Monday, 3 December 2012

Three Late Anglo-Saxon Rarities Acquired for the Fitzwilliam Museum

Dr Rory Naismith writes:

The Department of Coins and Medals in the Fitzwilliam Museum has recently secured a number of items of major importance for knowledge of tenth- and eleventh-century England.

Seal matrix of Ælfric

This is only the fourth known surviving late Anglo-Saxon seal matrix, and the only one held by a public collection besides the British Museum. It was found two years ago on the Wiltshire/Hampshire border by a metal-detectorist, and was bought by the Fitzwilliam in November 2012.
Like one of the other surviving matrices, this example is made of copper alloy (the other two being carved from walrus ivory). Unlike any of the others, however, this one shows traces of gilding: a thin layer of gold applied across the entire surface of the matrix at the time of manufacture. This would originally have lent it the appearance of solid gold, and made a powerful visual impact. The handle at the top of the seal (with a loop-hole for mounting) and the acanthus leaf decoration carved on the back also add to the impression that this seal matrix was in itself intended for display, as well as for leaving a mark on wax.

The inscription on the seal reads ‘+SIGILLVM ÆLFRICVS’ (‘the seal [of] Ælfric’). The man portrayed in the centre of the seal is presumably intended to represent Ælfric himself. Like the images on other seals, this elaborate bust is closely akin to coins of the same period, and may even have been carved by the same craftsmen. Some of the details of the image are obscured by loss of gilding and decay of the copper, but it is entirely possible that Ælfric was once shown holding a sword, as the figures do on all three other surviving seals for Anglo-Saxon laymen. Interestingly, one of these (now in the British Museum) also names an Ælfric, was made of copper-alloy and was found in Hampshire. It may once have belonged to the very same man as the new matrix, although the name Ælfric was common in late Anglo-Saxon England.

The delicate acanthus leaf decoration found on the reverse of this and the other Ælfric seal links them to the sophisticated tradition of ‘Winchester school’ art characteristic of high culture in late Anglo-Saxon England. This and other artistic affinities associate the seals with the late tenth or early eleventh century. The only specific date for any late Anglo-Saxon seal comes from impressions of a now lost matrix for St Edith of Wilton which must have been made in the period 975×984.

Despite their rarity, these objects played a significant part in the administrative system otherwise known from law-codes, charters and coins. They were used as tokens of authority by powerful laymen and ecclesiastics, up to an including the king. King Alfred the Great expected a seal and a writ (letter) to act as potent signs of the king’s will. Æthelred II (978–1016) is also known to have had a seal, of which no impressions survive; the earliest extant royal seal impressions date to the reign of his son, Edward the Confessor (1042–66). Interestingly, modern finds of tenth- and early-eleventh-century matrices are concentrated in England south the Thames: precisely the region where the king’s presence was concentrated and the exertion of royal power was most keenly felt.

Agnus Dei penny of Æthelred II

In the 970s and after England developed a remarkable monetary system based on standardised coin-types naming king, mint-place and individual maker (‘moneyer’) which were issued at up to seventy places across the kingdom, from York to Exeter and Dover. Every few years these coins would be brought in and replaced with a new type. Thanks to payments of tribute to the Vikings who menaced England during the reign of Æthelred, tens of thousands of silver pennies of most of these types have survived in hoards from modern Scandinavia.

Yet one particularly striking and historically important type remains poorly represented among them: the famous Agnus Dei type. Only 21 specimens have been discovered, all but four of them in Scandinavia or the Baltic. One of the latest to come to light was found near Epping, Essex, in 2008, by a metal-detector user. It was subsequently bought for the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Uniquely for the succession of types running from Edgar to Harold II in 1066, the Agnus Dei coinage dispenses with a representation of the king on the obverse and with the usual cross on the reverse. In their place, one finds a representation of the Lamb of God and of the Holy Dove. These images find extensive parallels among manuscript illuminations, sculpture and metalwork of the period, and demonstrate that the designers of coins were very much in touch with the artistic mainstream, and therefore presumably with the deep resonances which attached to these images. Both emphasise the peace-bringing power of Christ and the Holy Spirit: a message which chimes perfectly with the desperate efforts mounted by King Æthelred at the time of a great viking invasion in 1009 – a date which is also indicated by independent numismatic evidence. The attack of Thorkel the Tall and his army beginning in the late summer of that year presented a genuine crisis for the English, whose own forces proved unable to co-operate or pin down their opponents in battle. Under these circumstances, the rulers of the English placed their hopes in God. A tract stipulating the donation of alms, fasting and prayer until conditions improved was issued in the run-up to Michaelmas (29 September) 1009, while the defenders of the southeast – where the force of the attack fell – braced themselves against the foe.

It is very likely that the Agnus Dei coinage was produced as a complement to this broader appeal for divine help in the late summer and autumn of 1009. Although scarce, the surviving coins were clearly a carefully conceived venture, innovative in fine detail as well as their striking iconography. They are also noticeably heavier than the immediately preceding coin-type, which indicates that they probably belong at the head of a new type (coins of which typically became lighter over time). Issuing a fresh coin-type meant more than inconvenience for the populace or a fundraising scheme for the king and his agents: it was a key defence against forgery and, in the eyes of contemporary commentators, an assertion of good order comparable to the prevention of other serious crimes. In other words, it was precisely the sort of endeavour that the circumstances of 1009 called for. The Agnus Dei coinage thus constitutes a very special inception for a new coinage; one which was closely tied to the exceptional conditions of the time.

