By Michael T. Shutterly for CoinWeek …..
The Anglo-Saxons began striking coins in what was to become England around 600 CE. These early coins consisted almost entirely of the small gold coins we know as “thrymsas”, which the Anglo-Saxons struck in imitation of the Merovingian tremissis (which itself imitated the late Roman tremissis).
Fewer than 400 thrymsas are known to exist, and 73 of them came from a single find – the Crondall Hoard.
What Was the Crondall Hoard?
In late 1828, while walking across a boggy field on his family’s estate in Crondall, England, 18-year-old Charles Lefroy came upon what he first thought was a pile of brass waistcoat buttons. Digging around a bit, he found a numismatic treasure that included 100 coins – 73 Anglo-Saxon thrymsas, 24 gold tremisses from the Continent, and unstruck gold planchets – plus one hollow gold-plated object that was probably an attempted coin forgery. He also found a pair of jeweled ornaments that were missing some of their gemstones, along with small chains that he believed were the remnants of a pouch that had once held the coins and jewelry.
There has been much debate about when the Crondall Hoard was lost or hidden, but the current consensus is that the Hoard dates to no earlier than about 635 and no later than about 650. The earliest coins in the Hoard probably date to about 620.
Nevertheless, we don’t know if the coins were brought together for some specific purpose, or if they represent a very wealthy person’s savings, or if something else completely were involved. We also cannot determine if the coins were deliberately hidden due to some threat or if they were lost by accident.
The late great numismatic scholar Philip Grierson suggested that the Hoard was probably a wergild, the compensation you had to pay to the family of someone you killed. Grierson noted that under the laws of the Kingdom of Kent the wergild for killing a free Anglo-Saxon was 100 gold shillings – a “shilling” was a unit of weight, not a coin – and this matched the amount/weight of gold coins in the Hoard.
There are several problems with Grierson’s theory. First, if the Hoard was supposed to be a wergild of 100 coins, the theory does not account for the presence of the plated forgery nor for the two jeweled ornaments.
Second, while Lefroy did find exactly 100 gold coins, the Hoard may originally have contained more than that: Lefroy could have missed coins that were part of the original deposit, or some third party could have removed coins before Lefroy found them.
Third, Crondall is in what was then the Kingdom of Wessex, not Kent, and in Wessex, you had to pay 200 gold shillings if you wanted to get away with murder.
Nonetheless, despite all that we do not know about the Crondall Hoard, it has provided a treasure trove of information about Anglo-Saxon gold coinage, as most of what we do know comes from studying this Hoard. It is the only large hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold coins ever found, as most of the Anglo-Saxon gold coins known today come from single finds.
The almost random makeup of the coins in the Hoard (the 73 thrymsas include 12 different types, the 24 tremisses came from at least 17 different mints in Frisia and Merovingian Francia), and the presence of three unstruck gold planchets, suggest that coinage was not substantial in England at that time, and people made do with whatever they could get.
The 73 thrymsas show little sign of circulation, and 60 of them have die-links to other coins in the Hoard. This indicates that the person who assembled the coins pulled them from a very limited universe. As it happens, most of the contemporary thrymsas that have been found outside the Crondall Hoard itself are also die-linked to the thrymsas in the Hoard. This is another indication that Anglo-Saxon coin production must have been very limited at this time.
The Most Important Coin of the Crondall Hoard
The most important Crondall coin, and possibly the earliest, is the Eadbald thrymsa. The Crondall Hoard contained but one example, though seven others have since been found; the last two in 2010 and 2017, respectively. Seven of the eight Eadbald thrymsas, including the Crondall coin, share the same obverse die.
The Eadbald thrymsa is the earliest known coin to name an English king; 50 years would pass before another coin naming an English king would appear. This thrymsa is even more notable because of clues it provides as to where and when it was minted.
The crosses indicate that the coin was minted under Christian authority, but Eadbald was not a “Christian” ruler when he became King of the Kingdoms of Kent and Essex in 616: he was married to his stepmother, an incestuous marriage in the eyes of the Church, and he had exiled the bishops from Kent. It was not until 620 or 624 (our sources are unclear) that he ended his marriage to his stepmother, built a new church, and officially became “Christian”.
The reverse inscription identifies the mint as London, which was in Essex, not Kent. Eadbald’s father, Æthelberht, had taken the throne of Essex circa 604, but according to the Venerable Bede, “King Eadbald had not so much authority in the kingdom as his father,” and Eadbald gradually lost his influence in Essex.
Considering the Christian iconography of the thrymsa, the (approximate) date of Eadbald’s conversion to Christianity, and Eadbald’s loss of power in Essex, we can date this thrymsa to the period after 620/624, but probably no later than 630 or so.
