The Britons began making coins from about 100BC, in imitation of Roman practice. They were made mainly in the West Country or the Thames Valley. This practice was stopped by the Romans when Britain became part of the Empire, and only imported Roman coinage was allowed. Roman coins were not minted again in Britain until 155AD, but once begun, this process continued until the late 300’s, when the Roman Empire began to disintegrate.
In the early Anglo-Saxon period, where coins were used at all, they were gold pieces from the continent – the ‘solidus’ weighing a hefty 4 grams, or a piece one third of its value, called the ‘tremissis’. Because of their high value, they were fairly useless for everyday transactions, and were in any case prized more as jewellery or as gifts than as currency.
It was more than two centuries later, around the 620’s, before the Anglo-Saxons began minting gold coins of their own, called ‘thrymsas’, which echoed the Latin ‘tremissis’. These were probably the ancestors of ‘shillings’. The designs were often imitations of Roman ones, with lettering sometimes malformed or not even making sense!
Towards the end of the 600’s, the gold currency disappeared, to be replaced by a coinage of pure silver. The new coins were called ‘sceattas’, but it wasn’t until the 760’s that a new ‘penny’ coinage began, first in Mercia, then in Kent, with twelve to a shilling.
They probably represented about a day’s pay for a skilled worker, so most everyday transactions were no doubt still made by barter, payment in kind, or by exchange of favours.
‘Sceattas’ gradually disappeared from the scene, except in Northumbria, where they continued to be made in ever more debased silver. Eventually, they were struck in bronze or brass, before disappearing altogether. These pieces were called ‘stycas’. Coins were all generally tiny – no bigger than a fingernail – but in the later period nearly doubled in size.
The first halfpennies were made in the 880’s, but after 973, when King Edgar reformed the currency, units smaller than a penny were made simply by cutting a coin into two or even four (‘farthings’).
Coins were struck with a die at royal mints by ‘moneyers’, who could stamp more than 2000 blanks a day in a workshop. The dies were at first made locally, later on only under the king’s supervision, and later still at just five regional centres. The most important mints were in the south-east, where the inward flow of foreign bullion and coined silver. was greatest. By the close of the Anglo-Saxon period, however, the number of mints had grown again to over ninety, with many of them now in the north. The tradition of showing the king’s head on one side (the ‘obverse’) grew up towards the end of the period.
The moneyer sat at a tree-stump with the lower part of the steel die set into it. The coin blank, still warm, was placed on the lower die, and the upper die placed over the blank. He then struck the upper die with a hammer and made the coin. Blanks may have been made from clay moulds, cut from thin silver sheet, or more probably punched out.
Occasionally, valuable gold coins called ‘mancuses’ were minted, worth thirty pence. This represented a month’s wages, so they could not have been in very common circulation! Tens of millions of silver pennies, however, were struck during the Anglo-Saxon period. After King Edgar’s reforms, foreign coin had by law to be melted down and re-struck, and even English coins had to be traded in for re-striking every six years or so. The circulation of money was becoming ever more tightly-controlled and sophisticated.
After the 990’s, millions of English pennies were sent as ‘Danegeld’ to Scandinavia – the price paid for the Vikings’ oft-repeated promises not to continue their raids. A ‘pound’ in currency was simply a (Troy) pound weight of silver – and the Vikings demanded several thousand pounds each time a deal was struck.
By 1066, the Anglo-Saxon currency system was so uniquely efficient and well-established, that although the Normans wrought many profound changes in the land they conquered, they saw no need to change anything where money was concerned. An Anglo-Saxon might be very puzzled by modern paper money or plastic cards but he would recognize the pennies in your pocket without any problem at all!
This article traces the history of the English penny from 1066 to 1154.
The early Norman kings
Following the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror continued the Anglo-Saxon coinage system. As a penny was a fairly large unit of currency at the time, when small change was needed a penny would be cut in half or into quarters at the mint of issue. Most pennies of Kings William I and II show a front-facing bust of the king on the obverse (which was a departure from the Anglo-Saxon kings, who mostly used a sideways-facing bust), surrounded by a legend, usually PILLEMUS REX, PILLEM REX ANGLOR, PILLEM REX AN, PILLELM REX, PILLEM R (King William, or William King of the English — The P may have been a late usage of the letter wynn, a P-shaped rune which had the sound value of a "w"). The reverse of the coin usually showed some form of cross, surrounded by the legend identifying the moneyer and mint.
Moneyers were personally responsible for maintaining the weight (at this time, 20 to 22 grains, 1.3 to 1.6 grams) and the silver fineness of the coins they produced — there are several recorded instances of moneyers who produced short-weight coins being mutilated or occasionally executed. Although there was only a small amount of space on the reverse, the moneyer's "identification details" were considered more important than the mint and were not often abbreviated (although often 'mis-spelt'). The moneyer's name would appear after a small cross, and is usually followed by "ON" (of) and the town's name. During the reign of William I (1066-1087) the demand for coins was so high that there were about 70 mints active; over 50 mints were active at the start of William II's reign in 1087, but only 34 were still in operation at his death in 1100.
