Anglo-Viking coinages of the ‘Danelaw’


The enactment of the treaty between Alfred and Guthrum in c. 880, while a victory in the sense that the very existence of Wessex had not been snuffed out, was ultimately a compromise. The Viking ‘Great Heathen Army’ had sailed over from Scandinavia seeking new land to settle and treasure to plunder, and in both respects they had succeeded – to a degree. When the dust settled, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria were destroyed as political units, leaving Wessex as essentially the only Anglo-Saxon kingdom with an intact administrative and governmental system.

Although Alfred can be seen as partially responsible in his efforts to bind together the disparate Anglo-Saxon kingdoms as one nation, it is interesting to consider what might have happened had the Scandinavians not invaded or been repulsed early on – would ‘England’ even come to exist? If Alfred is the mortar binding together the earliest bricks of the English state, the invading Danes were the means by which its predecessors were demolished, allowing it to be rebuilt from the ground up.

What is ‘Danelaw’?

The term ‘Danelaw’ is not a 9th century one, only appearing in documentary evidence from the early 11th century onwards as reference to a specific geographic area. From our modern perspective, it refers to the areas of Eastern and Northern England which were under Danish law, rather than Anglo-Saxon. These areas, according to the encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England, broadly included the shires (administrative areas) of Bedford, Middlesex, Buckingham, Huntingdon, Hertford, Cambridge, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Northampton, Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Lincoln and Northumbria – with focus in the last centred on the city of Jorvik (York). The legacy of this self-ruling area is indirectly preserved today in a swathe of Scandinavian place names; settlement names like Grimsby, Lowestoft and Scunthorpe all have Old Norse suffixes as opposed to Anglo-Saxon ones.

Although the initial policy of Alfred and his successors would be to allow the Scandinavians a sort of living space, this changed by the early 10th century. Although the Danelaw would exist broadly from c. 880-954, its various boroughs and shires were re-assimilated by the English kings from the early 10th century onwards – with only Northumbria intermittently remaining under ‘Viking’ control by the 940’s. By 955, the last vestiges of the old Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had finally been swept away, and what we now recognise (broadly) as the nation of England had finally emerged to its full extent.

Along with its independent administration and legal system, coinage was also issued within the Danelaw independent of external interference. In this short introduction to the subject, we will not only discuss the various types of coins encountered by the numismatist, collector and detectorist – but also outline some of the historical framework surrounding them, in what is a notoriously poorly known and rarely taught period of English history.

Coinage of the Danelaw

Imitation as the sincerest form of flattery

The first true ‘Anglo-Viking’ coins can be seen as the imitations of Alfred’s two-line type, struck in East Anglia from approximately 885 onwards. These coins are distinguishable from their official counterparts by the fact that they demonstrate heavily blundered inscriptions. However, some better-quality pieces clearly render the name ‘ÆTHELSTAN’ (or a version thereof) on their obverses, which is clearly a reference to the regnal name taken by Guthrum after his baptism. This imitation did not end with the death of Alfred, as the copying continued into the reign of his son Edward (the Elder) – these being encountered somewhat more frequently.

The two-line imitations are a complex series of coins, a number of which have been brought to light as single metal-detected finds in recent years. One interesting facet of their distribution is that they are rare outside the Danelaw, perhaps suggesting that (at least initially) there was a degree of firm separation between ‘Danish’ and ‘English’ areas.

Saint Edmund’s pennies

Perhaps the most numerous of the Anglo-Viking issues struck in the Danelaw are the so-called ‘St Edmund Memorial’ pennies, copying issues of Edmund – the King of East Anglia who was martyred in 869. These coins were struck in several phases from c. 895-910 by a dizzying array of moneyers, who demonstrate not only indigenous Anglo-Saxon names but also Scandinavian and even continental ones. These attest to a thriving, internationally-reaching polity that was probably somewhat diverse.

It might seem bizarre to think that the sons and grandsons of those who had originally killed Edmund had now moved to striking coins celebrating him as ‘SC EADMUND’ (Saint Edmund) within their own territory. However, perhaps there is a relevant point here to be made concerning the extent to which Christian beliefs had been adopted and the hold which Edmund’s cult held over the local populace. Perhaps the newly-converted Danes, feeling guilty for their ancestors’ martyrdom of Edmund, were trying to make spiritual amends by venerating him on their coins?

