By Kerry Rodgers
A recently found Anglo-Saxon silver penny realized $133,414 [£78,000] when sold on June 11 by British auction house Dix Noonan Webb. Numerous room and commission bidders vied with those on the Internet to hike the price to nearly four times the pre-sale estimate of $34,209 [£20,000].
For Anglo-Saxon numismatists this coin is most desirable. Not only is it one of just four known for the East Anglian ruler Æthelberht II, but it is the only one to show ÆTHELBERHT REX, i.e., his name and title as a single legend on the same side. This design may have contributed to his death and, indirectly, to his becoming a saint.
All four known pennies of Æthelberht carry the moneyer’s name as Lul as shown on the reverse.
Æthelberht was ruler of East Anglia in the latter half of the 8th century. Little is known of him or his rule. His biography was compiled several hundred years after his death and is largely the stuff of legend. There is some agreement that he was probably a strong and wise ruler known for his piety and celibacy.
His western neighbor was the powerful king and well-known coin issuer, Offa of Mercia. It is unclear whether Æthelberht was king of East Anglia in his own right or was a vassal ruler of Offa but from at least the year 787 Offa was effectively overlord of all East Angles.
Whatever Æthelberht’s position he certainly struck silver pennies. The striking of coins by a ruler in their own name would indicate they had considerable autonomy or was at least claiming such. Offa was apparently unimpressed and ordered the minting to cease.
Pressure went on Æthelberht to ensure the royal succession in East Anglia. Despite his preference for celibacy he agreed to marry Ælfthyth, daughter of Offa. His mother was not convinced this was a good idea. Her premonitions found support in at least three dread portents: an earthquake, a solar eclipse and a vision.
Nonetheless Æthelberht was a man of his word. He visited Offa’s villa at Sutton in Herefordshire to check out his bride-to-be. Ælfthyth found him most comely. She spoke fondly of him to her dad.
Historical accounts become very murky and unsubstantiated at this point. A medieval chronicler alleged Offa had heard rumors that Æthelberht was intending to invade his kingdom and was persuaded by his queen, Cynethryth, that these were true. Perhaps a penny similar to that auctioned showing ÆTHELBERHT REX on the obverse was produce as evidence that the East Anglian upstart had become overly ambitious.
The 9th century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records: “Offa, king of the Mercians, commanded the head of Æthelberht to be struck off.” A royal Mercian cousin, Winberht, put up his hand for the job. Æthelberht was seized, tortured, and beheaded with his own sword, his remains dumped in a swamp.
As is the way with saints-to-be, miraculous lights duly appeared and led the way to the remains. These were recovered and taken to Fernley a.k.a. Hereford for burial. On the way Æthelberht’s head fell from the cart. When found it restored a blind man’s sight.
In due course Æthelberht was canonized by the Church and from the 11th century became venerated by various religious groups in East Anglia and Herefordshire. His feast day in both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Communions is 20 May.
The ÆTHELBERHT REX penny was found in Sussex by metal detectorist, Darrin Simpson, while hurrying to escape a hailstorm. Despite the weather Simpson stopped and dug upon getting a signal. Some 6-8 inches down he found Æthelberht’s penny.
When he produced it for the Early Medieval Corpus of Coin Finds at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge the importance of his find became clear. Christopher Webb of DNW summed it up neatly, “This new discovery is an important and unexpected addition to the numismatic history of 8th century England.”