Anglo-Saxon Coins and Seals; the White Horse


Figure 232
232.—Copper Syca.

The coins of a country are amongst the most valuable and interesting of its material monuments. “The study of coins is not to be considered as the province of the antiquary alone. Coins are among the most certain evidences of history.” (‘Penny Cyclopædia.’) In our engravings, we have presented a series of coins, from the earliest Anglo-Saxon period to the time of Edward the Confessor. They begin at page 60, Fig. 232; and continue in every page to page 69, Fig. 282. To enter into a minute description of these coins would be tedious to most readers, and not satisfactory, with our limited space, to the numismatic student. We shall therefore dismiss this branch of Old England’s antiquities with a few passing remarks suggested by some of this series.


Figure 233
233.—Silver Coin.

The little silver coin, Fig. 233, is called a sceatta. This is a literal Anglo-Saxon word which means money; and when, in Anglo-Saxon familiar speech, the entertainer at a tavern is called upon to pay the shot, the coin of Victoria does the same office as the sceat of the early kings of Kent.

As the fund of our pleasure, let each pay his shot,


Figure 234
234.—Silver Penny of Offa, King of Mercia.

says Ben Jonson. The penny is next in antiquity to the sceat. The silver coins of the princes of the Heptarchy are for the most part pennies. There is an extensive series of such coins of the kings of Mercia. The halfpenny and the farthing are the ancient names of the division of the penny; they are both mentioned in the Saxon Gospels. The coins of Offa, king of Mercia (Fig. 234), are remarkable for the beauty of their execution, far exceeding in correctness of drawing and sharpness of impression those of his predecessors or successors. “At the beginning of the ninth century Ecgbeorht or Egbert ascended the throne of the West Saxon kingdom; and in the course of his long reign, brought under his dominion nearly the whole of the Heptarchic states; he is therefore commonly considered as the first sole monarch of England, notwithstanding those states were not completely united in one sovereignty until the reign of Edgar. On his coins, he is usually styled Ecgbeorht Rex, and sometimes the word Saxonum is added in a monogram, within the inner circle of the obverse: some of his coins have a rude representation of his head, and some are without it. From Egbert’s time, with very few exceptions, the series of English pennies is complete; indeed, for many hundred years, the penny was the chief coin in circulation.” (‘Penny Cyclopædia.’) The silver pennies of Alfred bear a considerable price; and this circumstance may be attributed in some degree to the desire which individuals in all subsequent ages would feel, to possess some memorial of a man who, for four hundred years after his death, was still cherished in the songs and stories of the Anglo-Saxon population, mixed as they were with Norman blood, as the Shepherd of the people, the Darling of England (Figs. 268, 272). A relic, supposed more strictly to pertain to the memory of Alfred, is now in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. It is an ornament of gold which was found in the Isle of Athelney, the scene of Alfred’s retreat during the days of his country’s oppression. The inscription round the figure, holding flowers, means, “Alfred had me wrought” (Fig. 309). The Saxon lantern, which Strutt has engraved in his ‘Chronicle of England’ (Fig. 310), is also associated with the memory of Alfred, in that story which Asser, his biographer, tells of him, that he invented a case of horn and wood for his wax candle, by the burning of which he marked the progress of time. The genuineness of Asser’s Biography has been recently questioned; but there is little doubt that its facts were founded upon an older narrative. The portrait of Alfred (Fig. 308) is copied from that in Spelman’s ‘Life;’ but the materials out of which it is composed are probably not much to be relied upon.

Figure spread at pages 80 and 81:

