18.05.18, Lyon, The Lyon Collection of Anglo-Saxon Coins

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Henry Fairbairn

The Medieval Review 18.05.18

Lyon, Stewart. The Lyon Collection of Anglo-Saxon Coins. Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles. Oxford:Oxford University Press, 2017. pp. xvi, 317. ISBN: 978-0-19-726602-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Henry Fairbairn
Independent Scholar

The present volume is the sixty-eighth in the series which aims to catalogue and set into context the major extant collections of coins of the British Isles, from ancient times to the seventeenth century. The sylloge has been put together over a number of decades by Stewart Lyon, a prominent member, contributor to, and former president of the British Numismatic Society, whose collection ranges from a seventh-century gold solidus pendant to the Tealby coinage of Henry II (1154-1189). The collection contains 1072 specimens critical to our understanding of the coinage and history of the early middle ages, which are all the more important in lieu of substantial documentary evidence. There is a focus on two areas: 1) the coinage of the kingdom of Northumbria from the late seventh to the early ninth centuries (508 coins), and 2) the coinage of the first fifty years after Edgar's reform ca. 973 (231 coins), which represent the principal (though not total) fields of research undertaken by Lyon.

In chapter 2, Lyon discusses the thorny issue of regnal dating in ninth-century Northumbria and demonstrates what a joint documentary and numismatic approach can bring to bear on the problem. Later medieval writers, Symeon of Durham writing in the twelfth century and Roger of Wendover in the thirteenth, propose that Eanred acceded to the Northumbrian throne around 808/810, and that other reigns based on this initial date follow down to the accession of Osberht in 848/849. However, Lyon demonstrates that this traditional dating scheme is about ten years too early, using further evidence from Symeon of Durham, a letter sent to Archbishop Wigmund of York in 852, the fact that Wigmund's coinage was completed before the Hexham hoard was deposited early in Æthelred II of Northumbria's reign (coins of which feature in the sylloge), and the discovery of a penny in the name of an Eanred which stylistically dates to ca. 850. Lyon also shows that the traditional accession dates of Wigmund (837) and Wulfhere (854) to the Archbishopric of York appear to be correct. The chapter is also buttressed by a comprehensive analysis of the dies, die links, and fineness of the coinages.

Chapter 8 delves into the coinage in the aftermath of Edgar's reform of ca. 973. This period of numismatic history has been one of the most studied in all of medieval coinage, yet fresh insights are forthcoming. The pioneering research of Michael Dolley did much to describe and unpack the nature of the late Anglo-Saxon coinage, yet the most influential of his conclusions was that from ca. 973 down to the death of Cnut the coinage was changed at fixed intervals of six years. Lyon has joined a number of critics of this view on the basis that there seems to have been no complete change of the so-called First Hand type to Second Hand in 985 since the latter was not struck at all mints across England and also because it was too similar to First Hand to demonetise it. [1] Rather, there was just one, longer-running Hand type with regional variation in its design. The sexennial theory comes under further scrutiny with the next three types, Crux, Long Cross and Helmet. Lyon argues that if the far greater number of Crux pence that survive compared to Hand, due to their preservation in Scandinavian hoards, can be linked to the £10,000 geld described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 991, then the traditional, Dolley-inspired start date for Crux at Michaelmas 991 is untenable, since there would not have been enough of the coinage in circulation to account for its presence in Scandinavia. Thus, it is likely the Crux began life earlier than this, probably in the late 980s. Similar arguments are made for the beginning of the Long Cross issue and the £16,000 geld of 994. Lyon prefers a start date for Long Cross in either late 994 or early 995 (compared to the conventional 997). The collection of the geld possibly occurred during the recoinage of Crux to Long Cross since the die-linked coins of heavy weight from Winchester found in Scandinavian hoards appear to have only been struck at the beginning of the type. Finally, Lyon repeats previous doubts that Helmet was not a full type due to its similar design to the preceding Long Cross, because it does not begin at a heavy weight, which was generally the norm, and because the number of surviving coins and dies compared to the surrounding issues tends to be significantly lower.

