Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: East Anglia

Much like Kent, by c. 750 East Anglia was already an old kingdom. However, it was somewhat in a state of decline. Gone were the days of the near-legendary kings of the Wuffingas dynasty – chief among whom ranks Rædwald, possibly the occupant of Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo. Instead, by the 8th century we see the all too familiar process of Mercian interference, administration and indirect rule that immediately precede a direct take-over of territory. Indeed, the similarities between Kent and East Anglia are striking – both were annexed by Mercia in the 8th century, both regained their independence (although in Kent’s case, this was much more short-lived) and both demonstrate the same lack of documentary evidence caused by half a century of Scandinavian raiding. For this reason, our knowledge of this region remains clouded and poorly understood. King-lists are insecure, chronologies highly patchy.

To delve into the coinage of East Anglia from this period is to enter a period of much obscurity, of shadowy figures and pieces of incredibly rarity. Indeed, coins provide some of the scant evidence for kingship during this period. Some of the first secure ‘East Anglian’ coins were struck by King Beonna (c. 749-760?), whose issues reflect a continuation of the ‘sceatta’ issues produced during the early 8th century. Beonna’s successor, Æthelred I of East Anglia, is not known to have issued any coins – but his son Æthelberht (who would become Æthelberht II of East Anglia) appears to have switched over to the issuing of larger-flan silver pennies. His dates of reign are uncertain, though some sources suggest an accession to the throne around the year 779. To date, only four of Æthelberht’s coins survive – important discoveries which despite their rarity are key evidence which suggests that despite growing Mercian influence under Offa, East Anglia still retained its independence. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us bluntly of Æthelberht’s fate in the entry for 794 – ‘This year Offa, King of Mercia, commanded that King Æthelberht should be beheaded.’ Although later Medieval sources would ‘flesh out’ this story, the aim was clear – to remove a rival, extend Mercian power over East Anglia and absorb it as a vassal kingdom.

However, this did not go off without a hitch – after Offa’s death in c. 796, a man named Eadwald seized power for a short period in East Anglia, just as Eadberht ‘Praen’ did in Kent. He is totally omitted from literary sources, instead being known only from coins. Nothing is known about Eadwald’s ultimate fate, but his efforts to re-establish independence were clearly in vain due to the rapid re-establishing of Mercian control over Kent and East Anglia by Offa’s successor, Coenwulf. Despite his success, fewer than thirty years later East Anglia would rise again under Æthelstan, who after the defeat of Mercia by Wessex successfully brokered a deal whereby East Anglia would owe general fealty, yet remain independent. This arrangement effectively created a mini-dynasty in the form of Æthelstan, his son Æthelweard and grandson Edmund – who ruled East Anglia for the next 40 years.

With its coastal setting, it is unsurprising that East Anglia fell victim to many Scandinavian attacks through the 9th century – just as Kent did. Although these gradually increased in their severity, it was the invasion of the ‘Great Heathen Army’ in 866 that marked the beginning of the kingdom’s death knell. Although initially marching north to attack York after their arrival, in 869 the Danes returned to East Anglia – killing King Edmund at Hægelisdun, the exact location of which has not yet been identified. Sources differ whether he died in battle after negotiations went wrong, or because he refused to renounce Christianity. Thereafter, East Anglia was ruled by Danish-sponsored puppet kings – but would eventually become part of the Danelaw after the treaty of Alfred and Guthrum, with its own coinage and administrative structures. However, this account (and the coins issued within this polity) will be related in the ‘Viking Coinage’ section.

Beonna (c. 749-760?) – possibly ruling jointly with an individual called Ethælberht (for whom only a single coin is known), most of what we know regarding Beonna can be drawn from his coins. Indeed, it was only from their discovery in the Middle Harling and Burrow Hill hoards that his existence as a historical figure was definitively proved beyond reasonable doubt. Effectively a sceatta issue, Beonna’s coins were issued by three moneyers; Efe, Wilræd and Wærferth – though the last is extremely rare. Interestingly, some of his issues demonstrate ornate ribbon-like interlace motifs – a characteristically Mercian form of decoration during the 8th century.

Æthelberht II (c. 779?-794) – by the reign of Æthelberht, East Anglia’s independence was under dire threat from Mercian interference. As only four of his coins are known to exist, it is quite possible that Offa of Mercia issued directives for their production to cease or alternatively made great efforts to have them called in and re-coined. According to the 15th century historian Richard of Cirencester, he was put to death while visiting Offa’s daughter Ælfthyth (his future bride to be) while in Herefordshire, at the behest of the ‘evil’ Cynethryth – Offa’s wife. Hereford Cathedral is dedicated to him, as are a number of churches in East Anglia – suggesting his veneration as part of a local saintly cult.

Eadwald (796-798) – totally absent from written sources, Eadwald’s existence is known only from his coins (of which around thirty are known to exist). It is thought that he, like Eadberht Praen in Kent, took advantage (albeit short-lived) of the power vacuum that emerged following the deaths of Offa and his son Ecgfrith. Indeed, like Eadberht, he may have had continental support. Interestingly, some of Eadwald’s issues copy motifs from Mercian pieces – such as the three-armed ‘tribrach’ that appears on coins of Coenwulf. This suggests an attempt to stamp legitimacy on his questionable usurpation of power.

Æthelstan (c. 827-840’s) – Æthelstan’s rebellion against Mercia seems to have begun in approximately 821, though he would not become ‘King’ in his own right till c. 827. As with most of East Anglian history during this period, there is a great deal of information that has been lost. What we do know is that the Mercians were defeated by the Kingdom of Wessex in 825, and afterwards King Beornwulf of Mercia was killed fighting the East Anglians – who regained their independence despite subsequently owing fealty to Wessex. Æthelstan left little trace in documentary sources, but his coins survive in some numbers – a complex series of portrait and non-portrait types were struck by him, most likely products of the mint at Gippeswic (modern day Ipswich).

Æthelweard (c. 840’s-c. 854) – probably the son of Æthelstan, Æthelweard (like Eadwald) does not appear in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle. However, numismatic evidence helps place him in the broader East Anglian chronology, though his exact regnal dates are theorised. Around thirty of Æthelweard’s coins are recorded with the EMC, one distinctive type of which displays a letter ‘A’ as the central design on the obverse. The double meaning of this is clear; ‘A’ for Æthelweard, but also ‘A’ for Anglia – a motif which clearly states the kingdom’s continued independence.

Edmund (854/855-869) – arguably the most famous of the East Anglian kings, Eadmund was crowned King on December 25th of 854 or 855 at the age of just 14. His reign coincided with a period in which Scandinavian raids on England were becoming bigger and bolder, and indeed in 865 the so-called ‘Great Heathen Army’ would arrive in East Anglia itself. Although their depredations were averted through gifts of horses and safe passage to the north (where they proceeded to attack York and despoil Northumbria), in 869 they returned. Edmund confronted them in battle but was brutally killed, allegedly being beaten, shot with arrows and decapitated. Legend holds that his followers were guided to his corpse by a ghostly wolf, which shouted ‘here, here!’ Viewed as a martyr due to his refusal to accept paganism, his body was venerated and transported to the settlement of Beadoriceworth (Bury St Edmunds) which would undergo a meteoric rise in precedence due to the popularity of his saintly cult and become one of England’s major religious centres. Such was his veneration that even today there are some who see him as a more suitable patron saint of England than St George!