Alfred the Great penny

By Courtnay Konshuh
Alfred the Great penny held in the collection of the British Museum, with kind permission for model use by Thomas Flynn

This silver penny is of the most significant coins from the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred’s reign – commemorating Alfred’s ‘conquest’ or reoccupation of the important site of London which had been occupied by Vikings during the 870s. The penny is in many ways a triumphant coin, celebrating Alfredian control of London and symbolising his defeat of the Vikings. [1] The coin also celebrates the physical renewal of London, which was of prime importance for Mercia, Wessex, and the Vikings at the time.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes Alfred’s conquest of London, occupied by the Danish Vikings, as follows:

Þy ilcan geare gesette Ęlfred cyning Lundenburg, 7 him all Angelcyn to cirde, þæt buton Deniscra monna hæftniede was, 7 hie þa befæste þa burg Ęþerede aldormen to haldonne.

(In the same year [886], King Alfred besieged London, and all the English submitted to him besides those who were under Danish [Viking] rule. And [Alfred] gave the city to Ealdorman Æthelred [of Mercia] to hold.)

The Vikings occupied London from 871-872, yet archaeological excavations show that London was a functioning Mercian centre prior to Alfred’s ‘re-conquest’. In the decades before 886, London was an important emporium, perhaps fought over by the kings of Wessex or Mercia, ruled jointly, or even operated as a type of “free city”. This is supported by evidence from coinage minted by both West-Saxon and Mercian kings. These include the Mercian kings Burgred (852-874) and Ceolwulf (874-879); jointly Ceolwulf and Alfred; and Ealdorman Æthelred of the Mercians and King Alfred in Wessex. [2] Following the death of King Ceolwulf in 879 (whom West-Saxon sources refer to as a “Viking puppet”), documentary sources are silent about when London came under West-Saxon dominion. The new ruler of Mercia, Æthelweard, was thenceforth titled an ealdorman or subregulus  (sub-king) under Alfred rather than a king in his own right, and Alfred and Æthelweard may have ruled London jointly. Alfred’s power over the city would have begun around 880.

Later versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (manuscripts BCDE) record that Alfred fought with Vikings encamped around London in 883, possibly leading Alfred to refortify the Roman walls. At this time, the Anglo-Saxon settlement moved inside the Roman walls (to what is now St Paul’s), and the fortifications were refurbished. [3] Alfred also married his eldest daughter Æthelflæd to the Mercian ealdorman, Æthelred, as a symbol of this agreement authority over London and his overlordship of Mercia.

It is very unusual in this period for the name of a site of a mint to be written on the coin; however, the monogram LVNDONIA is the focus of the obverse of the coin. [4] This indicates special celebration of London itself, and probably has ideological significance, celebrating Alfred’s control over the city or the refurbishment of the walls. Any refurbishment would have taken several months at least, and it is possible the coin itself was intended as part of a culmination of this building program, serving as an announcement to the rest of the populace.

The coin represents reforms which Alfred introduced after a long period of Viking raiding and conquest. Mercian and West-Saxon coinage had been debased during the Viking attacks of the 860s and 870s, and after Alfred’s victory at Edington in 878, he instituted a coinage reform, increasing the amount of silver in his coins. Nor was the refurbishment of London a singular event; to protect Wessex from further Vikings raids, Alfred instituted a programme of fortification building which is documented in the administrative text known as the ‘Burghal Hidage’. This programme included the building of fortifications (or burhs), included refurbishing walls of Roman sites, such as Winchester and Bath. The increased silver content in Alfred’s coins promised an age of prosperity and renewed trade. Coming after the first Viking wars, the coin shows Alfred’s military skill and promotes his defensive policy of burh-building. To the populace of London, the main emotions the coin may have evoked are hope, relief, and the promise of a better future: trade in the historic centre of London would recommence, Roman centres were being revitalised and resettled, and continuity with the prosperity associated with the Romans was championed.

In the nineteenth century, vast amounts of coins were collected and catalogued by amateur antiquarians and historians in the emerging field of numismatics (the study of coins). At the same time as this fevered preoccupation with material objects from the medieval world, the Victorians also pursued a dogged interest in King Alfred himself. Between the late sixteenth and the nineteenth century, interest in Alfred as a figurehead for English nationalism culminated in what historian Simon Keynes describes as “Alfredomania”. [5] Alfred the Great inspired not only literary, dramatic and artistic outpourings, but was also used in reenactments and commemorations of his birth and death. The Victorian ‘cult’ of Alfred was tied to the idea of the emergence of nationhood, using Alfred’s cross-cultural, but undoubtedly British origins to create a shared emotional heritage. While this was largely imagined, the Victorians would have used material culture (from coins such as this one) to validate their ideas about the past.

Alfredsfs
The Victorian statue of King Alfred the Great at Winchester

One of the emotions that this coin was probably supposed to engender, and continues to engender among students today, is curiosity and imagination. The Anglo-Saxons’ fascination with riddles and puzzles is well known; with the puzzle-like monogram of LVNDONIA, this coin evokes the Anglo-Saxon love of wordplay. Students who study this coin often express excitement when they find all the letters, uncovering the puzzle that Alfred laid over 1100 years ago. When you view the Alfredian silver penny in 3D, do you feel connected to Alfred the Great?

About the author

Courtnay Konshuh is a researcher in Anglo-Saxon political and cultural history, with an expertise in the historical linguistics of Old English. 

References

[1] Clarke, J. (1999) ‘King Alfred’s London and London’s King Alfred’ London Archaeologist 9 (2): 36.

[2] Dolley, M. ‘Alfred the Great’s Abandonment of the Concept of Periodic Recoinage’, C. Brooke, B. Stuart et. al. (eds.), Studies in Numismatic Methods: Presented to Philip Grierson (Cambridge: 2008), p. 154.

[3] Yorke, Barbara. Alfred the Great (Stroud: 2015), p. 52-3.

[4] Haslam, J. (2011) ‘King Alfred, Mercia and London 874-886: A Reassessment’, Anglo Saxon Studies in History and Archaeology 17: 122.

[5] Keynes, Simon. (1999) ‘The Cult of King Alfred the Great’, Anglo-Saxon England 28: 225–356.

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