By using this site you accept the
terms of our Cookie Policy

You are in: Online Resources > Online Exhibitions > Designing in the Round

Designing in the Round

The eighth century was undoubtedly one of the finest periods for design in the history of English coinage. Not only was there an enormous range and variety of different images reproduced on coins, many of them pictorial involving people or animals, but a great deal of thought went into their layout and execution, from an aesthetic point of view.

The die-cutters often rose to the challenge of working on such a very small scale, rendering quite complex imagery in fine detail. The coinage has a real vibrancy, rendering even quite simple designs with a strength of character that is extraordinary. They were innovative and playful, often making a virtue of the circular form on which they had to work. They also had a love of ornament, and would weave rich patterns into the tiniest of spaces.

Designing in the Round

The challenges posed by the circular module of coins were often turned to advantage by the die-cutters.

Silver early penny, Series J, probably York, c. 720-40; CM.1790-2007, De Wit Collection

Rolling birds. Developed from a simple design of a bird standing on a cross, here four birds form an extension to the cross and give the dynamic impression of a spinning coin. Silver early penny, Series J, probably York, c. 720-40. CM.1790-2007, De Wit Collection.

Silver early penny, Series L, Thames Valley, 730-45; CM.1815-2007, De Wit Collection

Man standing in a boat? The figure holds two processional crosses and stands on a curved surface with terminals, perhaps representing a boat. Silver early penny, Series L, Thames Valley, c. 730-45. CM.1815-2007, De Wit Collection.

Adapting to size

Early Anglo-Saxon pennies are exceptionally small, yet this did not deter the die-cutters from engraving elaborate scenes in great detail. Some die-cutters, on the other hand, sought to make an artistic impact by having a very enlarged face with sufficient features to make it immediately recognisable.

Silver early penny; CM.1834-2007, De Wit Collection

A Celtic Cross formed in the gaps between four rosettes and five pellets, an immensely intricate design on a flan 1·1 cm across. Silver early penny. CM.1834-2007, De Wit Collection.

Silver early penny, Series J, perhaps York, c. 720-40; CM.1780-2007, De Wit Collection

Enlarged face. Silver early penny, Series J, probably York, c. 720-40. CM.1780-2007, De Wit Collection.

Love of ornament

Anglo-Saxon artists in the seventh and eighth centuries loved elaborate designs and embellishments. The simple short ties at the back of a Roman diadem on the heads of emperors, the Anglo-Saxon die cutters would stretch and playfully tie in a loose knot, or duplicate each side of a facing bust as if they were pigtails. Even on the small flans of the early pennies, the die-cutters found room to add symbols or decoration in empty spaces.

Silver early penny, Series K, Kent or London, c.&nsbp;725-45; CM.1810-2007, De Wit Collection

King in profile with knotted diadem ties. Silver early penny, Series K, Kent or London, c. 725-45. CM.1810-2007, De Wit Collection.

Silver early penny, Æthelred I of Northumbria (774-9), York mint; CM.2000-2007, De Wit Collection

Northumbrian lion, with a cross and triquetra added to fill spaces under the tail and body. Silver early penny, King Æthelred I of Northumbria (774-9), York mint. CM.2000-2007, De Wit Collection.

Bosses and interlace

Variations on the simple cross design are shown on the second page of this exhibition, being used as a potent symbol of the Christian faith. Here two ways are shown in which the die-cutters played on the theme of the cross to produce rich ornamentation. Similar techniques were used in other materials. Compare the bossed coins with the form of the Cross at St Martins Abbey, Iona.

Silver early penny, Series R related, c. 720-40; CM.1932-2007, De Wit Collection

Cross with annulet terminals, within three concentric circles of pellets. Twelve small pellets have also been added to the background, making this an elaborate and precise design. Silver early penny, Series R related, c. 720-40. CM.1932-2007, De Wit Collection.

Silver early penny, Series H, Hamwic, c. 720-50; CM.1771-2007, De Wit Collection

Face within border of seven bosses and a cross. Silver early penny, Series H, Hamwic (nr Southampton), c. 720-50. CM.1771-2007, De Wit Collection.