Location of mints, 1066–1100
During the reign of the first two Norman kings, mints were located in Barnstaple, Bath, Bedford, Bedwyn, Bridport, Bristol, Bury St Edmunds, Cambridge, Canterbury, Cardiff, Chester, Chichester, Christchurch, Colchester, Cricklade, Derby, Devitum (probably St David's, South Wales), Dorchester, Dover, Durham, Exeter, Gloucester, Guildford, Hastings, Hereford, Hertford, Huntingdon, Hythe, Ilchester, Ipswich, Launceston, Leicester, Lewes, Lincoln, London, Maldon, Malmesbury, Marlborough, Northampton, Norwich, Nottingham, Oxford, Peterborough, Pevensey, Rhuddlan, Rochester, Romney, Salisbury, Sandwich, Shaftesbury, Shrewsbury, Southwark, Stafford, Stamford, Steyning, Sudbury, Tamworth, Staffordshire, Taunton, Thetford, Totnes, Wallingford, Wareham, Warwick, Watchet, Wilton, Winchcombe, Winchester, Worcester, and York.
During the relatively long reign of King Henry I (1100–1135) the penny remained the chief denomination, although round halfpennies and quarter pennies were introduced [these are mentioned in contemporary accounts] which proved very unpopular and only about twelve specimens (of halfpence, and no round quarters) are known to exist today. Fifteen major types of penny were produced, at around 54 mints which were intermittently active throughout the reign. The quality of the coins in the early part of the reign was poor, as the moneyers made a large profit by producing underweight coins or coins of debased fineness. In 1124 Henry called all 150 moneyers to Winchester and called them to account for their activities — 94 of them were convicted of issuing sub-standard coins and were mutilated, their right hands and one testicle being cut off, as a result of which the quality of coins improved for most of the remainder of his reign. The basic design of the coins remained the same as before with the obverse inscriptions variously being HENRICUS, HENRICUS R, HENRI R, HENRI RE, HENRI REX, HENRY REX, HENRICUS REX, HENRICUS REX A — Henry, King Henry, Henry King of England.
Location of mints, 1100–1135
During the reign of King Henry I, mints were located in Barnstaple, Bath, Bedford, Bristol, Bury St Edmunds, Cambridge, Canterbury, Cardiff, Carlisle, Chester, Chichester, Christchurch, Colchester, Derby, Dorchester, Dover, Durham, Exeter, Gloucester, Hastings, Hereford, Huntingdon, Ilchester, Ipswich, Launceston, Leicester, Lewes, Lincoln, London, Northampton, Norwich, Nottingham, Oxford, Pembroke, Pevensey, Rochester, Romney, Salisbury, Sandwich, Shaftesbury, Shrewsbury, Southampton, Southwark, Stafford, Stamford, Sudbury, Tamworth, Taunton, Thetford, Totnes, Wallingford, Wareham, Warwick, Watchet, Wilton, Winchcombe, Winchester, Worcester, and York.
One of the largest hoards of coins of Henry I was the Lincoln Melandry Hoard found in February 1972. This provided many new examples of coins minted by previously undocumented moneyers for the later issues of Henry I reign.
The period following the death of King Henry I is known as The Anarchy. Henry's only legitimate son and heir had been drowned in 1120 in the White Ship disaster, so he had decided that he wished his daughter Matilda to succeed him. When he died, Matilda, also known as the Empress Maud, was in Normandy and her cousin Stephen of Blois managed to get back to London before she did, and claimed the throne - with the support of many barons who were unprepared for the novel idea of a woman ruler. Matilda and Stephen set up rival courts in Bristol and London and proceeded to issue coins from the mints under their control while the political unrest continued for the better part of 20 years. Stephen won the political battle, but when his own son and heir, Eustace, died in 1153 he agreed that Matilda's son Henry would succeed him.
Many of the coins produced during the Anarchy are of poor quality.
King Stephen's coins
There are approximately five principal varieties of coins produced by Stephen's mints, normally containing the legend STIEFNE, STIEFNE R, STIEFNE RE, or STIEFNE REX, but one issue bears the legend PERERIC which cannot be translated but is thought to have been constructed by the moneyers to look like the previous reign's HENRICUS, so they could disassociate themselves from the conflict and hedge their bets about who would win, while still providing the required number of new coins.
Stephen's coins were minted at Bedford, Bramber, Bristol, Bury St Edmunds, Cambridge, Canterbury, Cardiff, Carlisle, Castle Rising, Chester, Chichester, Cipen (possibly Ipswich), Colchester, Corbridge, Derby, Dorchester, Dover, Durham, Eden, Exeter, Gloucester, Hastings, Hedon near Hull, Hereford, Huntingdon, Ipswich, Launceston, Leicester, Lewes, Lincoln, London, Newcastle, Northampton, Norwich, Nottingham, Oxford, Pembroke, Peterborough, Pevensey, Rye, Salisbury, Sandwich, Shaftesbury, Shrewsbury, Southampton, Southwark, Stafford, Steyning, Sudbury, Swansea, Tamworth, Taunton, Thetford, Tutbury, Wareham, Warwick, Watchet, Wilton, Winchester, Worcester, and York.
Empress Maud's coins
Matilda's coins tend to show a cruder style than Stephen's regular issues. The obverse legend is MATILDIS IMP — Empress Matilda, MATILDIS COMITISSA — Countess Matilda, or simply MATILDIS — Matilda.
Matilda's coins were minted at Bristol, Cardiff, Gloucester, Oxford, and Wareham, and possibly also at Calne and Canterbury.
- ^Regesta Regum Anglo-Normannorum, vol. 3
Coincraft's Standard Catalogue English & UK Coins 1066 to Date, Richard Lobel, Coincraft. ISBN 0-9526228-8-2.