14.04.06, Sawyer, The Wealth of Anglo-Saxon England

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Henry Fairbairn

The Medieval Review 14.04.06

Sawyer, Peter. The Wealth of Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xi, 155. ISBN: 9780199253937.

Reviewed by:
Henry Fairbairn
King's College, London

Peter Sawyer's The Wealth of Anglo-Saxon England is a welcome addition to the field of Anglo-Saxon history for a number of reasons. Firstly, it represents the full development of his ideas regarding Anglo-Saxon wealth that first appeared in his seminal article, "The wealth of England in the eleventh century," published in 1965, and which were also delivered at the Ford Lectures at Oxford in 1993. [1] Secondly, the book is the latest scholarly work to marry together documentary and archaeological source material to the ever-growing corpus of numismatic evidence to provide greater insights into the nature of Anglo-Saxon politics, economy and society. Thirdly, it provides a highly accessible introduction to this particular aspect of history to both undergraduates and academics alike.

In Sawyer's words, "one of the main purposes of this book is to explain how, on the eve of the Norman Conquest, England had become an exceptionally wealthy, highly urbanised kingdom, with a large, well-controlled coinage of high quality" (1). After a short introduction, his first chapter is entitled "Tempore Regis Edwardi"--a reference to the Domesday Book term denoting conditions and land values in England on the day on which King Edward [the Confessor] was alive and dead, namely 5th January 1066. Sawyer uses the corpus of English coins in the form of single finds and hoards (found in both England and Scandinavia) and the rural and urban evidence of Domesday Book to illustrate the wealth of England in the mid-eleventh century. In the later medieval period, a key source of England's wealth was the international export of wool. Sawyer argues that the wool trade was also the key reason for English wealth in the tenth and eleventh centuries, and that England's silver supply came from the silver coins brought across from the Continent by foreign merchants to buy the wool. Sawyer argues that although England did not have a money economy, "it certainly had a great deal of coin in circulation" and that coin "was a crucially important factor in its economic vitality" (31).

The remaining chapters take the reader through the economic and monetary history of earlier Anglo-Saxon England in order to understand England's eleventh-century wealth. In the chapter "From Solidi to Sceattas," Sawyer describes how the Romans saw England as worth defending because of its corn harvests, pastureland and taxes. Despite the general dearth of coins in the fifth and sixth centuries, archaeological evidence in the form of buckles, strap ends, brooches and Byzantine pottery suggests that both internal and international trade continued. When coins began to circulate much more widely during the sceatta period of c. 675-750, England appeared already to have the structures in place to handle monetised transactions since these coins are found at former wic sites, high-status locations and in smaller market settings.

In the chapter "The Eighth and Ninth Centuries," Sawyer explains how King Offa of Mercia (757-796) reformed the English coinage along Carolingian lines, adopting the smaller, flatter silver penny which would eventually circulate in England throughout the medieval period. The main thrust of the chapter, however, describes that although cross-Channel trade continued to flourish, the wealth that it brought England attracted Viking raids and later settlement. It was the Viking invasions which prompted King Alfred of Wessex (871–899) to style himself as the defender of the English, and his coinage reforms helped him achieve to this. Alfred began to style himself rex Anglorum ("king of the English") on his coins and increased the purity of them by five times to demonstrate his authority. Sawyer thus demonstrates that coins had a political as well as an economic function.

The final major chapter, titled "From Edward the Elder to Edward the Confessor," details the development of the late Anglo-Saxon economy and the role which its increasingly powerful king and state played within it. Sawyer argues that the large amounts of treasure taken to the Danelaw from England and the near Continent by Vikings in the ninth and tenth centuries stimulated the economy in the north and east of England. However, the silver from this treasure became dispersed across England during the tenth century by the conquests of Alfred's successors: they fed the silver through regional mints, located in the burhs they had built, to strike coins with their names on, thus augmenting their authority. Later in the tenth century, large silver mines were discovered in Saxony which enabled continental merchants to buy English produce, especially wool, which had the effect of increasing the circulating currency in England dramatically--a point which Sawyer reinforces with his die estimates in the appendix (115-125). Sawyer marshals sources such as the law code IV Æthelred, which place continental merchants in London c.1000, buying and selling a variety of commodities, and points to further evidence suggesting the enjoyment of this new-found wealth by those outside the traditional elite. Once again, this wealth attracted Scandinavian attention which led to the large tribute payments, described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and eventually to Cnut's conquest of England in 1016.

