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Category: Gold - according to Dominic Frisby

How the Pound Sterling got its name

Today we consider the coins of Anglo-Saxon Britain. The winter of 406-7 was cold, very cold in Europe; the Rhine froze over. Hoards of Alans, Vanda...

16 April 2021

Dominic Frisby

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Today we consider the coins of Anglo-Saxon Britain.

The winter of 406-7 was cold, very cold in Europe; the Rhine froze over. Hoards of Alans, Vandals, and Suebi made their way across and into the Roman empire, no doubt violent with hunger from the cold, and greedy for what they had admired for so long on the other side. But the devastation they wrought met with no effective response from Rome.

In Britain, Rome had already lost the north and west to warlords. The Roman armies in Britain, who had probably not been paid, now feared these Germanic tribes would next cross into Britain. So, led by Constantine III, who would declare himself Western Roman Emperor, they made their way across the Channel into Gaul, leaving ‘Britannia’ to fend for itself. We do not really know if it was Rome that gave up Britain, or Britain that gave up Rome, but, either way, the Dark Ages had well and truly begun.

Gold, silver and bronze coins had found widespread use under the Romans. They were used to pay taxes, and often re-minted to pay the army and the civil service. With Constantine’s departure, there was almost no new minting and very little importation of new coins. Judging by the numerous hoards found from the period, many buried their money – presumably to keep it safe in this unruly new environment of no military protection and merciless invasion from Angles, Saxons and other tribes from the continent. With the lack of new supply, existing coins were re-used. Clipping became widespread. The previously vigorous late Roman monetary system lay in tatters. Minting did not properly start up again for at least another 200 years.

The Anglo-Saxon invaders, at first, did not use gold coins so much as money but for decoration. King Eadbald of Kent was the first Anglo-Saxon to mint coins around AD 625 – small, gold coins called scillingas (shillings), modelled on coins from France. Numismatists now call them thrymsas.

As the century progressed, these coins grew increasingly pale, until there was very little gold in them at all. From about 675, small, thick, silver coins known as sceattas came into use in all the countries around the North Sea, and the gold shilling was superseded by the silver penning, or penny. Gold fell out of use almost altogether, though silver had something of a boom.

It’s thought the word ‘penny’, like the German ‘Pfennig’ might come from the pans into which the molten metal for making was poured. ‘Pfanne’ is the German for ‘pan’.

The Mercian king Offa – he of dyke fame – reigned for almost 40 years from 757 to 796. He must be seen as one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon kings, certainly the greatest of the 8th century. As well as his dyke, which protected his kingdom from Welsh invaders, he is credited for the widespread adoption of the silver penny and the pound as a unit of account. His coins, with portraits and intricate designs, were as accomplished as anywhere in Europe at the time.

His system, though probably imported from the Franks, for reasons which will become clear, almost certainly dates back to the Romans. 12 silver pence equalled a shilling. 20 shillings equalled a pound weight of silver. Thus 240 silver pennies, weighing about 1.4g each (sorry for mixing imperial and metric) was equivalent to one pound weight of silver. Thus was the pound a pound of sterling silver.

The Latin word for a ‘pound’ is libra and the pound sign, £, is a stylised writing of the letter L. The d meanwhile used for pence comes from the Latin denarius. Thus the roots of the system were almost certainly Roman.

Offa’s system remained standard until the 16th century and, in many ways, until decimalisation in 1971. You had to add up each unit of currency separately in this format: £3.9.4, which would be spoken “three pounds, nine shillings and four pence”, or “three-pounds, nine and four”. To add, you would calculate each unit separately, then convert pence to shilling, leaving leftover pence in the right column, then convert the shillings to pounds (with leftover shillings in the middle column), and then add up the total pounds.

Offa’s systems were gradually consolidated over the subsequent centuries, especially as the kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon Britain began to merge. In the 860s, for example, the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex formed an alliance by which coinage of a common design could circulate through both of their lands.

The Viking invaders over this period found coinage systems far more sophisticated than their own and the Danegeld, with which they were bought off, was paid in silver pennies. I had always thought the “geld” in Danegeld meant “gold” but in fact it means yield, and the Viking invaders demanded this tribute wherever in Europe they ravaged.

The system was quite efficient – on both sides. For the invaders, they were often paid more than they could raise by looting, without having to fight. For the locals, the ravaging was avoided, although, as Rudyard Kipling noted in his poem on the subject, “if once you have paid him the Dane-geld, You never get rid of the Dane”.

The Danegeld probably also motivated improvements to Anglo-Saxon coinage. To pay his own soldiers, to build forts and ships and to pay Dangeld, Alfred the Great increased the number of mints to at least eight. His successor Athelstan had 30 and, to keep order, passed a law in 928 stating that England should have just one currency. Ever since there has been just one. This was many centuries before standardisation in France, Germany or Italy.

When William Duke of Normandy invaded England in 1066, he succeeded where his Viking ancestors had failed for 270 years: he managed to conquer England. It meant he could take control of English coinage, which was far superior to that which he possessed in his homeland. William’s coins struck back in Normandy are remarkable for how poor they are, compared to their English counterparts. He had at least seven types of English pennies struck with his name on. It meant he was able to achieve the rebranding that was so important to him. No longer was he William the Bastard, as he was then known. Now he was William the Conqueror. He let the world know through his coins. And that’s how we know him today.

* Dominic Frisby, author of Daylight Robbery – How Tax Shaped The Past And Will Change The Future, out now in paperback at Amazon and all good bookstores with the audiobook, read by Dominic, on Audible and elsewhere.

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