Auction Catalogue

15 June 2022

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Coins and Historical Medals

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№ 124


15 June 2022

Hammer Price:

Kings of Wessex, Ecgberht (802-39), Penny, London (as king of the Mercians), [829], Rædmund, + ecgberht rex m around cross potent, rev. + red: m:v d:h. in three lines, divided by beaded bars, 1.36g/9h (Naismith L31.1-2 var. [this rev. type unrecorded]; SCBI BM 1069 var.; N 585 var.; S 1037 var.). Edge slightly curved at 11 o’clock, otherwise very fine, orange earthen patina, extremely rare and important £6,000-£8,000

Provenance: Found in North Yorkshire, 2022 (EMC 2022.0208)

The silver pence minted by the West Saxon king Ecgberht (802-839) at the London mint are of great historical importance. They adhere, in the most explicit way, to the sentiment expressed by Mark Blackburn when he wrote that ‘for the ninth century, above all others, the coinage has a fundamental contribution to make to our knowledge of political history’. While of relatively humble appearance, these coins offer exceptional testimony to perhaps the most important event of the first four decades of that century; the West Saxon conquest of London in 829. Ecgberht’s victory, and his subsequent assumption of the title ‘king of the Mercians’ signalled a major adjustment to the political and military hierarchy of the Southumbrian kingdoms. It established a precedent which was to be followed some fifty years later by his grandson, Alfred, during the struggle against the Vikings. These coins bear witness to the strength of Ecgberht's position, the willingness of at least some within Mercia to accept him as their legitimate king, if only for a fleeting moment, and the malleability of coinage as tool for disseminating political messages at the time.

Ecgberht was the son of Ealhmund, a man of West Saxon royal stock who probably ruled as king in Kent during the early 780s. Following a period of enforced exile on the continent, Ecgberht returned to England on the occasion of the death of his rival Beorhtric in 802 to claim the West Saxon throne. We know little of the new king’s actions during the first two decades of the ninth century and there is no indication that Ecgberht exerted any influence outside of West Saxon territory. However, the collapse of Mercian authority in the early 820s opened the way for a complete reversal in this regard. Ultimately it was a decisive battle fought between the men of Wessex and Mercia in 825 at Ellendun, near the modern village of Wroughton, which signalled the end of the Mercian Supremacy. Before long West Saxon authority was recognised in Kent, Essex, Surrey and Sussex. Thereafter followed four years of relative peace before, as the chronicler put it, Ecgberht ‘conquered the kingdom of the Mercians, and everything south of the Humber’. These latter victories proved short lived, and by 830 the West Saxon king had ceded the newly won territory (and the London mint) back to Mercian hands. Nevertheless, Wessex was to remain the dominant force of the ninth century and it was the royal line established by Ecgberht that would eventually go on to unify all of England under a single king.

It is unfortunate that Ecgberht’s London pennies are so excessively rare. Naismith’s corpus listed just four examples. Two, derived from the 1893 at Middle Temple hoard, are housed within the British Museum’s collection. Another, chipped and ragged, was published as part of the Fitzwilliam Museum’s collection in 1958, although its provenance before that date was unrecorded. The final piece known to Naismith, a large fragment with much of the legend missing, formed part of the illustrious Lockett collection. Before that it was found in the cabinets of Grantley and Wickham. In the decade following the publication of Naismith’s corpus an additional three coins were discovered and recorded on the Early Medieval Corpus database. Interestingly these recent finds, much like Lockett’s example, are all in a poor state of preservation. Those found in 2011 (EMC 2011.0217) and 2012 (EMC 2012.0321) at Long Straton and Findon respectively, were mere fragments, while the most recently excavated specimen, from near Hockcliffe (EMC 2021.0187), appears badly chipped and cracked. The coin offered for sale here is seemingly only the eighth known example of Ecgberht’s London coinage and the only complete and materially-sound specimen available to commerce.

Works cited:

M.A.S Blackburn and D.N. Dumville 1998 (eds),
Kings, Currency and Alliances: History and Coinage of Southern England in the Ninth Century (Woodbridge)
Keynes, S., 1993. ‘The Control of Kent in the Ninth Century’,
EME 2, 111-31
Naismith, R., 2011.
The Coinage of Southern England 796–865, BNS Special Publication 8, 2 vols. (London)
Naismith, R., 2017.
Medieval European Coinage, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Vol. 8: Britain and Ireland (c.400-1066)
Naismith, R., 2019. ‘Two important coins of the Mercian Supremacy’,
BNJ 89, 203-8
Stenton, F., 1971.
Anglo-Saxon England. Third Edition (Oxford)