Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Kent

Whereas Mercia and Wessex were just getting into their stride during the Middle Saxon period, Kent is notable in that its predominance (and indeed, independence) was coming to an end. Although a major force to be reckoned with during the 6th to earlier 7th centuries (and indeed, the kingdom through which Christianity had come to Britain by Augustine’s mission of 597), by c. 785 the kingdom had come under total, direct control of the Mercian kings. However, initial power plays had been made by King Offa some 20 years earlier in c. 764, when he attempted to increase influence through kings such as Heabert and Echberht, engaging in administrative procedures such as the confirming and issuing of charter documents. Kent was a welcome addition to the Mercian fold; not only was it an agriculturally fertile area that effectively controlled one of the key entry points into England for continental trade, but it also guarded the approaches to Lundenwic (London) and possessed a large number of wealthy religious institutions – including the up-and-coming Archbishopric of Canterbury, one of England’s most developed towns at this time. In a similar vein to the Northumbrian monasteries, the importance of scriptoria (specialist institutions where documents were copied) and production of high-quality theological manuscripts was a key facet of the southern church as well.

Ruled directly by Offa until his death in 796, the subsequent power vacuum that existed due to the absence of his symbolic might and unexpected death of his only son Ecgfrith in December 796 caused unrest and rebellion in several of Mercia’s vassal territories – including Kent. From 796-798, Kent re-asserted its independence in one last hurrah under King Eadberht III ‘Praen’ before being crushed and brought back to the Mercian fold once again. A new client king was instituted, and no further attempts to dissent were made. The overlordship of Mercia was exchanged in 825 for that of Wessex, as the latter took the dominant position in England from its rival following the Battle of Ellandun. The last supposed Mercian-aligned vassal, Baldred, was expelled following this victory.

As with three of the other four coin-issuing Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in this period, Kent switched from the issuing of small-sized sceattas somewhere around the middle of the 8th century. Only one denomination was thereafter produced – the broad-flan silver penny. Like Northumbria, where kings issued coinage alongside the Archbishops of York, so too did the Archbishops of Canterbury exercise this privilege. Although initially struck jointly in the names of both the relevant archbishop and Offa, after his death prelates tended to strike in their own names – proudly displaying in many cases that the coins were struck at Dorobernia Civitas – the city (and connected archiepiscopal mint) of Canterbury. After the expulsion of Baldred, there were no other secular rulers of Kent – and thus the only coinage that continued to be struck during this period was that issued by the Archbishops of Canterbury up till c. 914.

Due to its wealthy religious houses and relatively exposed coastal position, Kent bore the brunt of many Scandinavian raids through the first half of the 9th century – most of these occurring before the invasion of the ‘Great Heathen Army’ in 865. A force that reportedly landed on Sheppey in 811 was only repulsed by direct military action, the island being attacked for a second time in 835 and an army overwintering there through 854-855. Thanet suffered this fate also, used as a base from 851-852 after the infamous 851 double assault on both Canterbury and the coastal town of Sandwich. Rochester (effectively Kent’s second town) was unlucky enough to be attached twice – in 842 and 885 respectively. Although stability would eventually return to Kent under the united leadership of Alfred the Great, moments of crisis occasionally reared their heads – such as the c. 10,000 strong army under Hæsten, which invaded Kent in 892 and built fortifications at Appledore, raiding inland settlements for the next four years before departing.

Collecting Middle Saxon coins from the Kingdom of Kent is a highly challenging (yet extremely interesting) pursuit – as these pieces are, in general, very rarely encountered. This fact may partially be a product of the intense Viking attacks Kent was subjected to in the 9th century, when a great deal of portable wealth (including large amounts of coin) was pillaged by Scandinavian raiders. Coins of the earliest kings to strike, Heaberht and Ecgberht, are extremely rare and virtually unknown outside of museum collections. Eadberht Praen’s coinage seems to have been larger, but is still rarely encountered – with only twenty recorded via the Fitzwilliam Museum’s ‘Early Medieval Corpus’, an important academic database of coins in museum collections and single finds by detectorists. Eadberht’s coinage may have been itself targeted in a form of damnatio memoriae – after all, it would not do to have the coins of a renegade Kentish upstart circulating alongside issues of rightful, legitimate Mercian overlords! Most commonly encountered are coins of the re-instated client kings, Cuthred and Baldred, who strike the greatest number of different types for the Kentish series through the products of at least 14 different moneyers.

Another series of Kentish coins available to collectors are issues of the six Archbishops of Canterbury who struck, a number of which have been brought to light in recent years by metal detectorists. These frequently feature distinctive facing portraits (unusual, given the profile depictions of most rulers up till this point) and ornate monogram motifs on their reverse faces. Of these, Wulfred (805-832) and Ceolnoth (833-870) are the most commonly encountered – with Jænberht (765-792) and Æthelred (870-889) the rarest. If you are a proud resident of Kent, Canterbury itself or even perhaps a student of early English church history – these iconic coins will certainly appeal to your sense of county, civic or ecclesiastical pride!

Heabert and Ecgberht II (c. 765-780/85) – two early kings who ruled jointly, Heaberht and Ecgberht appear to have co-ruled at a time when Mercia was making early attempts to inveigle control of the kingdom. Little is known of them except that they both issued coins and administrative charters (more coins of Ecgberht survive) and were almost certainly both dead by the mid 780’s. Their coins represent some of the earliest English broad-flan pence to have been struck.

