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Anglo-Saxons and their Money

Coinage fell out of general use in Britain after the departure of the Romans. Slowly, during the sixth and seventh centuries, the Anglo-Saxon settlers learnt to use money, initially with gold solidi and the smaller tremisses imported from the Continent. A Merovingian tremissis struck in the Toul area They started minting their own coins in England from the early seventh century, based on the same denominations, though the tremissis was probably known in England as a shilling (Old English skilling). Economic pressures led to a debasement of the gold shilling, and in the 670s it was replaced by a new silver coin known as a penny (Old English penning). An early Anglo-Saxon penny imitating a Merovingian prototype

Precious metals were more valuable then than they are now, and even the lesser of these coins, the silver penny, would have had a purchasing power equivalent to at least £10-£20 today and the gold shilling could have been worth £100 or more. They could not be used as small change. Yet despite this they must have been widely used in market transactions, for both silver and gold coins have often been found by metal-detector users across the countryside of Eastern and Southern England.

Anglo-Saxon coinage has until recently been neglected as an art-historical source. Yet particularly for the seventh and eighth centuries, it provides a range of extraordinarily vibrant pictorial and geometric designs, from a period when there is very poor survival of most other art forms, be they illuminated manuscripts, stone sculpture, carved bone or ivory objects. Coins and ornamental metalwork have greatly increased in number over the last 25 years with the growth in popularity of metal detectors.

Penny of King Offa of Mercia (757-96)

The height of artistic coinage in the Anglo-Saxon period fell in the eighth century, when the small pennies sport a surprising range of pictorial images and many of the pennies of King Offa (757-96) achieve an outstanding degree of skill and artistry in die-cutting.

The links below each explore in turn the various sources of influence from which the Anglo-Saxon die-cutters drew in the making of the coins, the effect of and depiction of Christianity and its iconography on the coins, the vibrant animal motifs that appear throughout the coinages and lastly, the processes and methods by which the coins themselves were designed and made.

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