CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz….

Britain after the Romans

IN THE YEAR 410 C.E., the Western Roman Emperor Honorius replied to the city magistrates of Britannia, who had urgently requested help against invaders. Rome had no legions to spare; they would have to look to their own defense. The invaders included Germanic tribes from across the North Sea, a people we know as the Anglo-Saxons. Their language is the ancestor of Modern English.

The pagan Anglo-Saxons came to raid and pillage but stayed to settle and rule. They established a shifting constellation of minor kingdoms that pushed the Christian Romano-Britons north and west. For the first two centuries the Anglo-Saxons issued no coinage, their modest fiscal needs being served by imported Frankish coins. At Sutton Hoo[1] in Suffolk on the east coast, a king (possibly Rædwald, who ruled East Anglia c. 599 – c. 624) was buried with a rich treasure[2]–including a purse with 37 gold tremisses of the Frankish Merovingians, each one from a different mint. Perhaps it was a coin collection.

In 595, Pope Gregory I sent monks led by Augustine[3] to the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Kent, where pagan King Æthelberht had married a Frankish Christian princess. Over the following decades, the Anglo-Saxons were converted to Christianity and Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury and later a saint.

The earliest Anglo-Saxon coins were imitations, or close copies, of gold tremisses that circulated across the English Channel in France. Since the 17th century, numismatists have called these rare coins “thrymsas”[4] but they were probably known as “shillings” (or scillingas) and represented the price of a cow or sheep.



A handful of larger coins, copied from late Roman solidi, were probably struck as royal gifts for special occasions. A hoard buried before 650 and discovered in 1828 at Crondall in Hampshire contained 73 diverse thrymsas, now in the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford University. Many have a crude bust on the obverse and a cross, surrounded by the name of a moneyer (such as WITMEN) on the reverse. “Moneyers” were private contractors, possibly goldsmiths, who produced coins on order for a king or bishop. Some thrymsas were struck at Canterbury, others at London. A few are known from York.

“Post-Crondall” thrymsas date from after 650; one common type is the “two emperors” reverse, derived from the imagery on a fourth century gold solidus of Magnus Maximus, the last Roman coin struck in Britain. The rare “Crispus” type imitates the coin portrait of one of Constantine the Great’s sons, but in an abstract local style where the details of the helmet and crest are transformed into an elaborate hair style.


“Primary Sceattas”

Thrymsas became more and more debased over time, until they were just silver coins with a trace of gold. About the year 680 gold disappears from the coinage. The silver coins that continued to be struck were probably called “penningas”, but thanks to one of those historical misunderstandings so common in numismatics, they are known today by a different Anglo-Saxon word: sceat, or sceatta, which means “wealth” or “treasure.”

anglo4aThe so-called “primary sceattas” were struck for a period of about 25 years (c. 675-700). Thick coins, 12 – 13 mm in diameter, they weigh from 1.0 to 1.3 grams and are nearly pure silver (90-95%). Twenty grains of barley from the middle of the ear weigh almost exactly 1.3 grams, and this may have been the theoretical standard. The obverse design is typically a crude bust, with a few letters or runes of a fragmentary or garbled pseudo-inscription. A common reverse is derived from a “vexillum” – a Roman military standard or flag commonly depicted on fourth century coins. Another reverse type shows a bird atop a cross.

anglo5One of the most common types is the “porcupine” – a whimsical description of the simple abstract obverse design, which may have started out as a bust (with the “quills” representing hair brushed back) or as a depiction of a wolf (with the “quills” representing the bristling hair on the beast’s arched back.) Hoard evidence suggests that many of these coins were struck across the North Sea in Frisia (now part of the Netherlands and northern Germany), where the Frisians spoke a language closely related to Anglo-Saxon. There was extensive trade between Britain and the continent, and the silver used in Anglo-Saxon coins probably came from the rich mines of Melle[5] (about 400 km southwest of Paris, France).

“Secondary Sceattas”

anglo6Beginning about 710, the sceattas show an extraordinary proliferation of creative original designs (as opposed to imitations of ancient Roman coins). Some of these recall the style of Britain’s pre-Roman Celtic coinage, and might have been inspired by accidental finds of such coins. Over 150 different designs are known, identified by a rather complex system of lettered “series” and numbered “types”[6]. We see human heads and standing figures, stylized animals and birds, and geometric patterns–especially variations of the Christian cross. What we don’t generally see are inscriptions that might identify the ruler, the date, the kingdom or the mint of origin; these have to be inferred through numismatic detective work: analysis of style, hoard composition and distribution of find spots. The weight of these “Secondary sceattas” declines to a gram or less and the alloy is gradually debased from 60 – 80% silver to only about 20%

Offa and Cynethryth

In the complex geo-politics of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Mercia[7], occupying a central position in the English Midlands, rose to a dominant position under King Offa (ruled 757-796). Strongly influenced by classical prototypes, Offa’s coinage went through many changes during his long reign. His portrait coins, struck after 780, show him wearing an ancient diadem and give his title in Latin: “Rex” (king). He also struck rare portrait coins honoring his queen, Cynethryth–one of the few women to appear on a coin during the middle ages.

anglo7One of the most remarkable coins in the vast British Museum collection is a unique gold “dinar” struck in the name of Offa. It imitates the coinage of the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur, who ruled in Baghdad from 754 to 775. It weighs 4.28 grams and is 20 mm in diameter. In the middle of the slightly blundered Arabic text on the obverse, “OFFA REX” is inscribed upside down, presumably because the engraver was unfamiliar with Arabic.

