Money makes the world go around, as the Vikings soon discovered. Gareth Williams accounts for the rise of Viking coinage.
By Gareth Williams
Last updated 2011-02-17
Money makes the world go around, as the Vikings soon discovered. Gareth Williams accounts for the rise of Viking coinage.
The Viking Age saw major changes in the economy of Scandinavia. At the beginning of the Viking Age, few people in Scandinavia had any knowledge of coinage. Some foreign coins entered the region as a result of trading contacts both with western Europe and the Islamic world to the east. However, except in major trading centres such as Hedeby and Ribe, in Denmark, the idea of coinage as such was unfamiliar. Coins were valued only for their weight in silver or gold, and circulated alongside many other forms of precious metal.
Precious metals were also a symbol of wealth and power.
This is what is known as a bullion economy, in which the weight and the purity of the precious metal are what is important, not what form the metal takes. Far and away the most common metal in the economy was silver, although gold was also used. Silver circulated in the form of bars, or ingots, as well as in the form of jewellery and ornaments. Large pieces of jewellery were often chopped up into smaller pieces known as 'hack-silver' to make up the exact weight of silver required. Imported coins and fragments of coins were also used for the same purpose. Traders carried small scales which could measure weight very accurately, so it was possible to have a very precise system of trade and exchange even without a regular coinage.
Precious metals were also a symbol of wealth and power. Like many peoples throughout history, the Vikings demonstrated their wealth and status by wearing beautiful jewellery, or by having expensively ornamented weapons, which were their equivalents of the Armani suit or the Rolex watch of today. In many cases, imported coins were melted down as the raw material for arm-rings, neck-rings or brooches. In other cases, coins were even mounted as jewellery. The show of wealth was more important than the idea of a coin-based economy.
The Viking raids of the ninth century brought the raiders into regular contact with the monetary economies of western Europe. The Frankish Empire had a strong centralised coinage, which had been introduced by Charlemagne around the time of the first recorded raid. Although the Empire was divided after 840, the tradition of strong silver coinage continued in the various smaller kingdoms that replaced it.
The main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms each had their own coinage, and the wealth of Anglo-Saxon England was probably one of the main causes of the Viking expansion. East Anglia, Kent, Mercia and Wessex all had silver coinage, although the Kentish coinage disappeared after the kingdom was swallowed up by Wessex in the 820s. Northumbria also had a coinage, but unusually this was mostly made up of copper and bronze coins with a much lower value. These were apparently of very little interest to Viking raiders.
Both in England and on the Continent, native rulers regularly paid Viking raiders to leave them in peace.
Both in England and on the Continent, native rulers regularly paid Viking raiders to leave them in peace. The idea of 'Danegeld' is particularly associated today with the reign of Ethelred II (978-1016), whose policy of paying off the Vikings rather than fighting them was famously unsuccessful, and led to the conquest of England by Svein Forkbeard and Cnut. Such payments were also common in the ninth century, and both Anglo-Saxon and Frankish chronicles are full of references to rulers 'making peace' with the raiders. 'Making peace' was a polite expression for 'paying them to go away', and could involve large sums, such as the 7,000 pounds paid by the Frankish ruler Charles the Bald in 845. Even Alfred the Great, more famous for his military resistance, was forced to 'make peace' on occasion. A particular feature of late ninth-century England is the existence of small lead weights, with Anglo-Saxon coins set into the top. These were probably used by the Vikings to weigh out payments in coinage.
The idea of coinage was not a difficult one to grasp, and once the Viking raiders began to settle in England in the late ninth century, they began to issue coins of their own. Today this might seem an obvious thing to do, because we are used to dealing with coins on a regular basis. However, even a single silver penny (the only common denomination in the period) was a valuable item, and most poorer people probably never handled coinage at all. Coins might be very slightly more convenient than some other forms of silver, but payments continued to be primarily based on the total weight and quality of the silver.
Most of the early Viking coin types were imitations of more established coinage.
The reasons for adopting coinage were probably political and cultural as much as economic. Like many 'barbarian' invaders, the Vikings looked at the more 'civilised' peoples they had invaded, and wanted to be like them. Issuing coins was one of the established rights associated with Christian kingship in Europe in the early Middle Ages. The Anglo-Saxons themselves had adopted coinage as soon as they converted to Christianity, and the Vikings did just the same.
Most of the early Viking coin types were imitations of more established coinage. This is fairly typical of societies that adopt the idea of coinage from their neighbours. One of the main models for the coinage of the Danelaw was naturally the coinage of Alfred the Great of Wessex, the most powerful ruler in the British Isles. Many coins from the southern Danelaw carried Alfred's name, rather than the name of the rulers who issued them. In East Anglia, the Viking Guthrum, Alfred's godson, issued coins copying the designs of Alfred's coins, but with his own new baptismal name of Athelstan. Other early designs were copied from Byzantine and Frankish coins, reminding us of the wide range of the Vikings' contacts.
