Friday, 11 October 2019

Alfred the Great and the Vikings: new evidence from the London Monogram coinage

Coinage is a vital historical source for understanding the history of early medieval Britain. It can be studied from a range of different perspectives to tease out historical details - the design of coins and the names of moneyers betray cultural influences; the location of mints can help to define territories; the symbols on coinage depict a language of power. As part of the ERC project, we are analysing early medieval coins from an altogether new perspective, that of the metal alloy itself. This, we hope, will reveal likely sources of silver, casting new light on the wealth of Anglo-Saxon England.  

The coin shown below was issued by Alfred the Great, King of Wessex (ruled 871-99 AD) and is known as a ‘London monogram’ type because it depicts a monogram of the name LVNDONIA (London). On the other side, Alfred is depicted as a Roman emperor, with his name and title EL FR ED REX appearing on either side of his portrait.  Modest? No, but Alfred was following long-established precedent in linking his authority to a Roman Imperial past. 


On the left the coin reads ELF REDREX. On the right is the monogram for LVNDONIA.

The London monogram coinage was a celebratory issue, marking Alfred’s newly won control over the city of London in the early 880s (whether this control was won from the Vikings, or the Mercian King Ceolwulf, who mysteriously disappeared in 879 is debated, but the latter is more likely).  Control over the city was important, not only because it enabled access to its valuable port, but because London was a frontier town, located close to the ‘border’ between Anglo-Saxon England and the Danelaw. It was thus a critical defensive stronghold against Viking incursions.

Earlier this year, we had a chance to capture lead isotope and trace element data for a London Monogram coin as part of a broader analysis of Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Viking coins held in the collections of the British Museum (some of the coins, sitting neatly edgeways in their tray, are shown below - the small bits of silver in the blu-tack are our standards).

The analytical beam focused on the edge of the coins. Using laser ablation means there is no visible damage to the item.  
The analysis was undertaken at the NOCS, University of Southampton, with Dr Chris Standish.
(Image copyright Jane Kershaw and Chris Standish)

The results were intriguing. While most of the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Viking coinages clustered in two distinct lead isotope groups, the London Monogram coinage was an outlier. Various interpretations are possible, but it seems that, unlike other Anglo-Saxon coins we analysed, it was made with silver from a mix of sources, including Islamic dirham silver. 

Whether this silver was in the form of actual dirhams, which circulated freely as bullion within the Danelaw, Scandinavian rings and ingots, which had themselves been made from Islamic silver, or Anglo-Viking coins minted in the Danelaw is an open question - either, or all, are possible. Whatever the case, the results show that for all we think of the Vikings taking silver out of England, they also bought it in. There is a pleasing irony here that Alfred’s London Monogram type, minted to ceremoniously record his authority over a Danelaw frontier town, is made, in part, from Viking wealth.



4 comments:

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