The purpose of the coin is uncertain. It has been suggested that it was made as a gift for the pope (it was first recorded in Rome), but it is unlikely that any Christian king would have sent the pope a coin with and inscription stating that ‘there is no God but Allah alone’… It is more likely that it was designed for use in trade; Islamic gold dinars were the most important coinage in the Mediterranean at the time. Offa’s coin looked enough like the original that it would be readily accepted in southern Europe, while at the same time his own name was clearly visible.[8]

In 796, Offa was succeeded by his son Ecgfrith, who soon died, and Coenwulf came to the throne of Mercia.

Coenwulf’s Mancus

In 2001, a metal detector hobbyist out walking with his dog found a gold coin of Coenwulf a few centimeters beneath a footpath in Bedfordshire. Almost Mint State, the type was previously unknown. In fact, only seven English gold coins were previously known from this period, this being the eighth. Five years later the piece was purchased by the British Museum for £357,832 (in 2015 that would be approximately US$544,513).

anglo8The obverse image closely follows late Roman imperial coin portraiture. The Latin reverse inscription, DE VICO LUNDONIAE, surrounding an eight-petaled flower, translates “from the trading post of London.” Weighing 4.33 grams, 20 mm in diameter and about 85% gold, the coin’s denomination is a mancus, from the Arabic manqush, a fractional unit of weight. This was probably a presentation piece, intended to rival a similar issue of the contemporary Frankish ruler, Charlemagne.

Anglo-Saxon coinage continued in England until the last Saxon king, Harold Godwinson, was killed in battle at Hastings in 1066. But that’s a story for another day…

Collecting the Anglo-Saxons

“Those who wish for certainty in history and who like to feel the ground firmly under their feet are best advised to study some other period.” (Campbell, 29)

As you might expect, Anglo-Saxon coins are mainly found in England, although hoards have been found in Scandinavia, Russia, and even Italy (carried by Christian pilgrims to Rome). They usually appear first in the inventory of major British dealers and auction houses. The growing popularity of metal-detecting as a legal hobby in the UK means that new discoveries are continually being made, such as a spectacular recent hoard of five thousand tenth and eleventh century silver pennies.

Gold thrymsas are quite rare and sell for thousands of US dollars when they appear on the market. An important modern sale was the Subjack collection (121 lots) sold by Italo Vecchi in London in 1998. Silver sceattas and pennies range from common to scarce, and except for the greatest rarities or most superb specimens, typically go for a few hundred dollars.

The standard three-volume reference work by Metcalf (1993-1994) is out of print but can be found for about $350. There is, however, relatively good coverage of the material in Grierson & Blackburn (1986) and Spink’s annual handbook Coins of England.


[1] Visit the National Trust’s website for more information:

[2] Now mostly in the British Museum:

[3] St. Augustine of Canterbury (d. 604) founder of the Church of England, not to be confused with St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) theologian, for whom the city in Florida is named.

[4] This is simply the Old English transliteration of Latin “tremissis”.

[5] “The Melle Mines”:

[6] Abramson (2006) provides the most accessible and up-to-date cross reference.




Abramson, Tony. Sceattas: An Illustrated Guide. King’s Lynn (2006)

Campbell, James (ed.) The Anglo-Saxons. Penguin (1991)

Gannon, Anna. The Iconography of Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage: Sixth to Eighth Centuries. Oxford (2003).

Grierson, Philip and Mark Blackburn. Medieval European Coinage: 1. The Early Middle Ages. Cambridge (1986)

Hines, John. “Units of Account in Gold and Silver in Seventh Century England: Scillingas, Sceattas and Pæningas”, Antiquaries Journal. 90 (2010)

Keary, Charles. A Catalog of the English Coins in the British Museum: Anglo-Saxon Series, Volume I. London (1887)

Metcalf, D.M. “Chemical Analyses of English Sceattas”, British Numismatic Journal 48:4 (1978)

Metcalf, D.M. Thrymsas and Sceattas in the Ashmolean Museum. Oxford (3 volumes) London (1993 – 4)

Vecchi, Italo. The William L. Subjack Collection of Thrymsas and Sceattas. (sale catalog) London (1998)