There is a very remarkable object in Berkshire, not a great distance from Wantage, the birth-place of Alfred, which has been considered a memorial of the bravery and patriotism which he displayed even before he came to the throne. In the reign of Ethelred the First, the brother of Alfred, the Danes, who had invaded Berkshire, were routed with great slaughter in a battle known as that of Æscesdun (Ash-tree Hill); and it was contended by Dr. Wise, a learned antiquary of the last century, that the ridge of chalk hills extending from Wantage into Wiltshire was the scene of this battle, and that the White Horse which is cut out on the slope of the chalk is a memorial of this great victory. The White Horse, which gives its name to the hill, and to the fertile valley beneath, is a most singular object. It is a rude figure, three hundred and seventy-four feet in length, formed by removing the turf, and laying bare the chalk, on the north-west face of this hill, just above a lofty and steep declivity, which is visible from the surrounding country. When the afternoon sun shines upon this side of the ridge, the White Horse may be seen from a great distance—as far, it is said, as fifteen miles. Lysons mentions that there was a tradition that lands in the neighbourhood were formerly held by the tenure of cleaning the White Horse, by cutting away the springing turf. An annual festival was once held at this ancient ceremonial labour, called by the people Scouring the Horse. But as the regard for ancient memorials was dying out within the last century, and the peasants of Berkshire were ground down to a worse than serf-like condition of dependence on the poor-rates, the old festival was given up, the White Horse was left to be overgrown and obliterated, and even the memory of Alfred lived no longer amongst his Saxon descendants in these lonely valleys, who had grown up in ignorance and pauperism, because the humanities which had associated their forefathers with their superiors in rank were unwisely severed. The age of festivals, whether of religion or patriotism, is gone. We ought to mention that some antiquaries differ from Dr. Wise, and believe the White Horse to be of earlier origin than the age of Alfred. There can be no question, however, that it is a work of very high antiquity.

The civil government of the Anglo-Saxons, whether under the Heptarchy, or after the kings of Wessex had obtained that ascendency which constituted the united monarchy of all England, is associated with very few existing monuments beyond those of its medallic history. There was an ancient chapel at Kingston existing about half a century ago, in which kings Edrid, Edward the Martyr, and Ethelred are stated to have been crowned. That chapel is now destroyed (Fig. 305). An engraving was made of it whilst the tradition was concurrent with the existence of the old building. Kingston was unquestionably the crowning place of the Saxon kings. There is a remarkable little church existing at Greensted, a village about a mile from Ongar in Essex. It was described about a century ago in the ‘Vetusta Monumenta’ of the Society of Antiquaries; and attention has recently been called to it by a correspondent of the ‘Penny Magazine.’ “In one of the early incursions of the Danes into England (a. d. 870), Edmund, King of East Anglia, was taken prisoner by them, and, refusing to abjure the Christian religion, put to a cruel death. He was a favourite of the people, but especially of the priests; and came naturally, therefore, to be spoken of as a martyr, and his remains to be held in estimation as those of a saint. In the reign of Ethelred the Unready, the Danes, emboldened by the cowardice or feeble policy of the king, who only sought to buy them off from day to day, and made tyrannous by the diminished opposition everywhere offered to them, ravaged the country in all directions, until at length, in the year 1010, ‘that dismal period,’ as Mr. Sharon Turner calls it, ‘their triumph was completed in the surrender of sixteen counties of England and the payment of forty-eight thousand pounds.’ In this year the bones of St. Edmund were removed from Ailwin to London, to prevent their falling into the hands of the Danes. They appear to have remained in London about three years, when they were carried back to Bedriceworth (Bury St. Edmund’s). A MS. cited by Dugdale in the ‘Monasticon,’ and entitled ‘Registrum Cœnobii S. Edmundi,’ informs us that on its return to Bury, ‘his body was lodged (hospitabatur) at Aungre, where a wooden chapel remains as a memorial to this day.’ It is this same ‘wooden chapel’ which is supposed to form the nave of Greensted Church. The inhabitants of the village have always had a tradition that the corpse of a king rested in it, and the appearance of the building vouches for its great antiquity.” (Fig. 306.)

The Witenagemot, or the great council of the nation,—prelates, ealdormen, and thanes or governors of boroughs, with the crowned king presiding, is represented in one of the Cotton manuscripts in the British Museum (Fig. 307). We have an example of the almost regal dignity of the greater noblemen, in the remarkable seal of Alfric, Earl of Mercia, who lived towards the end of the tenth century. The earl not only bears the sword of authority, but wears a diadem (Fig. 313). There are representations of particular monarchs in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, which are perhaps more valuable as examples of costume than as individual portraits. Such is that of King Edgar (Fig. 311), and of Canute and his queen (Fig. 312).