Cnut the impostor

Another reasonably commonly encountered Anglo-Viking issue is the so-called ‘Patriarchal Cross’ issue of Cnut – struck in Northumbria from c. 895-910. Although readers might already be familiar with a Scandinavian ‘Cnut’ or ‘Canute’ – he is likely the more famous, later king from the early 11th century. This particular Cnut, who ruled over the Viking territories in Northumbria centred on the city of York, is notable for his striking of a very interesting group of silver pennies, most depicting crosses and accompanied by a variety of reverse inscriptions. Perhaps the most evocative of these reads ‘MIRABILIA FECIT’ (He has done marvellous things), part of the text for Psalm 98. As if the Christian text was not enough, Cnut’s die-cutters added an extra ‘layer’ of symbolism by arranging his name around the coin so as to make the sign of the cross when read.

Swords and Saints

From c. 905 into the 920’s, a series of coins was struck which perhaps consist some of the most recognisable ‘Viking’ coins made in England – immortalised to this day at the Jorvik Centre in York and sold by the hundreds as replicas there. These are the so-called ‘St Peter’ pennies, a complex issue that is perhaps best notable for its large number of die-variants. While the obverses usually display a version of the Latin inscription ‘SANCTUS PETRI’ (St Peter), the reverses vary considerably, depicting images which blend the lines between promoting Christianity and Paganism. One type combines a cross as the central motif on the obverse with a hammer (the symbol of the god Thor) on the reverse, while another places a cross in both central fields but utilises the hammer motif as a spacer in the reverse legend. Yet more variants display images of everyday objects very familiar to the ‘Viking’ inhabitants of York, such as keys and swords – objects also burdened with religious symbolism in both Christian and Pagan narratives. Although the ‘St Peter’ issues of York are the most commonly encountered, there is another (though much rarer) struck at Lincoln – the so-called ‘St Martin’ type. This is perhaps good evidence that coinage was issued outside the core areas of York and East Anglia, if infrequently.

How best to interpret the conflicting symbolism on these coins? One suggestion is that these represent the process of assimilation that took place in England from the early years of the 10th century, whereby pagans were perhaps encouraged to worship their gods in Christian guises – e.g. Thor as the equivalent of St Peter. In a similar fashion (and probably at the same time) many characteristically ‘pagan’ practices began to enter the Christian liturgy – such as the concept of the honeymoon, celebration of Yule, decorating of trees, gift-giving, feasting and drinking at Christmas. Although Hollywood enjoys depicting paganism versus Christianity as an aggressive conflict, in reality it was often a slow process of gradual change that to modern eyes seems surprisingly permissive.

A Numismatic Gap

Following the campaigns (both military and diplomatic) of Æthelstan and Æthelflaed against the boroughs of the Danelaw in the early 10th century, Danish Northumbria was annexed into the newly united Kingdom of England by 927 – the Scandinavian jarls in general choosing to retain their lands and swear fealty as opposed to death or exile. As such, no ‘Anglo-Viking’ coinage was issued between c. 927 and 939, as Æthelstan’s highly politically charged new circumscription-type pennies became currency across the entire realm. These coins title him as ‘REX TOT BRIT’ – King of all Britain (or Britons) – an abundantly clear political statement.

The Return of the Kings

However, following Æthelstan’s death in 939, it was the Norse kings of Dublin who turned their attention to England. In 939, King Anlaf Guthfrithsson invaded Northumbria and re-established the region as an independent political entity, occupying several boroughs in the Midlands as well as York itself. For the next fifteen or so years, Anlaf’s successors would rule intermittently over parts of Northern England, interrupted by episodes where the English kings (invariably only temporarily) regained control. However, the unstable political situation was also contributed to by the Vikings themselves – with a degree of infighting and deposing of kings (with their inevitable return after several years) in evidence. Ultimately, this situation was not tenable in the long term. The last ‘Viking’ ruler of York, King Eric (sometimes known as ‘Bloodaxe’), was killed or expelled in 954 – his followers suppressed by King Eadred of England. Northumbria had been brought permanently back into the English fold.

The return of the Irish-influenced Viking rulers to Northumbria is numismatically visible in the issuing of some very artistically accomplished coins – though plainer pieces do exist which evoke to a greater extent the simplicity of contemporary English designs. Perhaps the most distinctive of these were issued by Anlaf Guthfrithsson and his cousin, Anlaf Sihtricsson – high-quality silver pence depicting a variety of images including ravens, banners and ‘valknut’ designs. One type for the former is particularly interesting because instead of giving his title as ‘REX’ (King) in Latin, it uses the Scandinavian word ‘CUNUNCA’ – a Norse title. Although many have been keen to interpret this and many of the images utilised as pagan ones clearly inferring the rejection of Christianity, the ‘valknut’ (or triquetra) can be seen as symbolic of the Holy Trinity. Similarly, while ravens do appear as companions of Odin, they are also the bird sent out by Noah to find land following the great flood – and also were reportedly sent by God to feed Elijah when he was in hiding as related in the book of Kings in the Old Testament. As with the St Peter coinage, the images on these coins are somewhat religiously ambiguous. However, it is equally possible that they are intended to signify political symbolisms instead.

