during the late 980s into the mid-990s. These depict Æthelred’s bareheaded bust facing left with a scepter in front of him and the inscription +ÆÐELRÆD REX ΛNGLORX. The reverse depicts a voided short cross with the letters C R V X in the angles of the cross; the reverse inscription on this coin reads +BYRHTNOÐ M–O ǷINT (Beorhtnoth the Moneyer at the Winchester mint). Old English script was based on a Runic alphabet in which “W” was written as “Ƿ”.
A “voided cross” is a cross drawn only in outline, with the central part of the beams shown empty (“void”). In Æthelred’s time, a penny was a significant amount of money – it represented at least a full day’s wages for a skilled laborer – and it was the lowest denomination coin Æthelred minted. The voided cross provided a gauge for cutting a penny to make “small change”; cutting the penny in half provides two half-pennies and cutting each of those in half provides four quarter-pennies, or farthings.
There are several varieties of the Crux penny, some of which omit the obverse scepter, while others adjust the size of the voided cross or other design elements. “Mules” are also found, often with a Hand Type obverse paired with a Crux Type reverse.
Crux pennies are fairly common and were probably struck in large numbers to pay off the Viking raiders. Huge quantities have been found in Scandinavian hoards, with many of the coins displaying peck marks (tiny gouges made with a sharp knife to test the quality of the silver). The first Scandinavian rulers to put their names on coins based their own coin designs on Æthelred‘s Crux coins.
Æthelred’s Intermediate Small Cross Pennies
Æthelred introduced the Intermediate Small Cross Type penny at some time toward the end of the period during which his mints were striking Crux Type pennies. The basic design of the Intermediate Small Cross Type penny is similar to that of the First Small Cross penny, but the features of the portrait bust have been modified significantly, a pellet has been added above the cross on the reverse, and the inscriptions are closer in detail to those on the Crux Type pennies. The obverse inscription reads + ÆÐELRÆD REX Λ[NG]L[ORX], while the reverse inscription on the coin shown here reads + SÆǷINE M–O ǷILTVN (Sæwine the Moneyer at the Wilton mint).
There are fewer than 50 known examples of the Intermediate Small Cross penny, all from one or the other of eight South Western mints; there are also a number of “mules,” most struck from an Intermediate Small Cross obverse die paired with a Crux reverse die. The rarity of this type and its limitation to a handful of South Western mints – at a time when Æthelred’s moneyers were pouring out pennies in huge numbers from a large number of mints – suggests that the Intermediate Small Cross Type was something of an experiment, almost what would today be considered to be a “pattern” coin. The fact that the Intermediate Small Cross Type appeared just as the Crux Type pennies were ending their run suggests that the Intermediate Small Cross Type was under consideration as a possible replacement for the Crux Type.
Æthelred’s Long Cross Pennies
Æthelred’s moneyers began striking Long Cross Type pennies in the mid-990s and continued minting them until at least 1003. The obverse depicts Æthelred’s draped bust facing left with a pellet just behind his head and the inscription +ÆĐELRÆD REX ΛNGLOX. The reverse presents a voided long cross with a pellet at its center and what is usually described as a triple crescent but which this writer believes to be an uppercase Omega (Ω) at the end of each cross-bar; the reverse inscription on the penny shown here reads + EΛD ǷOLD M·Ω·O CÆNT (Eadweald the Moneyer at the Canterbury mint).
Æthelred’s Long Cross pennies are the most common of the Saxon period; the most conservative estimate is that Æthelred’s moneyers struck more than 9,200,000 of these pennies, at no fewer than 64 different mints. As with the Crux pennies, huge quantities of Long Cross pennies have been found in Scandinavia, and many of the coins display Viking peck marks.
Æthelred’s Helmet Pennies
Æthelred’s Helmet Type pennies began to appear around 1003 and were minted until about 1009. The obverse depicts the king’s helmeted and armored bust facing left with the inscription + ÆÐELRÆD REX Λ(NG)L•. The reverse presents a voided long cross with a pellet at the center and a triple crescent or an uppercase Omega at the end of each cross-bar; the cross is superimposed over a square with incurved sides and trefoil at each point. The reverse inscription on the coin shown here reads + BУRHSIGE M’Θ BARD (Birhsige the Moneyer at the Barnstaple mint).
The armor that Æthelred wears on this coin is more typical of what a fourth-century Roman emperor would have worn than what a 10th-century Saxon king would have. The die engraver may very well have borrowed that part of the design from one of the thousands of Roman coins that have been found in England.
The Saxons generally ceased minting gold coins by the end of the seventh century: there are just eight Saxon gold coins known for the period from c. 675 to the end of Saxon rule in 1066. Æthelred has the distinction of having issued the seventh of those eight gold coins (the eighth was minted for Æthelred’s son, Edward the Confessor).
Æthelred’s gold penny, which is now in the British Museum, uses the general Helmet Type design. The reverse inscription reads LEO FǷINE MOL ÆǷE, indicating that it was struck by the moneyer Leofwine at the Lewes mint. The reverse is significant because the authenticity of the coin was questioned until the discovery of a silver penny that used the same reverse die.
Æthelred’s Agnus Dei Pennies
In August 1009 a huge Danish army under Torkell the Tall landed in Kent and began ravaging Southeastern England. Æthelred cowered 150 miles away in the city of Bath, from which he issued a call to the English to fast, to do penance, to give alms, and to pray for deliverance. It was in this context that Æthelred minted the Agnus Dei Type pennies.
This penny’s obverse depicts the Agnus Dei (haloed Lamb of God with a cross) standing right, with AGN on a tablet below and the inscription + ÆÐELRÆD REX ANGLORVM. The reverse of this example depicts a dove flying upwards with out-spread wings; the inscription reads + EALDR· EDO NM ·ALDME (for the moneyer Ealdred at the Malmesbury mint).