The Fitzwilliam’s specimen of this coinage was made at Salisbury in Wiltshire by a man named Sæwine. The pattern of production visible from surviving specimens gives further clues to the unusual way in which the Agnus Dei coinage was issued. None of the leading mint-towns (Lincoln, London, Winchester and York) of England are represented; rather, minting was restricted to just nine relatively minor places, stretching in an arc from Salisbury in Wessex through a cluster of mints in western England at Stafford and Hereford, to another group in the east midlands. These nine places may represent the only ones to receive and use dies (stamps) for the new issue during its short period of currency, although there is some uncertainty about how this process was organised. The absence of Agnus Dei pennies from the southeast may be a result of the impact wrought by the viking invasion.

This penny was found already with the bend which can be seen in the illustrations above. Flattening it out was deemed too risky, and also as perhaps taking away from part of the coin’s history. It is very likely that it was bent deliberately by an eleventh-century user, possibly as a small votive offering: a custom which became widespread later in the Middle Ages.

The coin was recently featured on BBC 2’s Vikings with Neil Oliver.

Penny of Cissbury

The coin-issue for which Agnus Dei was such a highly-charged prelude, known as Last Small Cross, returned to the norm of royal bust and cross which had dominated the English currency for four decades by this time. Indeed, this final coin-type issued by Æthelred II was closely modelled on the coinage of his illustrious father Edgar and revered brother Edward the Martyr. At a time of uncertainty and deepening crisis, the coinage looked back to an age of peace and stability.

In organisation, however, it is apparent that the situation was quite different. Detailed analysis of Æthelred’s coinage has been used to show the steps which were taken to maintain one aspect of local government in the face of enemy action. In particular, viking attacks sometimes seem to have prompted the retreat of minting operations from exposed boroughs to fortified redoubts in the vicinity. Several were installed within the ramparts of prehistoric hill-forts. At one of these, South Cadbury in Somerset, excavations have uncovered evidence of the formidable defences which were erected in the time of Æthelred. Another such hilltop mint-site was at Salisbury in Wiltshire, which at this date was located at Old Sarum: a hill-fort 2.5km from modern Salisbury, which remained the site of the city until 1220. It is likely that this mint-place was established after the sack of nearby Wilton in 1003: several of the moneyers who had formerly served there can be traced subsequently at Salisbury.

Another probable case of a hill-fort which served as an ‘emergency’ mint under Æthelred is Cissbury in Sussex, near Worthing. The third new acquisition highlighted here is a coin attributed to this mint. Only about twenty pennies from Cissbury are known to survive. The context in which this specimen was found is unknown, although it has a long pedigree associated with some of the most important coin collections of the last century. At various times it belonged to the numismatic scholar Francis Elmore Jones and to the great American collector Emery May Norweb.

This specimen is especially significant for its long and clear mint-name: SIĐESTEB. Like most mint-names on Anglo-Saxon coins, this is an abbreviation, and probably signifies Sithmestbyrig. This might be an Anglicisation of a now-lost older name, but it also means ‘the final fortress’ – a most appropriate name for what may have been a last-ditch stronghold against Viking attack. Coins provide the only medieval attestation of this name; other records of it do not survive from before the sixteenth century, when it was called Sissabury or Sizebury. But it can be independently shown that the dies (stamps) used to make the coin probably come from somewhere in Sussex. In short, there is every reason to believe that this imposing fortress provided another location for one of the ‘emergency’ mints of Æthelred II’s troubled later years.

Despite the likely hope of the English that Cissbury would provide a secure holdout against viking aggression, there is evidence to suggest that at least some interaction took place between its inhabitants and the Scandinavians. The marks on the reverse of this coin, known as peck-marks, are an indication that the quality of the coin was checked by a Scandinavian user at some point. Very many English coins of the period display peck-marks such as these; but it was much less common for English coin-dies to be used in Scandinavia as well as England. Yet analysis of coins made in contemporary Sweden and Denmark has revealed that the dies which made this coin, although of English manufacture, were also used to produce coins in the viking homelands. Whether the dies were taken across the North Sea through violence or by peaceful means is unclear, though there were several other English dies which made the same journey, some evidently purpose-made for use in Scandinavia with the names of local kings. Specimens from this later phase of the Cissbury dies’ use can be identified from their very high weight and, in at least one case, from being struck on a square piece of silver. At one stage the obverse die was also combined with a reverse of much cruder design and literacy. It is impossible to say for sure whether the present coin was made in England or Scandinavia, though on balance it is more likely to be English.

Together, these three acquisitions provide a valuable window onto the operation of the late Anglo-Saxon kingdom: how its leaders demonstrated their authority, and how its economy and administration adapted to weather testing times.


  1. I wonder wow far back in time do we know that the Anglo-Saxon Kings used seals.

    Is there any knowledge of use in the early years (- say 5th to 8th centuries

    1. Hi Richard,

      There's very little evidence from that early. One double-sided lead seal in the name of Coenwulf, king of the Mercians (796-821) is preserved in the British Museum, but that's all. On the other hand, seals from outside the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were known in England: four Roman/papal seals from between the seventh and tenth centuries have been found, and also one very interesting Merovingian seal-ring which may be in the name of Balthild - an Anglo-Saxon princess who became a queen in the seventh-century Frankish kingdom. There may well be others, as yet unpublicised or unidentified.

      Best wishes,