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.
‘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.
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!