(Long Beach, California) February 7, 2018 — Among the numismatic treasures that will be featured in the upcoming inaugural exhibit of rarities from the privately owned Tyrant Collection (www.TheTyrantCollection.com) will be the first public displays in the United States of some of England’s most important Anglo-Saxon era coins.
Veteran professional numismatist and English coinage specialist Bruce Lorich, on behalf of the Tyrant Collection’s anonymous owner, has cataloged the more than 500 “Tyrants of the Thames” exhibit coins to be displayed at the Long Beach Coin, Currency, Stamp & Sports Collectible Expo (www.LongBeachExpo.com) in Long Beach, California, February 22-24, 2018. This is the second in a series of four articles by him about the historical significance of some of the coins in that unprecedented exhibition.
The Importance of England’s Anglo-Saxon Coinage
Rome’s invasion of the Britons’ island in the first century BC clearly influenced England’s early money. Mixing in use with the coins of the earliest known inhabitants of the island, the Celts, the Roman money was a blend of coins imported from Rome and copies made by local die-cutters. Some were silver. A few were gold. Most were copper. They were slowly absorbed into the circulating money in various areas of the island.
Early England consisted of regions even then called kingdoms, but these were small, essentially tribal enclaves. Largely to protect themselves from these warlord kings, the Romans put up forbidding stone and wood forts. To say the least, early Britain was a hostile place. The Romans eventually tired of trying to dominate the native inhabitants. By the early 5th century, Rome began to pull out of the island, and at the same time tribal kings began to expand their territories.
The island’s indigenous people were invaded again and again over centuries by tribal warriors whose origins were such northwestern European places as Jutland (in today’s Denmark) and ancient Saxony (Germanic tribes living along the North Sea). Gauls came from the northern coast of today’s France. Angles, Saxons and Jutes began to emigrate to Briton in the 5th century. Their bloodlines merged and they began to be called Anglo-Saxons in the 8th century. During these centuries Norse invaders also came many times to the island, mixing their Viking genes with those of earlier invaders and of ancient native Britons.
In the 7th century the scattered kingdoms began issuing their own coins, mostly small pieces, often borrowing Roman designs, but they displayed legends in their own Runic alphabet. They also featured Christian symbols, mostly crosses of varying styles. Over time, the Roman coins disappeared from circulation and were steadily replaced by these little silver coins (which had sizable copper content) called “sceats.” These were all of local artistry and local issue. They appeared independent of each other in the various kingdoms of the island.
The late 7th and early 8th centuries in England were the era of the Saxon sceats, and the Tyrant Collection contains a representative selection of all the kingly issues, from Aethelred, King of Mercia, circa 674-704 AD, to Osberht, King of Northumbria, circa 848-867 AD. Dozens of types exist, many anonymous, lacking any king’s name. After a little more than a century as the principal money of the island, these small coins featuring “fantastic animals” and sometimes abbreviated names of early kings and archbishops were gradually replaced by a complicated series of larger coins of better silver that depicted chieftains and their titles scattered among the island’s kingdoms.
Some of the early English coins, however, were made from locally mined ore containing gold blended with silver and other trace metals. The most impressive of these are called “thrysmas” by today’s collectors, but originally they were known as “shillings.” They began to be minted about 620 AD. Perhaps the most notable of these first gold coins, not of Roman origin, was issued by King Eadbald of Kent, south of London. It was struck in the capital city circa 616-640 AD. It shows a crudely engraved image of the king in armor facing to the right. On the opposite side is a central cross atop a globe, surrounded by a boldly engraved legend outside a beaded ring. This was the first coin ever minted in the name of an English king.
One of the most significant coins in the Tyrant Collection is in fact a gold thrysma of King Eadbald. It is possibly the finest known example of this extremely rare coin and its existence illustrates an historical truth. It was made within two or three decades of another early rarity in the collection, a “Two Emperors” pale-gold thrysma styled after a Roman gold solidus of Magnus Maximus; this coin shows a helmeted portrait of an unnamed king, the other side featuring a winged angel above small images of two emperors. The co-existence of these two coins demonstrates the evolution of Anglo-Saxon coinage art occurring at this time.
While these two coins were made from native ore containing some gold, the precious metal was rarely found in native Briton. Silver and copper naturally alloyed with tin were the coinage metals most abundant on the island. Silver coins of relatively small value soon became the dominant form of money. They were most useful for daily life.
Anglo-Saxon silver “pennies” were minted in various kingdoms over a period of some four centuries until they too were superseded by similar silver pennies issued by the Norman conquerors. Anglo-Saxon pennies got their name from Roman silver coins of a similar size called “denarii.” Early pennies were the forerunners of modern English “pence,” which traditionally were noted in writing using the letter “d,” alluding to the old Roman denarii. Hence the abbreviation “1d” for a silver penny.
The Tyrant Collection contains examples of many of the kings of the 8th and 9th centuries who issued coins. Featured pieces include exceptionally fine portrait pennies from the kingdom of Mercia issued by Offa, Coenwulf, Coelwulf, Beornwulf and Burgred. The kings of Wessex, beginning with Ecgberht in the early 9th century, are exceptionally well represented, one of the most important being an astounding portrait coin of Alfred the Great showing the monogram of London on its reverse side-celebrating the invasion and capture of the capital city in the year 886, which in effect unified the kingdoms. Finally, the coins of unified England during the late Anglo-Saxon era are especially well represented, including coins of Edward the Martyr, Aethelred II, Edward the Confessor, and Harold II, who was killed at the definitive Battle of Hastings in 1066.
In all, the Tyrant Collection offers a wonderful assortment of Anglo-Saxon symbolism and superb portraits of kings on coins that are seldom available for viewing in America. These artistic expressions of the early inhabitants of England are most often seen in museums in Europe and the UK, the remainder being held in private collections that are never exhibited. Now, for a brief time, the public has a rare opportunity to examine these coinage classics in person.
All of these coins will be on display in the Tyrants of the Thames exhibition at the February 2018 Long Beach Expo. The one-of-a-kind exhibit is being presented by The Tyrant Collection’s anonymous owner with the assistance of Ira and Larry Goldberg Coin & Collectibles of Los Angeles.