Sunday - 21 December 2014

The coin that gives clues to the murder of an Anglo-Saxon king

20 June 2014Written by Tom Derbyshire

The name Æthelberht and the title REX on an Anglo-Saxon penny just sold in London may provide a vital clue to a royal murder.

It relates to the East Anglian king who is thought to have suffered a gruesome end at the order of the Mercian King Offa, and the 1200-year-old coin certainly created a lot of interest at Dix Noonan Webb on June 11.

Bidders in the room, on the internet and commission bids pushed the price up rapidly from its £17,000 starting point to a final price of £65,000, way above the estimate of £15,000-20,000.

The penny was found in a Sussex field by Darrin Simpson, a pest control specialist who has been a metal detectorist for 12 years, when he was hurrying to shelter from a hailstorm at the undisclosed site and picked up a signal. Despite the appalling weather he stopped, dug down six to eight inches and found the penny which he immediately realised dated from Saxon times.

He contacted the Early Medieval Corpus of Coin Finds at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and the full importance of his discovery was revealed. The coin is only the fourth ever found from the reign of Æthelberht II, a shadowy figure who ruled East Anglia in the late 8th century. The other three are all in museums and have a different design - this coin is the first to have Æthelberht's name and the title REX on the same side.

Death of a King

Little is known about Æthelberht II's reign, but stories about his piety and his gruesome end ordered by Offa have survived down the centuries.

His reign over the kingdom of East Anglia is thought to have begun in 779. Fifteen years later in 794 he reluctantly agreed to marry Eadburh, Offa's daughter, and set off to visit her at the Mercian king's villa at Sutton Walls in Herefordshire.

Offa's queen Cynethryth persuaded her husband to have their guest killed and Æthelberht was seized, bound and beheaded. According to medieval legend, Æthelberht's severed head later fell off a cart and, after being found in a ditch, restored a blind man's sight. The dead king was declared a saint and became the focus of a religious cult in East Anglia. Many parish churches in Norfolk and Suffolk are still dedicated to him.

The coin auctioned at DNW may have been one of the reasons for Æthelberht's terrible end. The king is believed to have struck the other three known coins from his reign with the approval of Offa, his much more powerful neighbour. However, this penny looks like an act of defiance by the increasingly ambitious Æthelberht.

The fact that his name and the title REX (King) appear on the same side of the coin may have demonstrated a degree of independence that was simply too much for Offa and Cynethryth to bear and they decided to kill him.

 

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