Hoards and Hoarding

Although Anglo-Viking coins are encountered as single finds, a very large number have also been recovered from hoards. Perhaps the best-known example of this is the Cuerdale Hoard, discovered in Lancashire on the 15th of April 1840 by a group of labourers digging in a riverbank. Buried somewhere around 910, it is one of the biggest ‘Viking’ hoards ever known to have existed. Although a large proportion of the objects, coins and ingots in the hoard ended up in the British Museum, many were spirited away and ended up in private hands, continuing to be sold and re-sold to this day. It is thought the hoard originally contained over 3000 Northumbrian pennies of Cnut and nearly 2000 ‘St Edmunds’. In comparison to this ‘early’ hoard, we also have a number deposited from the 920’s-940’s– some discovered in the last two decades thanks to the popularity of metal detecting. The so-called ‘Vale of York’ hoard contained 617 coins in total (approximately 32 of which were Anglo-Viking issues), in addition to its exquisitely made mid-9th century Carolingian cup and hack-silver (chopped up pieces of silver jewellery). By contrast, the smaller Silverdale hoard contained just 27 coins – a third of which were Anglo-Viking imitations of Alfred the Great two-line pennies and another portion, interestingly, consisted of imported silver Dirhams from the Islamic Abbasid Caliphate. These circulated in the Danelaw during the 10th century, although previously they had been a major element of precious metal hoards in Scandinavia before the minting of coins there became a common practice.

The Anglo-Viking rulers

Guthrum/Æthelstan (c. 879-890) – the leader of the Scandinavian invaders defeated at the Battle of Edington in 871, Guthrum submitted to Alfred following his defeat. The resulting treaty stipulated that Guthrum and his leading ‘officers’ be baptised as Christians, before permanently leaving Wessex into territory they would occupy peacefully – the ‘Danelaw’. As part of his ‘Christianisation’, Guthrum took the regnal name ‘Æthelstan’ and went into East Anglia – which he appears to have ruled over peacefully. Then vast majority of coins struck under his rule copy the two-line type of Alfred, though there are a few among these that attempt to render the name ‘Æthelstan’ – with varying degrees of success.

Cnut of Northumbria (c. 900-905) – far more obscure than his 11th century namesake who reputedly tried to hold back the waves at Bosham to prove to his followers that he did not possess  divine power; this Northumbrian Cnut remains something of an enigma. Aside from a few scant mentions of his name in Medieval Norse sagas compiled four centuries after his death, there are no other literary records mentioning him. Approximately 3,000 pennies struck in his name were found in the 1840 Cuerdale hoard, alongside issues of one ‘Sieferth’ and indeed some other coins displaying both the names ‘Cnut’ and ‘Sieferth’. Sieferth is just as obscure, though some scholars conflate him with Cnut – arguing that they are the same person. Cnut’s coins are redolent with Christian imagery, one iconic type demonstrating his name laid out in the manner of crossing oneself, accompanied by the inscription ‘MIRABILIA FECIT’ (He has done wonderful things) – taken from Psalm 98.

Regnald I (c. 918-921) – in the year 902, the Irish (Gaelic) kings recaptured the city of Dublin from the Vikings. This event seems to have stimulated a diaspora of the upper classes, who variously appear to have fled to both the Continent and England. Regnald appears to have been caught up in this; his name is mentioned in documentary sources as fighting naval battles against the Irish and becoming ruler of the Isle of Man from c. 914 onwards. Landing in England in 918, his quasi-victory over Scottish and English forces at the Battle of Corbridge would allow him to take over York largely unopposed. His existence was tolerated by Edward the Elder (who was perhaps keen to see the Danelaw riven with infighting and instability); Regnald would rule over York for only three years before dying in unclear circumstances. Although coins of his do survive, they are extremely rare – consisting of three distinct issues. The last of these is extremely distinctive, depicting a bow-and-arrow design on its obverse face as opposed to his portrait.

