The Vikings and Money in England

An essay originally written by Roy Davies for the Viking Network for Schools and based on the book by Glyn Davies on monetary history.

Davies, Glyn. A history of money from ancient times to the present day, 3rd ed. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2002. 720 pages. Paperback: ISBN 0 7083 1717 0. Hardback: ISBN 0 7083 1773 1.

Among the results of the Viking invasions of England was an enormous increase in the production of coins. Many of them ended up in Scandinavia. Indeed, far more English coins from that period have been found in Scandinavia than in England! Furthermore, when Scandinavian rulers started to mint their own coins they copied English designs. Today coins are just small change but in those days they could buy much more.

Coins had been used in Britain when it was part of the Roman empire, and even earlier, but after the departure of the Romans early in the 5th century and the invasions of the Anglo-Saxons from across the southern part of the North Sea, coins ceased to be used as money in England for nearly 200 years. Then the Saxons started to produce coins. Most of them were made of silver and they are called sceattas. The word sceat originally meant "treasure" like the word skat in Danish or skatt in Norwegian and Swedish. Old English resembled the languages spoken in Scandinavia much more closely than modern English does!

Where do pennies come from?

Just before the first of the Viking raids on England the Saxons began minting a new type of silver coin with a much finer, more attractive design. These coins were called "pennies". Some historians believe that the penny (or pennig in Old English) was named after a minor Saxon king called Penda. Others believe that the penny, like the Scandinavian words for "money", got its name from the pans into which the molten metal for making coins was poured. In German money there are 100 Pfennigs in a Deutschemark and it is thought that Pfennig might come from Pfanne, the German for "pan". The Danish word for a pan is pande but in old Danish a small pan was called penninge, from which the word for penge meaning "money" possibly comes.

Another theory is that penny, Pfennig, penge, the English word pawn (in the sense of a pledge), the German word Pfand and the Scandinavian word pant all share a common origin. Which theory is correct? We will probably never know for certain.

Paying for war or paying for peace?

Wars cost a great deal of money. Alfred the Great, who prevented the Vikings from conquering all England, increased the number of mints to at least 8 so that he would have enough coins to pay his soldiers and to build forts and ships. The kings after Alfred needed more and more mints to pay for defence. Athelstan had 30 and in order to keep control of them all he passed a law in 928 stating that there was to be only one single type of money or currency in England, and ever since there has been just one. This was many centuries before other major European countries such as France, Germany and Italy had their own national currency.

Instead of fighting the invaders, some English kings preferred to pay the Vikings to leave them in peace. These payments were called Danegeld (meaning "Dane debt" or Dane payment). The Vikings collected tribute in other countries too. In Ireland in the 9th century they imposed a tax and slit the noses of anyone unwilling or unable to pay, and that is the origin of the English phrase "to pay through the nose" meaning to pay an excessive price.

The English king who paid the most Danegeld was Aethelred II. The name "Aethelred" meant the same as ædel råd in modern Danish - "noble advice". However, he was very stubborn and was given the nickname "Unraed" which meant "no advice", more or less the same as uden råd in Danish. Languages change slowly over the years and when the word "unraed" was no longer used in English his nickname was changed to "Unready" which does not mean quite the same thing, though he was unready to listen to advice!

Aethelred gave orders for the massacre of all Danes living in England on St. Brice's day 13 November 1002. His orders were not obeyed everywhere and they made the Vikings determined to conquer England completely. Aethelred hoped they would be satisfied with money but they kept coming back for more. During his reign 75 mints were active at the same time and in order to pay Danegeld nearly 40 million pennies were produced! Finally Aethelred decided to fight and he introduced a new tax to pay for a larger army. This tax was called heregeld. The meaning of "here" was "army" like hær in modern Danish. However Aethelred was completely defeated and the Viking's leader, Cnut, became king of England, and later king of Denmark and Norway as well.

Cnut paid his army 20 million pennies before sending the soldiers home and therefore the mints were very busy again. They were busy in peacetime too because England prospered under his reign. Many of Cnut's coins have been found in Scandinavia, mostly in hoards consisting of mixtures of coins of different types. If these coins had been tribute, like Danegeld, they would have been mainly all of the same type. The mixture of coins found in the hoards is thought to be a sign that trade between England and Scandinavia flourished in that period of peace.

P.S. This article was written for the Viking Network for Schools by Roy Davies whose interest in monetary history comes from his father and whose interest in Scandinavian history comes from his mother who is Danish.


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Roy Davies - Last updated 25 May 2005.