7th century Runic Gold from Suffolk

Early Medieval runic gold coins are very rare. One type, a shilling or thrymsa found in East Anglia, is known from only two examples (plus a broken contemporary plated forgery). Dating to about 660-70, in the "Trophy" series (the earliest East Anglian coinage), it is known as the 'Runic Reverse' or ‘Runic Ring-Bearer’ shilling (Marsden 2016, Marsden & Pol 2020). The example shown here was found in 1998 by a detectorist near East Bergholt, Suffolk (about 25 km from Sutton Hoo) and is registered with the Fitwilliam Museum's Early Medieval Coin Finds. The other known example was found near Billockby, Norfolk.

The obverse shows the head of an emperor facing left with a floating cross in front and above, and a nine-rayed starburst with two connected rings and a slightly disconnected third (with attached line) below. The floating cross on this coin is particularly reminiscent of Constantine's vision (as recounted in "Life of Constantine" by Eusebius) before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (28 October 312) which marked the beginning of Constantine's conversion to Christianity. I imagine that this story would have been useful in the conversion of pagans. Marsden (2016) suggested that the three rings could represent the traditional ring-giving role of the early medieval Lord, as observed in Beowulf (Seamus Heaney translation), "They stretched their beloved lord in his boat, laid out by the mast, amidships, the great ring-giver." 

The nine rays of the starburst may be significant given the nine worlds in the Norse cosmology later recorded by Snorri Storluson in 13th century Iceland, a significance perhaps shared in Anglo-Saxon culture. Price (2020, p. 215) elaborated further on the numerous appearances of the number in Norse mythological tales. Examples include the nine daughters of the sea deities Aegir and Rán, the nine mothers of Heimdall, the nine thralls of Braugi, the nine attendants of Menglod and the nine protective charms of Gróa. Odin has eighteen (twice nine) spells and hung on the tree in self-sacrifice for nine nights. Thrivaldi, the giant slain by Thor, had nine heads and there are many more instances. Perhaps the most relevant is that in Valhöll, every ninth night, eight gold rings "drip" from Draupnir, Odin's great gold ring (making nine in all), each one of the same weight and size as the original. It should be noted, however, that similar starburst designs in some of the non-runic (and perhaps later) "substantive type" coins of Marsden (2016) display seven rays rather than nine.

The reverse of the coin has a runic inscription around a wreath within which is a trophy with two small crosses beneath and three circular features (derived from two shields and a breastplate in the Roman originals) above. This novel composition is based on a combination of two reverses seen on Roman coins. The first is the trophy, known as far back as coins of Julius Caesar (46-45 BCE) and also on the much later VIRTVS EXERCIT nummi (Speed 2021). The second component of the design is the VOT XX in wreath votive type follis coins which were minted for Constantine I, Crispus, Licinius and Constantine II. The runic inscription surrounding the wreath is as follows:  [–]ᛚᛏᚩᛖᛗᚻᚷ, representing LTOEDGH, which does not have an obvious meaning. 

Metcalf (1993) linked the ‘Trophy’ series to the consecration of Medeshamstede Abbey (Peterborough) in the mid 660s, at which witnesses (including king Wulfhere, first Christian king of all Mercia) attested the charter ‘with their finger on Christ’s cross’. However, the find-spots for the issue in the coastal East Anglia area (especially in the vicinity of Ipswich) and the combination of runic text and ring iconography on the two known "runic ring-bearer" coins seem inconsistent with that suggestion. The design seems rather to represent the king as both ring-giver of earlier tradition and as Christian lord. The use of runes is not in itself an indication of a pagan context, as illustrated by the runic inscriptions on St Cuthbert's coffin in Durham, which is thought to date to 698. The Christogram and the names of Matthew, Mark and John on the wooden coffin are rendered in runes.

The East Anglian king at the time this coin was issued would have been a member of the Wuffinga dynasty. Æthelhere (who reigned 643-655) had joined with the pagan Penda of Mercia in an attack on Northumbria in 655, but the Northumbrian Oswiu and his much smaller army were victorious at the battle of the Winwaed (15 November 655). Penda was killed together with nearly all his warlords, Æthelhere included. Æthelhere was succeeded by his brother Æthelwold and this coin is likely to date from the reign of Æthelwold's successor, Ealdwulf (king from ca 664-713). According to Bede, Ealdwulf recalled that when he was very young he had seen Rædwald's temple which contained both Christian and pagan altars. The powerful Rædwald was the fourth ruler to hold imperium over other southern Anglo-Saxon kingdoms as "bretwalda" and was the first king of the East Angles to convert to Christianity. He was Ealdwulf's great-uncle. Ealdwulf was also the nephew of Abbess Hild of Whitby. The spectacular Sutton Hoo ship burial is thought likely to be that of Rædwald or one of his successors.

I wonder if the runic ring-bearer shilling dates from the beginning of the East Anglian "Trophy" series. It nicely encapsulates the tension and sometimes coexistence between Christian and pagan traditions during the 7th century as the conversion progressed. In this it joins Bede's account of Rædwald's temple and the character of the Sutton Hoo ship burial. This pattern would recur about 250 years later following the Viking conquest of eastern England in the 860s, with an evocative example being early 10th century (ca 915) York pennies issued in the name of Saint Peter, but displaying a Thor's hammer beneath a sword. A further spectacular example is the stone cross at Gosforth, Cumbria, with its scenes from pagan mythology, dating to between about 920 and 950.


Abramson, T. 2022. Gold Coins of Anglo-Saxon England.

Bede (1910). The ecclesiastical history of the English nation. Translated by Stevens, John. London: J.M. Dent. OCLC 1042965355.

Blackburn, M. 1998. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. National Art Collections Fund 1998 Review, 90.

Marsden, A. B. 2004.'South Walsham’, Medieval Archaeology XLVIII, 241-3.

Marsden, A. 2016. East Anglia’s earliest issues; the Trophy type shillings. Cæaromagus 120

Marsden, A. & Pol, A. 2020. The West Norfolk Hoard: East Anglia's trophy type thrymsas and Anglo-Saxon nummular brooches. Norfolk Archaeology XLVIII (2020), 394–422

Metcalf, D.M. 1993. Thrymsas and Sceattas in the Ashmolean Museum, 3 vols.

Naismith, R. 2017. Medieval European Coinage, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Vol. 8: Britain and Ireland (c. 400-1066).

Price, N. 2020. Children of Ash and Elm. Penguin Books Ltd.

Woods, A.R. 2021. The production and use of coinage in East Anglia 500-800, in BNJ 91.

Speed, L. 4th May 2021. https://finds.org.uk/counties/blog/coin-relief-43-virtvs-exercit-nummi/ 


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