Silver early penny, King Beonna of East Anglia (c. 749-57 or later); CM.81-1983, Fitzwilliam Museum

Interlace cross. Silver early penny, King Beonna of East Anglia (c. 749-57 or later). CM.81-1983. From the Middle Harling hoard.

Jewelled circular brooch, gold with garnets and filigree; M.3-1904, Fitzwilliam Museum

Gold jewelled circular brooch with garnets and filigree of exceptional quality, Kent, 6th century. M.3-1904, from excavations at King's Field, Faversham.

Laying out letters

The earliest Anglo-Saxon coins, down to the mid-eighth century, do not generally carry meaningful inscriptions. When they do they are usually the names of moneyers. In terms of epigraphy and layout, these are unremarkable. On Offa's coins, however, the die-cutters, and one from London in particular, executed some wonderfully designed inscriptions.

Silver penny, King Offa of Mercia (757-96), Portrait type, Canterbury or London by the moneyer Ealhmund, 780s; CM.48-1955, Fitzwilliam Museum

This rendering of the moneyer's name Alhmund, combines capital and uncial letters, encircled in a double-headed snake torque. Silver penny, King Offa of Mercia (757-96), Portrait type, Canterbury or London by the moneyer Ealhmund, 780s. CM.48-1955, given by the Friends of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Silver penny, King Æthelbert of Kent (858-65), Inscribed Cross type, Canterbury by the moneyer Hunred; CM.1.130-1930, Frank Smart Collection

The layout of the inscription on this coin demonstrates the playfulness of the Anglo-Saxon die-cutters. The moneyer's name is to be read along the arms of the cross, and completed by four letters in the angles, +HVNR / EDMO / N / E / T / A. Silver penny, King Æthelbert of Kent (858-65), Inscribed Cross type, Canterbury by the moneyer Hunred. CM.1.130-1930, Frank Smart Collection.

Runes

Old English runes – which are distinct from the better-known Scandinavian runes – were used in England for general purposes until the eighth century. They are found inscribed on some stone crosses, and on personal artefacts, including some of the highest quality, such as the Frank's Casket, a highly decorated whale-bone box. However, for most official documents the Latin alphabet was thought more appropriate, and so too for most coins. Yet some coins from the South-East in the late seventh and early eighth centuries, and from East Anglia until the first half of the ninth century, often have runic inscriptions. These are important evidence for the use of runes in England.

Pale gold shilling, perhaps Kent, c. 660-75; CM.YG.1408-R, Young Collection

PADA, in runes across the centre. Pale gold shilling by the moneyer Pada, perhaps Kent, c. 660-75. CM.YG.1408-R, Young Collection.

Silver early penny, Series R, moneyer Wigræd, East Anglia, c. 740X50; CM.1950-2007, De Wit Collection

WIGRED downwards, in front of a very stylised profile head looking left. Silver early penny, Series R, moneyer Wigræd, East Anglia, c. 740-50. CM.1950-2007, De Wit Collection.

Monograms

Monograms of rulers' names are very common on Carolingian money, but they rarely feature in English coinage. When they do, as in the London monogram type for example, they are seen to be exceptional and carrying a particular message.

Silver denier, Charlemagne (768-814), Class 2, Mainz, 793/4X812; PG.13806, Grierson Collection

Carolus monogram, the personal monogram of Charlemagne, with which he would sign documents. On his coins it replaces his bust, as a recognisable sign of his authority. Silver denier, Charlemagne (768-814), Class 2 (heavy coinage), Mainz, 793/4-812. PG.13806, Grierson Collection.

Silver penny, King Alfred of Wessex (871-99), London Monogram type, London, <i>c. </i>880; CM.YG.1139-R, Young Collection

London Monogram type struck to mark Alfred's assumption of power over London in c. 880. Silver penny, King Alfred of Wessex (871-99), London Monogram type, London, c. 880. CM.YG.1139-R, Young Collection.


Go to top of page