Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Northumbria

Northumbria was formed in the late 7th century from the bloody merger of two separate, ancestral kingdoms – Deira and Bernicia. At its peak, it controlled a vast swathe of territory in Northern England and the Scottish Lowlands running from the Humber to Edinburgh, making it the largest of the seven ‘traditional’ kingdoms by area alone. Although ruled by kings, Northumbria’s political system was influenced by a high degree of political power wielded by the church, this power largely centred on the Archbishopric of York. Not only did religious institutions control many aspects of trade and the economy, but they were also major landowners in their own right and appear to have acted as ‘kingmakers’ at several key moments, both aiding and impeding prospective rulers in their efforts to claim the throne. Although surviving conflict with southern neighbours and internal civil wars through the 8th and early 9th centuries, Northumbria was effectively destroyed as an independent entity after the ‘Viking’ invasion of England in c. 866, its territory being subsequently incorporated into the Danelaw.

Some of Northumbria’s best-known contributions to English history are centred around its rich material culture, whose high point is generally placed between c. AD 680-750. Notable metalworking and architectural traditions were clearly present, the latter best illustrated by the monumental crosses scattered through churchyards within the Northumbrian sphere of influence – especially those at Ruthwell, Bewcastle and Easby.  However, the predominant output consisted of the production of ornate illuminated religious manuscripts, laboriously created at monastic institutions such as Jarrow and Whitby. In some cases, these were even exported to Europe due to their reputation for high quality. Surviving pieces such as the Codex Amiatinus or gospels from Lindisfarne, Durham and Echternacht reflect glimpses into the dizzying heights of artistry achieved during this period, and demonstrate how the Northumbrian church had become an educational and artistic force to be reckoned with. It is also important to note less ‘tangible’ products in the form of non-fictional literature, with writers such as Bede and Alcuin producing a variety of writings on matters both theological and historical. Indeed, Bede’s ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ is still to this day considered an important primary source for Anglo-Saxon history and a cornerstone of English national identity.

Northumbrian coinage is a highly complex topic, and there are many aspects of its chronology which have not yet been resolved with the traditional reigning dates of rulers as presented in written king-lists. This issue is primarily compounded by the fact that there are some kings who seem to have issued no coins at all, as well as that Northumbria appears to have also been plagued by internecine dynastic warfare for a fair portion of its history. As such, there are several instances where kings were deposed – but returned to reign for a second time. This, as one can imagine, makes assigning coins to specific reigns or any sort of date range highly problematic in some instances. An additional interesting facet of Northumbrian coins is that some were struck jointly between the King and Archbishop of York, and indeed the latter also seems to have held the prerogative to issue coins solely in his own name. This is comparable with the arrangement by which broadly contemporary coins were issued by the Archbishops of Canterbury.

Distinctively, Northumbria departs from the norm through its continued issue of the rather dumpy silver sceatta (and later, the copper-alloy styca) while other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms were switching to the more ‘modern’ concept of issuing silver pennies on thinner, wider flans. Both sceattas and stycas have similar design conventions in that the obverse usually displays the monarch’s name, while the reverse denotes the moneyer under whose overseership the coin was made. The first coins produced in Northumbria are some of the earliest to bear a British ruler’s name, these being of Aldfrith – who reigned from c. AD 685-705. However, his issues are quite rarely encountered. More commonly seen are those of King Eadberht, who ruled from c. 737-758 – issuing coins in both his own name and jointly with his brother, Archbishop Echberht of York. Earlier Northumbrian coins are notable in that they bear the symbol of a fantastical four-legged beast, with a flaring tongue and long tail. This symbol appears to have been adopted (for a time at least) as that of the Northumbrian royal house, appearing on coinage until the late 8th century, after which it disappears almost totally. Later sceattas tend to display a variety of different symbols, including monograms, rings of pellets and cruciform motifs, to name but a few.

