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The Coming of Christianity

The conversion and christianisation of England was a long drawn-out process extending over the seventh and much of the eighth centuries, and had profound repercussions on cultural and political life. Kings and noblemen established churches and monasteries, and richly endowed some of them to pray for their founders' souls. The wealth of these establishments led them to play a significant role in local society and the economy, while the new religion brought an increase in literacy and learning, particularly among the newly-trained clergy. Profound changes to the culture followed, which is reflected in the art and literature of the age.

The English coinage provides a powerful testament to these developments. The effect of Christianity was not merely to give a religious element to the symbolism on many of the coins, but to stimulate a new vibrancy and imagination that diffused throughout the coinage of the eighth century. A plethora of new types occurs, drawing on contemporary artistic themes, rather than traditional coinage designs. Many of these are allegories for sophisticated theological concepts, and it raises questions about the rôle churchmen took in the minting process. Did they have direct involvement, advising moneyers and die-cutters on the designs, or even being involved with operating the mints? Three inscribed coinages show that some coins were struck for the Church, suggesting that such close involvement is far from impossible, but it is not clear that all coins with Christian designs were in any way ecclesiastical.

A variety of Christian imagery can be found on the early coinage, which is not displayed here to scale.

The Cross

The cross became a frequent feature of coin designs in Continental Europe from the later sixth century, when the Byzantine Emperor Tiberius II (578-82) began to use the Cross-on-steps motif on his coins. This represented the cross erected on Golgotha Hill in Jerusalem by Emperor Theodosius II in the early fifth century. In Western Europe it took many different forms, some simplified, some ornate. Although their decorative function was also significant, the fact that crosses were such a dominant element of coin designs in the seventh century suggests the Christian symbolism was important.

Gold solidus of Tiberius II, Constantinople, 579-82, CM.ME.370-R, Fitzwilliam Museum

Cross on steps prototype: gold solidus of Emperor Tiberius II (574-82), Constantinople, 579-82. CM.ME.370-R.

Anglo-Saxon gold solidus, mid-seventh century, on loan from Emmanuel College

Cross on steps: Anglo-Saxon gold solidus, mid-seventh century. CM.EM.5-R, Emmanuel College Collection.

Gold tremissis of King Eadbald of Kent, 616-40, Canterbury, c. 625; CM.778-2002, Fitzwilliam Museum

Cross on globule: gold shilling of King Eadbald of Kent (616-40), Canterbury mint, c. 625; +DOR[ ]NIS.M (for Dorovernis, Canterbury). CM.778-2002, bt with aid from the Art Fund and the Friends of the Fitzwilliam.

Anglo-Saxon gold pendant, early seventh century, M.64-1904, Fitzwilliam Museum

Anglo-Saxon gold cross pendant, early seventh century. M.64-1904, from excavations at King's Field, Faversham.


Despite there being Christian iconography on coinage since the time of Emperor Constantine I (307-37), Christ was not portrayed on any coins until the 680s, on coins of the Visigothic King Erwig (680-7) and the Byzantine Emperor Justinian II (685-95). A unique coin (below right), only recently discovered, is the earliest and, indeed, sole explicit, representation of Christ on English coinage.

Gold solidus of Justinian II, Constantinople, 692X5, CM.2063-1950, Fitzwilliam Museum

Gold solidus of Emperor Justinian II (685-95, 705-11), Constantinople, 692-95. CM.2063-1950.

Silver early penny, Series Q, East Anglia, c. 720-40, lent by Lord Stewartby

Silver early penny, Series Q, East Anglia, c. 720-40. Lent by Lord Stewartby.

Inhabited Vine

The vine-scroll, often inhabited by a variety of birds and other animals feeding on the fruit, was emblematic of Christ's words 'I am the true vine' (John 15.1-8); those nourishing their souls with his fruits would find salvation. The imagery is common on stone sculpture and metalwork of the eighth and ninth century, and a recurring theme on the coinage.

Silver early penny, Series V, perhaps Kent, c. 720; CM.1978-2007, De Wit Collection

Dove in vines. Silver early penny, Series V, perhaps from Kent, c. 720. CM.1978-2007, De Wit Collection.

Silver early penny, Series K, South-East, c. 720-40; CM.1806-2007, De Wit Collection

Panther, eating fruit. Silver early penny, Series K, South-East England, c. 720-40. CM.1806-2007, De Wit Collection.

Ecclesiastical coinages

Few coins before the mid-eighth century have meaningful inscriptions, but those that do are very significant. At York coins with the names of the bishop, Ecgberht, and his brother King Eadberht mark the beginning of a long series of York episcopal coins.

From southern England, perhaps from a few years earlier, two groups of coins have inscriptions that indicate that they were issued under the authority of the Church. One has MONITA SCORVM (Monita Sanctorum, 'money of the saints'), sometimes combined with DE LONDONIA ('of London'). The other has the word SEDE ('from the seat', which is typically used of bishop's seats, implying issue from an episcopal church). Whether these are all from London, which had been a bishopric since 604, or whether the SEDE coins are from another southern bishopric is not clear.

Silver early penny of Bishop Ecgberht of York, York, 737X58, CM.1993-2007, De Wit Collection

Ecgberht, Archbishop of York (c. 732-66), and Eadberht, King of Northumbria (738-58), showing the bishop holding two processional crosses. Silver early penny, York, 738-58. CM.1993-2007, De Wit Collection.

Silver early penny, London, c.  720-40, CM.1837-2007, De Wit Collection

Silver early penny, c. 720-40, legend: MONITA SCORVM. CM.1837-2007, De Wit Collection.

Silver early penny, London, c. 720-40, De Wit Collection

Silver early penny, c. 720-40, legend: MTA SCORVM. CM.1839-2007, De Wit Collection.

Silver early penny, southern England, c. 720-40, CM.1741-2007, De Wit Collection

Silver early penny, c. 720-40, legend: SEDE. CM.1741-2007, De Wit Collection.

'Hand of God'

Signifying God's action in the world, and therefore Christ, the logos or Word, the Hand of God was a motif used in several places besides England. English convention was to depict it descending from on high, but the contemporary papal coin depicted here instead orients the design so as to show the Hand raised in blessing, whilst also incorporating it into a rebus designating the coin's origin, R and O plus Latin manus meaning 'hand' combining to imply romanus, 'Roman'.

Silver penny of King Æthelred II of England (978-1016), First Hand type, York mint, moneyer Thurstan, 979X85, lent by Dr Stewart Lyon

Silver penny of King Æthelred II of England (978-1016), First Hand type, York mint by the moneyer Thurstan, 979-85. Lent by Dr Stewart Lyon.

Papal denaro of Pope Benedict IV (900-3) with Emperor Louis III (901-5), Rome, 901X3; PG.8808, Grierson Collection

Silver denaro of Pope Benedict IV (900-3) with Emperor Louis III (901-5), Rome, 901-3. PG.8808, Grierson Collection.

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