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
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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