The short concluding chapter, "Whoever has cash (denarios) can acquire anything he wants," summarises Sawyer's arguments that English wealth was based upon coinage and the export trade, but it also puts England's wealth into some context. Despite being "overshadowed" by Francia for long periods, Sawyer argues that the new Germanic silver of the tenth and eleventh centuries largely bypassed Francia for England via sea routes (112). Sawyer draws attention to a striking observation to demonstrate this further: the great Benedictine abbey of Cluny in France had an annual cash income of £300 in the eleventh century, whereas Christchurch Canterbury under Archbishop Lanfranc (1070-1089) drew in over £500 in cash (113-114).

While the overall thesis is convincing, there are some points of contention and criticism. The first relates to the development of an Anglo-Saxon wool trade. The evidence he marshals to support his argument is limited, but this is mainly due to the nature of the sources and the fact that any wool would have perished in the archaeological record. Nevertheless, some scholars have criticised the wool argument citing that eleventh-century Flanders was self-sufficient in wool and did not need to draw in English wool on such a large scale. Sawyer draws attention to these scholars himself, and while acknowledging their contentions he argues that English wool could have been exported to locations other than Flanders by the German merchants buying wool in the law code IV Æthelred and in Henry of Huntingdon's Historia Anglorum in the 1130s. [2]

A second contention relates to the aforementioned law code, IV Æthelred, which Sawyer uses to draw attention to trade passing into London from merchants from the near continent at the turn of the first millennium. However, Keene has recently drawn attention to the fact that IV Æthelred may have been composed in the mid-to-late twelfth century and therefore may reflect commercial conditions in London at this point in time rather than in c. 1000. [3] If true, it potentially removes an important pillar in Sawyer's arguments. However, other documentary and archaeological evidence still strongly suggests that international trade was an integral part of the tenth- and eleventh-century world.

Thirdly, it may have been useful to set the wealth of Anglo-Saxon England into the context of later English medieval evidence. Sawyer argues that England had an abundant coinage in late Anglo-Saxon England, but in comparison with the volume of coinage in circulation from the thirteenth century onwards, coupled with the sophistication of the market economy revealed by a much greater corpus of surviving documentary evidence, the amount of coinage in circulation seems very small. This is not to say that coinage in Anglo-Saxon England was less important, used by fewer people or was used for more specific purposes such as for paying rents and taxes and little more. Nevertheless, some contrast with later periods of English history may have been beneficial, if only to guard himself from criticism.

Nevertheless, there are few scholarly works which seek to integrate numismatic evidence with the documentary, and any attempt to do so is most welcome especially in the face of an ever-increasing corpus of single finds and hoards due to metal detectoring. This is especially relevant to the Anglo-Saxon period, since what English history for this period often lacks in documentary evidence, compared to the much richer material from the continent, can be compensated to a certain extent with the coin material.

Historiographically, Sawyer contributes to the changing impression of the Confessor's finances and of the economy during his reign. Barlow has argued that Edward the Confessor was relatively cash poor and Metcalf has argued that the volume of currency during the reign dipped compared to the volume of currency in circulation under Æthelred II and Cnut. [4] However, the die estimates in Sawyer's appendix show that the average number of dies per year during the Confessor's reign, which act as a reasonable guide to mint output, were broadly similar to the period 978-1042. This is supported by Martin Allen's single-find figures, repeated by Sawyer, which appear to show that the volume of the circulating currency actually increased between 1042 and 1066 (125). [5] The conclusion of a wealthier mid-eleventh century than has previously been supposed also finds support in recent work by Grassi and Baxter. [6]

Finally, this book is a very accessible introduction to this period and theme of history for undergraduates, and at 114 pages of main text it is not daunting either.



1. Peter H. Sawyer, "The Wealth of England in the Eleventh Century," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 15 (1965): 145-164.

2. Adriaan Verhulst, The Rise of Cities in North-West Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 136-137; James Bolton, "What is Money? What is a Money Economy? When did a Money Economy Emerge in Medieval England?" in Medieval Money Matters, ed. Diana Wood (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2004), 1-15 at p. 11.

3. Derek Keene, "Text, Visualisation and Politics: London, 1150-1250," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th ser., 18 (2008): 69-99 at pp. 93-94.

4. Frank Barlow, Edward the Confessor (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1970), 153; Donald M. Metcalf, An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon and Norman Coin Finds, c. 973-1086 (London: Royal Numismatic Society, 1998), 74.

5. Martin Allen, "The Volume of the English Currency, c. 973-1158," in Coinage and History in the North Sea World c. 500-1200, eds. Barry Cook and Gareth Williams (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 487-523 at pp. 498-500 and p. 502.

6. John Grassi, "The Lands and Revenues of Edward the Confessor," English Historical Review 117 (2002): 251-283 at p. 251 and p. 280; Stephen Baxter, The Earls of Mercia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 128-138.

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Author Biography

Henry Fairbairn

King's College, London