British, Ancient and World Coins (16 September 2020)
Date of Auction: 16th September 2020
Sold for £8,000
Estimate: £6,000 - £8,000
FootnoteProvenance: Found in West Norfolk, June 2020 (EMC 2020.0244).
Æthelstan I was the first king of the independent kingdom of East Anglia which emerged following the end of the Mercian supremacy in 825. Written sources relating to the activities of the East Angles during the first half of the 9th century are unfortunately lacking. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates that in 825 the Mercian King Beornwulf, after his disastrous defeat at the battle of Ellendum, against King Ecgberht of Wessex, was slain by an anonymous king of the East Angles. Beyond this, little is known about the East Anglian kings or their activities, with their identity and chronology having been reconstructed largely from numismatic sources.
The present coin, like all of Æthelstan’s portrait pennies, was struck at the beginning of the monarch’s reign. Coins of this type are absent from the Middle Temple Hoard, deposited towards the end of Æthelstan’s reign c. 840, indicating that they had fallen out of circulation by this point. In terms of style and design this coin closely parallels pennies struck by the penultimate Mercian rulers at Ipswich, Ceolwulf and Beornwulf. Both kings employed obverse dies with stylised portraits, similar to the charming depiction rendered on the present coin and, amongst others, reverse dies with the moneyer’s name and title in three lines. This consistency is also seen in the moneyers, with Monne, Eadnoth and Eadgar all signing coins at Ipswich under Mercian kings and Æthelstan. In addition, Monne signed portrait coins at Ipswich for Beornwulf. The consistency in style of the portrait dies employed on both Beornwulf’s and Æthelstan’s coinage signed by Monne, and the fact that none of Æthelstan’s successors apparently produced coins with that name indicates that it was probably the same man who operated the mint for both kings.
It is interesting (but not unusual) that Æthelstan allowed a moneyer who had struck coins for his predecessor to continue under the new administration. As a claimant to the throne there was doubtless pressure on the new king to patronise his supporters. The position of moneyer was a desirable one for those qualified for the job; moneyers were prominent members of society, well paid, and on occasion recipients of largesse directly from the king. That Monne, like many other Anglo-Saxon moneyers, was retained following a regime change indicates that the position was politically agnostic, with candidates selected through meritocracy as opposed to nepotism.
The production of portrait coins, such as this specimen, was likely an important piece of propaganda for Æthelstan during the first tentative part of his reign, granting the appearance of continuity with his Mercian predecessors. One might assume that it would be the king who dictated this policy, in an attempt to enhance his own royal legitimacy. However, it is notable that the only moneyers to produce portrait coinage for Æthelstan were those whom he chose to retain from Mercian rule following his accession, and that neither he during the latter part of his reign nor any of his successors minted portrait coinages again. Thus, this is potentially an example of Anglo-Saxon moneyers having significant influence over the iconography of the coins that they produced.
Naismith’s corpus records three examples of this type by Monne, from two obverse and three reverse dies. To this canon we may add three examples discovered in the last decade (EMC 2013.0012; 2013.0093; 2018.0106) and the coin sold at Spink (Auction 263, 24 September 2019, lot 163) – all struck from different obverse dies. The present coin, which is seemingly only the eighth known example, was struck from a previously unpublished pair of dies. There are three other published portrait coins of Æthelstan signed by Monne, all with a reverse design consisting of a star of eight rays, and all from separate obverse dies (Naismith E31.2a; EMC 2012.0142; EMC 2017.0124).
The ten portrait dies used used by Monne display a considerable variation in style and artistic achievement. There is a tendency on some dies for the bust to be overdecorated, with a heavy beaded diadem or multiple layers of thick curls of hair running around the back of the head. Given the keyhole nature of these images this often gives the portraits a lob-sided, awkward and cramped appearance. Thankfully, the artist responsible for the dies for this coin showed more restraint, resulting in an elegant and stylised portrait which appears highly pleasing to the modern eye