In Catholic tradition the Agnus Dei represents Jesus; the hymn “Agnus Dei” asks Jesus to “have mercy on us” and “grant us peace.” The dove is not only a symbol of peace, but it is also a symbol of the Holy Spirit in the Christian Trinity. These are the only English coins to use this imagery and were minted in direct prayerful response to the terrors of the Danish invasion.
The Agnus Dei Type is the rarest of Æthelred’s coins: there are only 21 known specimens, from nine of the smaller mints. All but three of the coins are in museum collections.
Æthelred’s Last Small Cross Pennies
Æthelred’s final coin type saw a return of the small cross and is known, fittingly, as the Last Small Cross Type. The obverse presents Æthelred’s diademed bust facing left with the inscription + ÆĐELRED REX AN. The reverse features a short cross pattée with a smaller cross pattée at the end of each limb of the center cross; the reverse inscription on this coin reads + ǷVFNOÐ MO ÐEOD (Wolfnoth the Moneyer at the Thetford mint). A cross pattée is a type of cross whose arms are narrow at the center but which flare out and widen at the ends.
The Last Small Cross pennies are relatively common, with at least 63 different mints striking them. There are very few Small Cross Type pennies from the mints at Oxford and nearby Wallingford, and all known specimens from those two mints were struck very early during the run of this type. Both towns were destroyed by the Danes in December 1009 through January 1010. This circumstantial evidence suggests strongly that the Last Small Cross pennies were launched in late 1009, just before Thorkell sacked Oxford and Wallingford, and that while those two towns minted no coins for the remainder of Æthelred’s reign, other mints in England continued to strike Last Small Cross pennies and did so in large numbers.
Sweyn Forkbeard, King of Norway and Denmark personally led his army in a major invasion of England in 1013. Sweyn forced Æthelred into exile in Normandy and was himself crowned King of England on 25 December 1013. Sweyn died just 40 days later and although the Danes proclaimed their support for Sweyn’s son Cnut, the English nobles gave their support to Æthelred – subject to Æthelred agreeing to strict conditions designed to prevent him from ruining the country any more than he had already done. Æthelred then reigned until his death in April 1016, whereupon his son Edmund Ironside was proclaimed king.
Edmund and Cnut disputed the crown until October 1016, when they agreed to divide England between them: Edmund received Wessex, where his dynasty originated, while Cnut took the rest of England. Edmund conveniently died the following month, leaving Cnut the undisputed king of all of England.
There are no known English coins in the name of Sweyn Forkbeard. Sweyn apparently “borrowed” some of Æthelred’s coin dies during one of his raids and took them to Denmark where he used them to strike coins in Æthelred’s name.
There are also no known English coins in the name of Edmund Ironside. It is very likely that Edmund continued to mint Last Small Cross Type pennies in his father’s name, yet no one has succeeded in differentiating the coins (if any) struck during Edmund’s reign from the coins struck during Æthelred’s lifetime.
Collecting the Coins of Æthelred the Unready
With but a few exceptions, the coins of Æthelred the Unready are easily obtainable and reasonably affordable, and very nice specimens of most of the coins can be found for mid-to-high three-figure prices. Nice examples of the First Small Cross pennies are generally priced around $3,000 USD but can sometimes be found for about $1,000. Attractive examples of the First Hand and Second Hand pennies range from the mid-three figures to the low four figures. Benediction Hand coins usually command prices in the mid-to-high four figures.
Only three of the 21 known examples of the Agnus Dei pennies are available for private collectors, and two of them are badly damaged. Recent sales of those coins have run in the $18,000 to $24,000 range.
The coins of Æthelred the Unready represent the culmination of Anglo-Saxon coinage, and there is a huge amount of scholarship focused on them. North (1994) is the best collector-oriented catalog of the coins and provides much useful detail about the moneyers and the mints associated with them. Naismith (2016 and 2017) provides excellent recent scholarly treatments. Keynes & Naismith (2011) provides all you ever wanted to know about the Agnus Dei pennies. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle provides an interesting near-contemporary history of the time, focusing largely on the death and devastation that beset England during Æthelred’s reign.
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The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Bob Carruthers, ed. Coda Books: London. (2012)
History of England: An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England. Felipe Frenández-Armesto, General Editor. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. (1995)
Allen, Martin. Mints and Money in Medieval England. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. (2012)
Dolley, R.H. Michael. “The Shaftesbury Hoard of Pence of Æthelræd II”, The Numismatic Chronicle, Series 6, Volume 16. pp. 267-280. (1956)
Keynes, S.D. and Rory Naismith. “The Agnus Dei Pennies of King Æthelred the Unready”, Anglo-Saxon England 40. pp. 175-223. (2011)
Naismith, Rory. Medieval European Coinage, Vol. 8: Britain and Ireland c. 400-1066. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. (2017)
Naismith, Rory. “The Coinage of Æthelred II: A New Evaluation”, English Studies, 97:2, 117-139. (2016)
North, J.J. English Hammered Coinage: Volume I: Early Anglo-Saxon to Henry III c. 600-1272. Spink & Son: London. (1994)
Image of Æthelred II taken from The Chronicle of Abingdon, c.1220. MS Cott. Claude B.VI folio 87, verso, The British Library. In the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Image of gold Helmet penny of Aethelred II courtesy and copyright of PHGCOM through Wikimedia Commons.
Image of Agnus Dei Penny courtesy of Spink, London.
All coin images courtesy and copyright of Classical Numismatic Group LLC (CNG) at www.cngcoins.com