The quality of Northumbrian coinage decreases after the death of Aethelred I in c. 796, particularly in the reign of Eanred (c. 810-840). By his death, the good quality silver sceatta had become the copper-alloy styca. A decrease in precious-metal content ran concurrently with a decrease in die-cutting quality, and coins began to demonstrate illiterate and even retrograde legends towards the middle of the century – especially the so-called ‘irregular’ series of stycas that were probably issued in the 850s and 860s. This low-quality coinage is thought to have been produced during the highly destructive civil war precipitating the take-over of Northumbria by the so-called ‘Great Heathen Army’ (a Viking invasion force), which sacked York in AD 866, although a final legible styca coinage of better quality was struck by Archbishop Wulfhere of York up to about AD 867.

Those interested in collecting the Northumbrian series have a myriad of options open to them. Whereas some may prefer to assemble a ‘set’ of all the different rulers who struck coins, others may feel more inclined to focus on the issues and die-varieties of one specific king. More still may go down a slightly different route, and look to undertake a more ‘academic’ collecting policy in assembling a full set of all the known Northumbrian moneyers. This is a harder but perhaps more rewarding task, as some are very rare indeed.

Due to their small size and relatively crude appearance, Northumbrian coins have often been neglected by all but specialist or academic collectors, although the dispersals of some high-quality pieces and comprehensive collections in the last twenty years or so have stimulated a great deal of interest in these fascinating issues. In particular, the collections of Lord Stewartby and Tony Abramson were particularly notable for their holdings of rare Northumbrian issues, some with impressive provenances dating back to hoards discovered as early as the mid 19th century. Northumbrian coins were also present in the collection of Archbishop John Sharp (1644-1714), one of the earliest English numismatists. Some of his coins appear in published works from as early as the 18th century.

Aldfrith (685-705) – Aldfrith was the first King of Northumbria to issue coins and also one of the earliest English rulers known to display his name on a coin itself. A well-educated churchman who became king on the death of his older brother Ecgfrith, under his rule Northumbria entered its so-called ‘golden age’. He was a direct contemporary of both Bede and Alcuin, both of whom write favourably about him. Image courtesy of CNG Inc.

Eadberht (737-758) – another individual ruling during Northumbria’s ‘golden age’, Eadberht is notable for his reforms to the kingdom’s coinage – instituting a high-quality sceatta issue depicting the so-called ‘fantastic beast’ on its reverse. His coins are relatively common, this reflecting the high output during his reign that reflects a burgeoning economy. Energetically ruling for over two decades, he voluntarily abdicated in 758 and became a monk, dying peacefully in 768.

Æthelwald ‘Moll’ (c. 759-765) – Æthelwald came to power in 759 after the brutal coup in which Eadberht’s son, Oswulf (of whom no coins are known) was murdered. Evidence suggests that his rise to power was not a smooth one, apparently facing several rebellions after his accession to the throne. Following a fairly brief reign, he was deposed by a council of the Northumbrian nobility and possibly was forced to enter monastic life. His son, Æthelred, would become King in 774. Image courtesy of CNG Inc.

Kings of Northumbria - Alchred Silver Sceat 765-774AD-14383

Alchred (765-774) – a relation of Archbishop Ecberht of York by marriage, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle comments very little on Alchred’s reign, except to state that his reign ended in deposition and exile – after which he allegedly fled to Scotland. However, some surviving documentary evidence suggests that he was involved in the endorsing of several religious missions to mainland Europe.

Ælfwald (c. 779-788) – one of King Eadberht’s grandsons by descent, little is known of Ælfwald’s reign except how it ended – with the murder of both himself and his two sons. Buried at the Abbey of Hexham, he was the subject of a local saint-cult. His coins are some of the last to depict the Northumbrian ‘fantastic beast’ before it disappeared from the numismatic record as a motif.