Sihtric I (c. 921-927) – another elite Scandinavian displaced by the Irish conquest of Dublin, Sihtric seems to have spent some of his early years ruling in the eastern Danelaw. Evidence for this comes in the form of a few coins within the Cuerdale hoard bearing the inscription ‘SIHTRIC COMES’ (Earl Sihtric) – implying he had achieved some degree of regional standing. Returning to re-conquer Dublin in 917, he set himself up as king – but, according to the Irish Annals, left in 920 for Northumbria, where Regnald (a relation) ruled. Taking control after the latter’s death in 921, one of Sihtric’s first acts was to launch a destructive raid into Cheshire – and it seems to be the case that under his rule, the domain of the York Vikings was expanded south of the Humber. This appears to have caused sufficient concern that King Æthelstan of England (as recorded in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle for 926) met Sihtric at Tamworth to agree some sort of marriage alliance to a West Saxon princess in exchange for his co-operation. However, Sihtric died only a year later. His character has enjoyed something of a renaissance in modern culture, appearing as a character in the television series ‘The Last Kingdom’ – based on the book by Bernard Cornwell. Image courtesy of CNG Inc.

Anlaf Guthfrithsson (c. 939-941) – a member of the Norse dynasty ruling over Dublin, Anlaf Guthfrithsson took the throne in 934 after the death of his father – who had briefly controlled Northumbria in 927 before being driven out. Perhaps keen to do better, Anlaf attempted an invasion of Northumbria in 937 with the aid of King Constantine III of Scotland – though he was decisively defeated at the Battle of Brunanburgh by King Æthelstan – the same man who had defeated his father a decade before. Retreating to Ireland to lick his wounds, Anlaf would return to England in 939 after Æthelstan’s death, taking advantage of the subsequent instability to impose his control over Northumbria. Negotiating his position with Æthelstan’s successor, Eadmund, Anlaf would soon come to occupy the original ‘Five Boroughs’ of the Danelaw – but died in 941 after a short reign.

Sihtric II (c. 942-3) – an extremely obscure ruler, Sihtric II is (much like Eadwald of East Anglia some 150 years previously) known exclusively from his coins – which are extremely rare. Only four have been recorded on the EMC. Some historians have suggested he co-ruled alongside Anlaf Sihtricsson, though this is purely conjecture. However, it is true that many of Sihtric’s surviving coins do demonstrate similar designs to Anlaf’s – which could potentially support the argument that there was co-operation between the two. His ultimate fate is unknown, though some have sought to connect him with the ‘Sihtric’ who was defeated while fighting in France by King Louis IV in 942.

Anlaf Sihtricsson (c. 941-944 and 949-952) – the cousin of Anlaf Guthfrithsson, Sihtricsson has a somewhat complicated (and long!) story. Living from c. 927-980, he was king of both Northumbria and Dublin twice – though in the former case he apparently shared power with a co-ruler, Regnald. During his rule, Northumbria seems to have returned wholesale to Scandinavian allegiance – though the region would be reconquered in c. 942 by King Eadmund. Despite a politicised baptism and adoption as Eadmund’s godson, Sihtricsson would be removed from the kingship of Northumbria in 944 and leave for Ireland. Though he would return to rule York again in 949, he would be deposed a second time and this time leave England for good, instead choosing to administer Dublin for a lengthy period and engage in conflict with a number of the Gaelic kings. Deposed in 980, he would live out his days at the monastery of Iona in forced retirement – dying shortly afterwards. His coins are some of the most iconic in the Anglo-Viking series, one particularly striking issue depicting a raven in flight.

Ragnald II ‘Guthfrithsson’ (c. 943-944) – a somewhat shadowy figure who first appears in 943 as a probable co-ruler with Anlaf Sihtricsson, Regnald II’s reign was apparently short. Historical sources disagree as to his eventual fate, some saying that he was expelled and killed by an internal Northumbrian rebellion against Viking rule, others that his deposition was the result of betrayal by King Eadmund of England. Either way, he disappears from the narrative after 944 – his coins (like Sihtric II) comprising most of the evidence concerning his existence.

Erik ‘Bloodaxe’ (c. 947-8 and 952-4) – a near legendary figure whose name has permeated into popular ‘Viking’ culture, much of what we know about Erik derives from the Norse sagas – oral traditions that have questionable reliability. That he existed is indisputable, for a number of coins survive bearing the inscription ‘ERIC REX’ – though the circumstances in which he came to rule Northumbria are obscure. The sagas relate that he was a raider who ruled over Norway for some years in the 930’s, before being deposed and travelling to Britain – where he seems to have had some conflict with Anlaf Guthfrithsson over the rule of York. Documentary sources suggest that he was murdered after two relatively short periods of rule by a dissatisfied earl seeking self-advancement. Erik was the last ruler of Viking Northumbria – the kingdom afterwards being permanently re-absorbed by King Eadred of England. Image courtesy of CNG Inc.

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