Lyon moves onto discuss the final two types of chapter 8, Æthelred II's Last Small Cross and Cnut's Quatrefoil, in the context of die production centres which become very decentralised in both issues, and this is a topic that Lyon has performed extensive research on elsewhere. Two other matters stand out in the chapter. First is the discussion and rationale for the declining weight standards of coins throughout a type. Lyon posits that the heavier coins at the start of an issue had a lower minting fee than the lighter coins which came later in the type in order to understand how coins of different weights could circulate together (the implication being that heavier coins would be culled and converted into lighter ones). The reviewer has always thought that it was the moneyers who were attempting to make more profit by slowly lowering the weight standard over time, without regard for the heavier coins potentially being culled, since most of the drops in weight standard happen at the large, east-facing mints that acted as conduits for foreign bullion. Lyon's suggestion of systematic government intervention in weight standards is, nevertheless, intriguing and there are still many more mysteries about the late Anglo-Saxon monetary system which have yet to be revealed. Secondly, and more arresting, is the suggestion that from Quatrefoil down to Edward the Confessor's Expanding Cross type the lower average weight of these issues compared to those from the reform up to Quatrefoil was caused by a charge on minting to fund the heregeld. The reviewer had assumed that the eleventh-century land tax assessed on the hide and found in Domesday Book had its origins in heregeld tax collection methods. [2] However, the suggestion that it was raised by currency manipulation, given that a geld and concurrent drop in the weight standard of the coinage happens again later in the Confessor's reign, is also perfectly plausible.

The other chapters in the sylloge span Lyon's coin collection in chronological order but contain less research and analysis than chapters 2 and 8. The earlier chapters cover Southumbrian coinage to ca. 750 (chapter 1), from ca. 750 to 865 (chapter 3), and the West-Saxon and Mercian monetary unification in the wake of the Viking invasions (chapter 4). Here, Lyon suggests that the potential Anglo-Saxon capture of Viking treasure in the aftermath of the battle of Edington in 878 could have provided the necessary silver to strike the new Cross and Lozenge type, echoing Sawyer's claim that the seizing of Viking treasure in the tenth century by Anglo-Saxon monarchs fed the latters' mints. [3] The middle chapters cover the Viking coinages struck in the Danelaw (chapter 5), Anglo-Saxon coinages from ca. 883 to 939 (chapter 6), and Anglo-Saxon coinages from 939 to ca. 973. The section on Athelstan in chapter 5 highlights the ever-changing nature of numismatics and its interplay with historical research because the discovery of the Vale of York hoard (ca. 927-929) in 2007 produced thirty-six new specimens of the until now much rarer Church or Shrine type of Athelstan (a coin of which features in the sylloge). The final two chapters cover the coinage from 1023/4 to the Norman Conquest (chapter 9), and Norman and other coinages (chapter 10), which include imitations of Anglo-Saxon coins from Ireland, Scandinavia, and Bohemia, as well as Carolingian coins in the sylloge from the Cuerdale hoard.

This volume is a very worthy edition to the series. The layout of the book is clear, with most of the pages dedicated to a catalogue of high-quality plates of the coins in the sylloge (pages 125-314), alongside helpful sections on where the coins were acquired, issuing authorities of the coins, and indices of the mints and moneyers of the coins included in the collection. It is an accessible publication for new and seasoned scholars who are interested in early medieval English coinage.



1. I. Stewart, "Coinage and Recoinage After Edgar's Reform," in Studies in Late Anglo-Saxon Coinage: in Memory of Bror Emil Hildebrand, Numismatiska Meddelanden, 35 (Stockholm, 1990), 457-85.

2. GDB 56c (Berkshire B:10).

3. P. H. Sawyer, The Wealth of Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford, 2013) 88-89 and 94.

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