The seal which we have mentioned (or rather, the brass matrix of the seal) of Alfric, Earl of Mercia, which was found by a labourer in cutting away a bank near Winchester in 1832, is one of several proofs which have set at rest a long disputed question as to the use of seals among the Anglo-Saxons. The legal antiquaries of the seventeenth century, such as Selden and Coke, speak without any hesitation of charters with seals granted by the Saxon kings. Mr. Astle, a very competent authority, asserted, in 1791, that our Saxon ancestors did not use seals of wax appended to their deeds (‘Archæologia,’ vol. x.). He acknowledged, however, that if such a seal could be found of a date before the time of the Confessor, the argument against their use, derived from the fact that the word Sigillum did not always mean seal, would be set at rest. The opinion of Astle was founded upon that of earlier antiquaries. The late Mr. Douce, in some remarks upon two wax impressions of the seal of the Abbey of Wilton, which he believes to be the original Anglo-Saxon seal, notices these objections: “If Dr. Hickes and the other objectors could have expected successfully to demonstrate that the Saxons used no seals, it was necessary for them to annihilate not only the numerous early seals of the German emperors and French kings, but even the gems and other sigillatory implements of the ancients. It would, indeed, have been a remarkable circumstance, that during a period wherein many of the European monarchs were continuing the immemorial practice of affixing seals to public instruments, the Saxon sovereigns of England, who were not inferior in knowledge and civilization to their contemporaries, and who borrowed many of their customs from Italy and France, should have entirely suspended a practice so well known and established. It is much less extraordinary that a very small number of Saxon seals should be remaining, than that, all circumstances considered, they should not have been frequently used. All that the objectors have been able to prove is, that a great many Saxon instruments were destitute of seals; that some were forged with seals in Norman times; and that the words ‘Signum’ and ‘Sigillum’ were often used to express the mere signature of a cross, which nevertheless was the representative of a seal.” In 1821, the seal of Ethelwald, Bishop of Dunwich, was found about a hundred yards from the site of the Monastery of Eye. That remarkable seal is now in the British Museum; and Mr. Hudson Gurney, who transmitted an account of it to the Society of Antiquaries, says, “On the whole I conceive there can remain no doubt but that this was the genuine seal of Ethelwald, Bishop of Dunwich, about the middle of the ninth century, and that it sets at rest the question hitherto in dispute touching the use of seals among the Anglo-Saxons.”

These few remarks may not improperly introduce to our readers the first of an uninterrupted series of monuments belonging to our monarchical government—the great seals of England. The seal of King Edward the Confessor is represented in Figs. 315 and 316. On one side, according to the description of this seal by Sir Henry Ellis, the king “is represented sitting on a throne bearing on his head a sort of mitre, in his right hand he holds a sceptre finishing in a cross, and in his left a globe. On the other side he is also represented with the same sort of head-dress, sitting. In his right a sceptre finishing with a dove. On his left a sword, the hilt pressed toward his bosom. On each side is the same legend—Sigillum Eadwardi Anglorum Basilei. This seal of King Edward is mentioned several times in the ‘Domesday Survey.’ ” (‘Archæologia,’ vol. xviii.) The seal of William the Conqueror, which belongs to the next book, is little superior in workmanship to that of the Confessor; and the sitting figures of each have considerable resemblance (Fig. 342). The impression of the seal of the Conqueror is preserved in the Hôtel Soubise at Paris, being appended to a charter by which the king granted some land in England to the abbey of St. Denis in France. This seal establishes the fact that grants of lands immediately after the Conquest were guaranteed by the affixing of a waxen seal; and although this might not be invariably the case, it goes far to throw a doubt upon the authenticity of the old rhyming grant said to be made by William to the ancient family of the Hoptons, which Stow and other early antiquaries have believed to be authentic. Stow gives it in his ‘Annals,’ upon “the testimony of an old chronicle in the library at Richmont,” omitting three introductory lines, upon the authority of which in the sixteenth century a legal claim was actually set up to the estate of the lords of Hopton:—

“To the heirs male of the Hopton lawfully begotten:—

From me and from mine, to thee and to thine,

While the water runs, and the sun doth shine;

For lack of heirs, to the king again.

I, William, king, the third year of my reign,

Give to thee, Norman Huntere,

To me that art both lefe and dear,

The Hop and Hoptown,

And all the bounds up and down,

Under the earth to hell,

Above the earth to heaven,

From me and from mine,

To thee and to thine,

As good and as fair

As ever they mine were.

To witness that this is sooth,

I bite the white wax with my tooth,

Before Jugg, Maud, and Margery,

And my third son Henry,

For one bow and one broad arrow,

When I come to hunt upon Yarrow.”

We give the above, with some slight corrections, from Blount’s ‘Ancient Tenures.’