Viking Coins

Written & researched by Gerland Bell 

“Why on Earth would Vikings mint coins?” I hear you ask. Surely they would  just raid a rich monastery or undefended town and take what they wanted?  Who needs money if you’re just taking stuff anyway? 

But the Vikings were also traders, so coinage came in handy – trying to get  change for a gold ingot must have been murder! Barter was probably as  inconvenient, and the Vikings were certainly familiar with money – archaeologists have found plenty of coins, ranging from Anglo-Saxon pennies  to Islamic dirhems, in Scandinavia. Many coins and items of jewellery were cut  into pieces, probably to allow a fairer share of the spoils. 

It was surely also the opportunity to turn a tidy profit on the process of minting  that attracted Viking leaders to it – anyone handing in bullion to be  transformed into coins would expect to pay a price to the moneyer and his  boss, the king or chief, for the convenience of having coins.  

So it was that, in the early 9th century, a now-forgotten ‘king’ in the port and  market town of Hedeby, near the base of the Jutland peninsula, decided to  mint coins. Many were copies of Carolingian pennies, but some very unusual  silver pennies were minted that were distinctly Viking. 

These coins are extremely rare, and it is unlikely that any will ever come up for  sale. On about 15 examples a ship features on one side – either the bulky  shape of a merchant ship on some specimens, or a Viking longship, complete  with shields on the gunwales, on some of the others. And what do we find on  the obverse of these? Strange, contorted figures of indeterminate animals or,  on one or two, the ‘Odin’s Head’ design from Series X Sceattas! 

A Hedeby penny bearing the image of a longship
Another Hedeby penny

The Hedeby mint soon ceased production; these were unstable times in  Scandinavia, where many kings were crowned and soon met violent deaths. No  coins were minted in Scandinavia for another century and a half. The next  Viking coins were minted in England! 

In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle there is a significant entry for the year 866: In this  year a ‘Great Heathen Army’ arrived in East Anglia. Yes, instead of raiding the  Vikings had now come to stay (as bosses!). 

In just a few years the ‘Great Heathen Army’ had swept all before it,  conquering the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms one by one until only Wessex was left.  But that was where the conquest was halted, thanks to the only English  monarch to earn the sobriquet ‘Great’ – Alfred. He regained much of England  and converted the leader of the Viking army to Christianity. 

So the Vikings settled with the half of England that they still controlled, to be  known as the ‘Danelaw’, and took control. This meant striking coins for a  society based on trade, and the first Anglo-Viking coins were imitations of  Alfred’s coins – copyright was yet to be invented! 

A tiny number are known of the Viking leader Guthrum, struck under the  name ‘Athelstan’, which was the Christian name given him when he agreed to  be baptized after Alfred defeated him at the battle of Eddington. 

The Vikings of East Anglia struck coins to commemorate a local saint, Edmund,  only a few years after seizing the kingdom. This was quite ironic as Edmund  had been the pious Anglo-Saxon king of East Anglia who had resisted the  Vikings until, in 869, they famously martyred him. Less than 30 years later, they  were commemorating his sainthood on coins!

St. Edmund memorial pennies are not too rare, and even halfpennies  occasionally turn up. The original issues must have run into hundreds of  thousands, if not millions. 

St Edmund memorial penny

Further north, in York, the Viking kings of Northumbria also struck their own  money. Like the St. Edmund pennies, the early ones don’t exhibit a great deal  of artistic imagination – a ‘patriarchal’ or a large cross on one side, and a small  cross on the other. But later issues featured more martial themes – swords,  bows and arrows, ravens (birds sacred to the god of war, Odin), and a symbol  of Thor’s hammer. The message they were trying to get across is obvious! 

A Viking coin bearing the image of a raven
A York coin showing a sword and a Thor’s hammer
Another York coin showing a patriarchal cross on the reverse and the name ‘Cnut’, who is an otherwise unknown Viking leader.

The Viking dominance in the Danelaw was always under attack and, in 954, the  last Viking king of York (the intimidatingly-named Eric Bloodaxe) was killed.  From that point on the Danelaw was ruled by Kings of England. But that  certainly wasn’t the end of the Viking story. 

Fast forward a few decades and we come to the disastrous reign of Aethelred  II, nicknamed the ‘Unready’. His advisers either weren’t very good, or  downright traitorous, and Aethelred’s government lurched from one  disastrous policy decision to another. Deja-vu, anyone? 

His policy of paying the Vikings to go away was only partially-successful. In that  they went away, but then came back for more money. Aethelred seldom  fought off the attackers, but when he died his son, Edmund Ironside, proved  that the martial spirit was not completely dead in Anglo-Saxon society. He  fought at least two battles with the Vikings, inflicting heavy defeats. 

Unfortunately he didn’t last long; when he was sitting on the ‘toilet’ (a hole  dug over a large pit!) an assassin, probably one of his father’s more  treacherous courtiers, crept into the large hole beneath the ‘toilet’ and killed  him with an upwards sword thrust. Makes me cringe to even think about it! 

Edmund’s rival, the Danish king Cnut, became king of England too. He was a  fair-minded and just ruler, whose coinage of silver pennies is not rare, and  displays artistic merit as well as exclusively Christian themes – signs of pagan  worship were long gone.

Penny of Cnut
Another penny of Cnut

His sons, Harold I and Harthacnut, had very short reigns by contrast, and their  coins are much rarer. Stylistically, they were mostly a continuation of their  father’s coins. 

That marks the end of the Viking coinage in England, unless you include the  Normans (descended from Viking settlers in the north of France, hence the  name ‘Normandy’..). 

Meanwhile the Vikings had also conquered large areas of Ireland and what  would become Scotland. In this era Scotland consisted of a few small, feuding  kingdoms. No coinage existed in Scotland until well after the Viking period, but  in Ireland the Vikings of Dublin minted coins. 

Dublin, by the late 10th century, had become a major trading centre. The Viking  leaders who held this city styled themselves ‘kings’ and issued their own  coinage. The silver pennies were degenerate copies of the contemporary  Aethelred pennies, with nonsensical legends. When the Irish, under Brian Boru,  evicted the Norse from Dublin, it spelt the end of coinage in Ireland for two  centuries.

Hiberno-Norse penny

In conclusion, the Viking coinages were products of their time. Frequently  using novel designs but occasionally imitative, they represent a fascinating  strand in the coinage of Europe at a time when nations were being forged from  the ruins of the past.