Æthelred I (774-779, 790-796) –             a king with two reigns, Æthelred was deposed in 779 but returned to rule in 790. In 792, he achieved a substantial act of diplomacy by allying with Mercia through marriage to King Offa’s daughter Ælfflæd. However, the next year Lindisfarne was raided for the first time by marauding Vikings – Æthelred’s popularity subsequently tumbled, as many saw this event as God punishing his brutal habits of murdering potential rivals. Chroniclers record that he was killed by a group of his own nobles at Corbridge in 796.

Eardwulf (796-808, 808-811/830?) – another king with two reigns, Eardwulf was a somewhat shadowy figure sometimes conflated with St Hardulph. Fewer than 20 of his coins are known to exist. Previously an Ealdorman (high ranking official), he ruled in an era where Northumbrian dynastic conflict was at its height, as is evident by his deposition and subsequent re-taking of power. In 801, he lead an army against Coenwulf of Mercia due to the latter’s harbouring of his enemies – but was reconciled before any actual fighting took place. Image courtesy of CNG Inc.

Eanred (c. 810-840?) – little is known about Eanred, his dates of reign largely originating from a 13th century source. However, it is possible that during his reign Northumbria became a vassal state of Wessex – the entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 829 states that Egbert of Wessex marched north and obtained their submission. Under his reign, the silver/base silver sceatta had all its precious metal content removed, becoming the copper-alloy or brass styca.

Æthelred II (c. 840-848 or 854-862) – one of the most commonly encountered issuers of stycas, Æthelred was briefly deposed halfway through his reign by Redwulf, but quickly regained power. His dates of reign are hotly debated, though historians largely agree that he was assassinated rather than abdicating or dying peacefully.

Redwulf (c. 844 or c. 858) – a usurper king whose coins are infrequently encountered; little is known of Redwulf (sometimes known as Rædwulf). Roger of Wendover’s 13th century history states that he was killed fighting ‘pagans’ shortly after taking power, although this is not certain.

Osberht (c. 849-862/867) – the last ruler of Northumbria as an independent kingdom, Osberht reigned during a period where Northumbrian history is extremely poorly known. Chroniclers state that Osberht was deposed by his brother Ælla, engaged in the process of fighting a civil war against him when the Great Heathen Army arrived in Northumbria. Although they appear to have reconciled and joined forces, both were killed when the Vikings attacked York – an event which appears to have ended Northumbrian independence for good.

The Archbishops of York – as stated, Northumbrian coins were not just issued by kings, but also (sometimes jointly, sometimes individually) by the various Archbishops of York. Although not all exercised this right, some did – their coins surviving in varying numbers. These include;

Archbishop Ecgberht – notable reformer of the English church and proponent of Bede’s teachings, as well as correspondent and personal friend of the Northumbrian scholar Alcuin. Ecgberht issued coins jointly with his brother King Eadberht, these uniquely depicting himself standing between two crosses or croziers. An excellent in-depth die and metallurgical study of these coins has been recently undertaken by Dr Ronald Bude, published in the British Numismatic Journal.

Archbishop Eanbald I – who presided over the Synod of Whitby (which laid down rules for clergy) and oversaw the re-building of York Minster. Eanbald co-issued coins with Æthelred I.

Archbishop Eanbald II – successor of Eanbald I and also a friend of Alcuin, who laid down further rules for clergy and was ultimately ostracised by King Eardwulf for allowing his enemies to claim sanctuary. Primary sources suggest he died around 808, though coin-evidence infers that pieces were struck in his name up till approximately 830.

Archbishop Wigmund – primarily an issuer of copper-alloy stycas in his own name, but famous in numismatic terms for the particularly fine gold ‘solidus’ or medallion (a special issue, perhaps an ecclesiastical diplomatic gift) that now resides in the British Museum.

Archbishop Wulfhere – the last Northumbrian Archbishop to strike coins, Wulfhere was present when the Great Heathen Army attacked York and effectively destroyed the kingdom, taking it over and dividing it amongst themselves. Acting initially as a peacemaker and mediator, he stayed in power until 872 – when rebellion against the Vikings forced him to flee to Mercia. However, he was able to return the next year.