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.  

A Story of the Bunyip Ten Shilling Note of 1856

By Tony Alsop

Being an avid paper money collector my interest was piqued when I scrolled through the Noble auction catalogue July 2005. There, underneath a scratchy image of a ten shilling note I read; WINCHELSEA STORE, Stirling & Sons, Bunyip Hotel, Geelong, issued at Winchelsea, ten shillings, currency note, dated 1st Sept. 1856, (18- printed), number No.886, no watermark, wreathed value tablets in upper corners, imprint of De Gruchy & Leigh, Engrs. Geelong.

Winchelsea Store Promissory 10 Shilling Note: Image Courtesy of Noble Numismatics

Stated on the front, ‘We Promise to pay the Bearer TEN SHILLINGS Stg here or at Bunyip Hotel Geelong, for Stirling & Sons, JAS. STIRLING SENR. BUNYIP HOTEL’, in centre block background TEN SHILLINGS, signed John Stirling (Manager), black on white. Folds, some gum residue on back, minor pinholes and toning areas, otherwise good fine, extremely rare and believed unique.

Ex Dr.Nicholson Collection, Sale 49 lot 1627. Many promissory notes were issued by stores and hotels, both of which are named on this note .The prosaic “Winchelsea Store ” and the more evocative ‘Bunyip Hotel’ are names almost considered fictional . This store promissory note is of great importance being one of only a few that have survived that circulated
from this era in Victoria.

This note and its origin , presented me with the challenge to research its history, mostly because Winchelsea is of special interest to me. West of Geelong it is where my family settled in 1845, my great grandfather was employed as a shepherd by the Austin family of Winchelsea.

The most obvious starting point was with James Stewart himself. He, his wife Anne, three daughters and four sons, William, John, Thomas and Peter, arrived in Geelong on the ship Robert Benue, January 1842.
Shortly before his arrival from Scotland, several subdivisions of land were undertaken between Ashby area and Aberdeen St. in West Geelong, and was affectionately known as Little Scotland. On June 7th 1847 the Geelong Advertiser referred to it as one of the prettiest and most thriving villages in New South Wales.

James soon opened up a store in Spring St, which he and his sons occupied until gold was discovered in Ballarat in 1851, at which point, his sons Peter and Thomas took over the business. They obviously saw a need which would turn a tidy profit which lead to a covered in cart and a bullock dray to transport merchandise and flour to the miners of Ballarat. This venture earned them up to 100 pounds per trip.
In 1847 a William Arthur had applied for a publicans license, for an existing residence on the corner of Spring and Scotland Streets, but was refused, the reason given, was that the house was insufficient. However, it was soon after, that William Arthur let it be known that a license had been granted and delivered, and the Bunyip Hotel would open shortly, which it did on the 3rd march 1848.

Over the next three years, up to fifteen competing hotels opened up in the surrounding area, with eight of these being in the immediate area. The Bunyip Hotel suffered. This is when James stepped in and took over as licensee from William Arthur. The Hotel was advertised as having “good accommodation and horses carefully attended to”.

In 1853 James decided to relocate to Winchelsea, and extend his business enterprises by purchasing from the Elliott Bros. a large property, comprising of the Barwon Hotel, the Post Office store, and the Blacksmiths. With the help of his sons, John and William, he undertook the management of the Barwon Hotel ,which was by now a busy coaching stop on the corner of Main and Palmer Streets.

One can only assume that James was not a patriarch who ruled with an iron fist, as is evident by the fact that he left the Bunyip Hotel with Peter and Thomas, the Winchelsea property with William , and the named Manager on the ten shilling note is his son John. Clearly this was a man prepared to share.
The printers of the note were De Gruchy and Leigh of Geelong with little details of the printing and how many notes were actually printed, information of their history was difficult to obtain , their business shifted to Melbourne.

During this period it was legal for businesses to print their own paper money, or promissory notes, also known as Shinplasters ,they were made of flimsy paper so as they would quickly deteriorate before they could be honored. Shinplasteres were in spasmodic use in Australia as late as the 1940s.

In the 1850s Australia did not have its own currency, it was not until 1913 the first ten shilling note was printed,and it was 1910 that the first Australian coins were released, so in the 1850s all sorts of world coins and gold as a means of barter or exchange were used, so it was quite legal to have your own paper money ,or metal tokens produced.