Coin of the Moment

Æthelred the Unready, AD 978 - 1016. Silver penny, Cambridge mint

Æthelred "the Unready", king of England from AD 978 to 1016, has had a bad press - although, since he was under constant attack by the Vikings throughout his reign, this is hardly surprising.

What do we see?

This is a silver penny minted in Cambridge around the year AD 1000. The obverse has a portrait bust of King Æthelred and a legend which reads + ÆTHELRED REX ANGLO[RUM], meaning "Æthelred, King of the English". The reverse carries the Christian symbol of the cross, as on nearly all English coins since the eighth century. The reverse legend reads + EDPINE MO GRAN, which gives the name of the moneyer [MO], Eadwine, who supervised the making of the coin, and the Old English name of the mint, Grantabrycg.

Is this really Æthelred?

The portrait on the coin is not really an accurate picture of Æthelred - he probably never wore the cloak you see on the coin or sported the dashing Elvis-style haircut! The portrait is, in fact, a stylised and simplified copy of earlier Roman coins, with their busts of the Roman emperors. Compare Æthelred's coin to this gold solidus of the emperor Magnentius (AD 350-353):


Why, then, would Æthelred put a Roman bust on his coins? Because, although this is not an actual representation of what he looked like, it is still Æthelred. It is an image of him as an Anglo-Saxon king, a symbol of his power, which he wanted to show people was as absolute as that of the Roman emperors whom he was imitiating.

Who was Æthelred?

Æthelred succeeded to a throne stained with the blood of his elder brother, Edward the Martyr, who was murdered at Corfe Castle after only three years as king. Coming to the throne as a teenager, Æthelred was firmly under the thumb of Ælfthryth, his mother, and of Æthelwold, the bishop of Winchester. However, after Æthelwold's death in AD 984, he was led by the bad advice of his greedy nobles into stealing church lands, until AD 993, when he repented of his wicked ways and turned back to his mother as advisor.

From then on, he is known as a good king and, until AD 1000, he was reasonably successful in preventing Viking attacks from overwhelming England, although they still caused great destruction. Sadly, the attacks grew in size and strength and Æthelred ended his reign a defeated man, in a kingdom about to be conquered by the Scandinavian king Canute.

For more information on Æthelred's reign, follow this link.

What could a penny buy?

No-one knows the exact value of an Anglo-Saxon penny, although an earlier tenth-century law code says that you could buy a good racehorse for 120 pennies, a cow for 20 pennies and a sheep for 5 pennies. A silver penny in AD 1000 might buy the same as about £10-£20 today.

The small gouges on the reverse of the coin are known as 'peck' marks and were made with a knife to test the purity of the silver. The Anglo-Saxons would have had no need to do this, as the bust of Æthelred on the coin was a royal guarantee of its value: this coin could be exchanged for a penny worth of goods. The Vikings, however, only saw the coin for its silver content and pecked or bent it to find out how soft, and therefore how pure it was.