In the seventh century, the Anglo-Saxon monetary system transitioned from gold coins to small silver pennies, sometimes misnamed sceattas.
Under the Romans, most of Britain used the coin-based monetary system that was used across the Roman Empire. But when the Romans left, their system of coinage quickly followed them.
As the invading Anglo-Saxons began to settle and establish their own kingdoms, some started to produce gold coins either based on the old Roman designs or copied from the coins used in the Frankish kingdoms. For many kings, the minting of coins was both a status symbol and an early means of political propaganda. However, it had several serious flaws as a monetary system.
First, gold was so valuable, that even the smallest coins represented a great deal of wealth. Thus, coins could only be used in large transactions. Also, gold was very rare, and this rarity meant that coins were themselves rather rare. Between the years 640 and 670 AD, there seems to have been a movement in Anglo-Saxon coinage to use less pure forms of gold in coins. This made the coins appear paler, decreased their value, and probably increased the number that could be issued, but it still didn’t solve the underlying problems.
The First Pennies
Up to this time, no Anglo-Saxon coins had been struck in any metal besides gold. However, around the year 680 a new type of small silver coin appeared. Some have identified these coins as ‘sceattas’, but this is probably an error. More likely, sceatta was a specific measurement of a precious metal. These new coins were actually called pennies. The first Anglo-Saxon pennies carried no dates or inscriptions; they were however decorated with a wide variety of symbols including plants, animals, crosses, and human profiles. One image type that was common was of a human or animal with wild spikes of hair. These coins are now generally referred to as ‘porcupines’.
Different Varieties of Pennies
Unlike the gold coins of previous generations which have generally been discovered in hoards of many coins, the Anglo-Saxon silver pennies have more often than not been found individually. This alone speaks volumes for their wide-spread use as a form of every day currency.
Although a few of the later pennies do contain inscriptions or names of kings, it is impossible to tell when and where most of the different varieties of penny were issued. That said there seem to be so many different varieties of penny that it seems unlikely that kings were the only ones issuing them. It is possible that towns issued their own money, and it is also possible that monasteries were doing the same.