Tenth-century England was a land of extremes as powerful rulers alternated with the incompetent or weak ones. During that time, however, came one of those terrible crimes that horrified an entire nation: a teen-aged king was brutally murdered by order of his own stepmother. His death, which had all the makings of a Greek tragedy, had its origin in events that took place during the reign of his father…
King Edgar, who had become ruler of all England in 959, had two sons by different wives. The first, Edward, was born about 960 but his mother died not long afterwards. Edgar’s roving eye then fell on Elfrida, a noted beauty who had the unfortunate problem of being already married. The king neatly solved this difficulty by having the current husband ruthlessly murdered. The son of Edgar and Elfrida, named Aethelred, was born about 968. While this second marriage seems to have been happy, Elfrida had learned her lesson well: a murder solves many problems.
During Edgar’s reign religious disputes were the order of the day. The king chose the side of the monasteries over the nobility and great landowners, often seizing their land to give to the monastic orders. Even within the church itself there were serious debates about Edgar’s policies and the long-term effect on religious stability. Those who had good reason to hate the king simply bided their time.
Edgar died in July 975, but about two years earlier had added a reform of the coinage to his list of accomplishments. Because no original copy of the law now exists and the only account of it is a garbled one written years later, scholars have long argued the exact meaning of this change. It is clear, however, that Edgar undertook to make the silver penny virtually the same throughout his kingdom and also forcing the moneyers to sign their product with both name and city so that all would know who made a particular coin. (Prior to 973 the names did appear but not the city, a serious problem for modern scholars.) At the same time the number of mints was greatly expanded, with about 40 in operation by the end of his reign.
When Edgar died in 975 the succession was unexpectedly disputed by Elfrida. She demanded, with the backing of powerful nobles opposed to the monastic policy, that her son Aethelred be made king despite the fact that it was an age-old custom that the eldest son succeed his father.
Edward, however, announced that he would continue his father’s policies and a short civil war ended in his favor. At the age of 16 he reigned but did not rule; powerful forces behind the scenes controlled his every act. Edward, probably because he had little except an empty title, soon developed a nasty temper and a generally unpleasant disposition.
The new king soon began his own coinage of silver pennies though the dies of his father Edgar would have been used in some cases for a few weeks at the various mints until exchanged for those with Edward’s name. The design, which is quite similar to the last coinage of Edgar, had the diademed bust of the king facing left with a typical inscription in Latin reading EADWARD REX ANGL (or ANGLOR), meaning “Edward, King of the English.” The reverse had a simple cross in the center, symbolizing piety, surrounded by a legend naming the moneyer and town.
The coin illustrated with this article was struck in the northern part of the kingdom; the partially abbreviated legend reads HAFGRIM N-O LINCOL, or “Hafgrim, Moneyer at Lincoln.” Lincoln was one of the major mints in tenth-century England; coins of this ruler from smaller mints, for example, carry stiff price tags compared to coins struck at Lincoln or London.
Although most of Edward’s coins are quite rare, especially from the smaller mints, even the most common pennies are still worth a considerable sum. In very fine, for example the value can be several thousand dollars. Anglo-Saxon coins are difficult to grade and it is best to deal with an established dealer in British coins when purchasing a silver penny struck under King Edward or other rulers of this era.
In older numismatic reference catalogs, dating from the 19th century, one occasionally finds that Edward struck two types of pennies, the one mentioned here as well as one with a right-facing bust on the obverse and a hand on the reverse. All known pieces of this second variety it is now known are fakes made in the past for collectors, however, as that design did not appear until the reign of Edward’s successor Athelred.
The silver penny was the main English coin of this period. On rare occasion smaller silver coins (half pennies and farthings) were made but in general the average adult saw only pennies. It was not until several centuries later that larger silver coins, or even gold, were made.
On July 18, 978, Edward and a few companions were hunting near Castle Corfe, a fortified structure occupied by his stepmother Elfrida. Edward had become separated from his friends and stopped at the castle for some refreshments before going on. Elfrida provided a drink, but then ordered a servant to stab him in the back. Mortally wounded, the king managed to remount his horse and flee the scene; he had lost so much blood, however, that he soon fell off the saddle but with one foot still in a stirrup. He was then dragged by the horse for some distance before falling free. He was dead when found by his friends.
The dead king became known as “Edward the Martyr” and it is by this name that he has gone down in history. He was succeeded by his half-brother Aethelred whose reign was a nearly unending series of disasters.
In 1016 Aethelred “the Unready” died, his kingdom having been conquered by the Danes under King Cnut.
Widely hated for the murder of King Edward, Elfrida gave considerable sums of money to many monasteries and other holy sites in an effort to appease both the church and the people. She failed and died bitterly despised by nearly everyone.
This article was originally printed in World Coin News.
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