The Most Common Coin of the Crondall Hoard
Twenty-one of the 73 thrymsas in the Hoard are of the “Witmen Monita” type.
Witmen, or his design, seems to have been very popular: not only is this the most common thrymsa type in the Hoard but as a type it accounts for the largest number of thrymsas found outside the Hoard. This design remained popular for many years, during which the portraits grew cruder and cruder, the legends became even more blundered, and the gold content fell lower and lower.
The Witmen Monita thrymsas give no clue as to where they might have been struck, but most of the coins found outside the Crondall Hoard itself were found in what was the Kingdom of Kent at the time they would have been minted: this strongly suggests that they were minted somewhere in Kent, most likely in the capital city of Canterbury.
The Rarest Coin in the Hoard
Ten of the thrymsas in the Hoard are described generally as “Cross and Portrait” coins. They imitate contemporary Merovingian tremisses, but the workmanship is distinctly Anglo-Saxon rather than Frankish: this has led to them being categorized as representing an “Anglo-Merovingian” style.
The Crondall Hoard contained one example of the “Portrait and Cross Type 2” design; the coin shown here, discovered in 2013, is the only other known example of the type, and is the only one in private hands. It sold at auction in March 2014 for £21,000 (approximately $31,849 USD at the time) against a £3,500 estimate.
The Fate of the Crondall Hoard
And whatever became of the Crondall Hoard?
The Lefroy family held onto the Hoard until 1895 when Sotheby’s sold it to John Richard Brinsley Norton, 5th Baron Grantley. Lord Grantley’s interest in collecting coins arose largely because of his naughty behavior; in 1879, just five days before the birth of their first child, he had married the recently-divorced wife of his cousin. During the Victorian era, this scandal made him unwelcome in the customary social activities of his class. He became a great collector largely because he had nothing else to do, but a lot of money to do it with.
The whereabouts of the three gold blanks, the forgery, and the jewelry ornaments are unknown, but Lord Grantley kept the remaining coins from the Crondall Hoard intact until his death at age 87 on August 5, 1943… only five weeks after he was named co-respondent in yet another divorce case. The numismatic firm A H Baldwin & Sons purchased the coins at a Glendining auction the following January and subsequently sold them, at cost, to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. You can now view the coins in the Heberden Coin Room at the Ashmolean.
Collecting Crondall Coins
The coins of the Crondall Hoard itself are uncollectible, as they are all on permanent display at the Ashmolean Museum. However, coins of the same types as those in the Crondall Hoard can be collected. Unfortunately, the rarity of Crondall Type coins – made worse by the fact that about half of them are in museum collections – makes them very pricey.
Only three of the eight known examples of the Eadbald thrymsa are in private hands, and two of the three were only discovered in the past 10 years. The coin pictured in this article was found in January 2010 and sold at auction five months later for £50,000 (approximately $71,072 at the time); it sold again in January 2017 for $90,000.
The Witmen Monita thrymsas are by far the most common and most available of the series. They tend to trade in the $5,000 – $10,00 range, but with careful searching, you can occasionally find a nice specimen for “as little” as $3,000. The example pictured in this article is typical of the type and sold for $5,950 in November 2010.
The first report of the Crondall Hoard was Akerman (1843) and includes Lefroy’s description of how he found the Hoard. The most detailed study specific to the Crondall Hoard itself is Sutherland (1948). The most thorough analysis of the thrymsas generally, which includes a study of the coins of the Crondall Hoard, is Metcalf (1993); Metcalf was the Director of the Heberden Coin Room from 1982 to 1999 and the foremost authority on these coins.
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Abdy, R. and Williams, G. “A catalogue of hoards and single finds from the British Isles c. AD 410-675”, Coinage and History in the North Sea World.
Akerman, J.Y. “Description of some Merovingian, and other gold coins, discovered in the parish of Crondale, in Hampshire, in the year 1828”, The Numismatic Chronicle and Journal of the Numismatic Society, vol. 6. 1843. pp. 171–182.
Bede, The Venerable. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Judith McClure and Roger Collins, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Metcalf, D.M. Thrymsas and Sceattas in the Ashmolean Museum Oxford. London: Ashmolean Museum Oxford, 1993.
North, J. J. English Hammered Coinage, Volume I: Early Anglo-Saxon to Henry III, c 600-1272, 3rd revised edition. London: Spink and Son, 1994.
Sutherland, C.H.V. Anglo-Saxon Gold Coinage in the Light of the Crondall Hoard. London: Oxford University Press, 1948.
Opening image of coins of the Crondall Hoard © The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Image of Portrait and Cross thrymsa courtesy of Spink, London.
Image of Eadbald thrymsa courtesy and copyright of Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. (CNG).