The link between issuing coins and Christian kingship is very clear in the coinage of Viking rulers in the British Isles. Almost all the coins that carry the name of a ruler were issued in the name of kings, rather than jarls (or earls). The exception is a rare coinage from around 900 in the name of Sihtric Comes (Jarl Sihtric), of which only a handful of examples survive. This might not seem surprising, but the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests that the Viking armies were led by jarls as often as kings. Furthermore, when coinage was adopted by Viking rulers outside England in the 990s and later, the jarls of Orkney did not issue coinage, although they were probably at least as powerful as the kings of Dublin and the Isle of Man, who did.
Some of the St Peter pennies carry the hammer of the pagan god Thor alongside the name of St Peter.
It is also very noticeable that the coins of the Danelaw carry very Christian symbols. Many have the Christian cross, and some carry Christian inscriptions such as DOMINUS DEUS REX (Lord God and King) or MIRABILIA FECIT (He has done marvellous things). Coins were also issued in the name of St Peter at York, and St Martin at Lincoln. The designs were not all exclusively Christian, however, which suggests some religious toleration. Some of the St Peter pennies carry the hammer of the pagan god Thor alongside the name of St Peter. A coin type attributed to Olaf Guthfrithsson of York (939-41) shows a bird that has often been identified as one of Odin's ravens. It could equally well be interpreted as an eagle, symbol of St John the Evangelist, and the image may have been chosen deliberately to appeal to Christian and pagan alike.
Whatever the religious symbolism of the Olaf coins may be, they carry a very clear statement of Scandinavian identity. While most Anglo-Scandinavian coinage had inscriptions in Latin, like Anglo-Saxon and Frankish coins, Olaf's coins carry the inscription ANLAF CUNUNC (konungr), which is Old Norse for King Olaf.
Foreign coins, especially Islamic silver dirhams, were known in Scandinavia throughout the early Viking Age. They circulated alongside other forms of silver bullion, but the supply of silver from the east dried up in the late tenth century. This was one reason for the new wave of Viking raids in the west from the 980s onwards. England was particularly wealthy, and its ruler Ethelred II found it easier to pay off Viking raiders than to raise armies to fight them. Apart from leading to the conquest of England, this policy led to a huge flow of silver coinage to Scandinavia. This continued as a result of trade during the reign of Cnut and his sons, and even today more late Anglo-Saxon coins are found in Scandinavia than in Britain.
...even today more late Anglo-Saxon coins are found in Scandinavia than in Britain.
At the same time, western ideas were also flooding into Scandinavia. These included the same ideas of Christianity and kingship that the Viking settlers had adopted in England. This coincided with the gradual unification of the smaller kingdoms into what we now know as Denmark, Norway and Sweden. These changes are reflected in the adoption in the late 990s of regal coinage in all three kingdoms. Svein Forkbeard of Denmark, Olaf Tryggvasson of Norway and Olof Tribute-king of Sweden all issued coins with their names and titles, imitating the coinage of Ethelred II. Before this there had been a small anonymous coinage in Denmark, but there were no earlier coins produced in Norway or Sweden.
The fate of the coinages was different in each kingdom. In Norway, the coinage got off to a very weak start and only really took off under the powerful kingship of Harald Hardrada (1047-66). By contrast, the Swedish coinage started strongly, but collapsed in the 1030s when the new Swedish kingdom fragmented and relapsed into paganism. By far the most successful was the Danish coinage, which started strongly under Svein Forkbeard and became firmly established once Cnut united the kingdoms of Denmark and England. As in England, coinage was issued in a number of towns around the kingdom, and these also acted as power centres both for the king and the Church.
Coins of Medieval Europe by Philip Grierson (Seaby, 1991)
Viking Treasure from the North West: The Cuerdale Hoard in its Context edited by James Graham-Campbell (Liverpool Museum, 1992)
The Viking Dig: The Excavations at York by Richard Hall (The Bodley Head, 1984)
Encyclopaedia of the Viking Age by John Haywood (Thames &Hudson, 2000)
Cultural Atlas of the Viking Age edited by Graham-Campbell et al (Andromeda, 1994)
Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings by John Haywood (Penguin, 1996). Detailed maps of Viking settlements in Scotland, Ireland, England, Iceland and Normandy.
The British Museum. Housing the leading collection of Viking coins from the British Isles, as well as important collections of Viking jewellery, hack-silver, weapons and other items. Many of the items form part of the Museum's permanent display, but the reserve collections are also available for study purposes, and the Museum runs a variety of coin-based educational activities.
National Museums of Scotland. Important Viking hoard material from Scotland, as well as a wide variety of material from Viking graves and settlements.
Jorvik Centre. Well known for its graphic representation of everyday life in Viking York, the displays also feature a rare example of a Viking coin-die, and visitors have the opportunity to strike their own replica coins.
Gareth Williams is curator of Early Medieval Coins at the British Museum. In addition to coinage, he specialises in the history of the Viking Age, with particular interests in the nature of royal power, and in the relationship between history and literature. He is also a member of the re-enactment/living history group Vikings of Middle England.
This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.