Eadberht III Praen (796-798) – an obscure individual apparently residing at the court of Frankish King Charlemagne (who may well have sponsored his insurrection), Eadberht took power in late 796 following the death of Offa of Mercia. However, his attempt stalled when Pope Leo III refused to ratify his rule – ruling instead that Offa’s successor Coenwulf had every right to wage war on Eadberht and re-take Kent. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that Eadberht was quickly captured and brought back to Mercia, but his ultimate fate is unknown. One source states that he was mutilated and blinded, another that he was set free.

Kings of Kent Cuthred Silver Penny 798-807AD-16211

Cuthred (798-807) – brother of the Mercian King Coenwulf who defeated Eadberht Praen and re-annexed Kent, Cuthred effectively acted as the de-facto vassal ruler of Kent until his own death in 807, whereupon Coenwulf took direct control again. During his rule, Kent experienced its first taste of Scandinavian raids.

Baldred (823-825) – the last specifically named ‘King of Kent’, Baldred’s affiliation is actually uncertain. Although some see him as a Mercian vassal, before his reign Kent was ruled over directly by the Kings of Mercia – coins being somewhat abruptly struck in his name from c. 823 onwards. For this reason, some see him as an independent opportunist in a similar (though more successful) light to Eadberht Praen. Irrespective of his loyalties, he was deposed in c. 825 after Wessex annexed Kent following its victory over the Mercians at Ellandun.

Archbishops of Canterbury

Jænberht (c. 765-792) – previously a monk at the Abbey of St Augustine in Canterbury, Jænberht seems to have had a favourable relationship with the Kentish administration of Ecgberht– though came into frequent conflict with Offa. This stemmed from attempts to remove power from the Diocese of Canterbury to the newly created Mercian See of Lichfield (which ultimately failed), arguments over who owned certain tracts of land and a staunch refusal by Jænberht to crown Offa’s son Ecgfrith. A certain degree of this flagrant animosity is thought to have been resentment for Offa’s attempts to depose the ‘rightful’ Kentish dynasty. After his death, Jænberht was canonised – his feast day being the 12th of August.

Æthelheard (793-805) – little is known of Æthelheard’s early life, but he appears to have been Bishop of Winchester before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury. His occupation of this post is nothing if not dramatic – in 796 he was forced to flee for his life when Eadberht Praen’s insurrection briefly re-asserted the independence of Kent. On returning to the See in 798, Æthelheard’s efforts were primarily put into helping with the de-construction of the Archbishopric of Lichfield, travelling to Rome personally to mediate between King Coenwulf of Mercia and the Pope. Canonised after his death, his cult actively survived until the 11th century.

Wulfred (805-832) – primarily known as a clerical reformer who laid down many rules regarding how cathedral chapters should live, work and pray – Wulfred also engaged in a fair degree of low-level political conniving. Coming into conflict with both Coenwulf over the issue of whether monasteries came under the control of the church or laypersons, Wulfred was exiled at least once for his antics. These included sending secret embassies to the Pope and the forging of false documents. Wulfred’s coins are the first to feature a depiction of himself – and also (unlike the coins of Jænberht and Æthelheard) do not refer to the concurrent ruler of Mercia at all. He survived the takeover of Kent by Wessex without being removed from his position, and died in office.

Ceolnoth (833-870) – the longest-active Archbishop at some 37 years in office, at his accession in 833 Ceolnoth possessed the unenviable position of having two major problems to deal with. Firstly, the increase in Scandinavian attacks on both Kent and Canterbury itself. Secondly, how to move forward with Kent’s new overlords – the Kingdom of Wessex. Working in co-operation with Egbert, the King of Wessex, Ceolnoth brokered an agreement that in return for military protection and the ceding of control regarding minsters to the crown, he would support the succession of Egbert’s son to the throne. Despite this diplomacy, raiding continued largely unabated – and many monastic communities were wiped out as a consequence.

Æthelred (870-888) – ruling during the height of the conflict between Wessex and marauding Scandinavians, the mainstay of Æthelred’s office was spent (much like his predecessor) attempting to combat raiding parties and societal strife. However, he also dabbled in smaller-scale affairs, such as attempting to reform clerical dress after concerns on the latter were delivered from the Papacy. It was probably to him that the infamous ‘Golden Gospel’ or Codex Aureus – a beautiful 8th century illuminated manuscript produced at Canterbury, was returned by Ælfred, the Ealdorman of Surrey – who had ransomed it from the Vikings that stole it from Kent in the first place.

Plegmund (890-914/923) – the last Archbishop of Canterbury to issue coins in his own name, Plegmund’s task was almighty; with the See of Canterbury and Kent itself largely despoiled by prolonged raiding, much of his administration was concerned with raising clerical standards, restoring monastic houses and raising the quality of Latin transcription in authoring religious documents to the way they had originally been before the onset of large-scale Scandinavian raiding. Proposing the creation of many new dioceses in Wessex, he travelled to Rome in 908 for official Papal affirmation – the first Archbishop of Canterbury to undertake the journey in almost one-hundred years.