An incredibly rare collection of 12th century silver pennies was recently unearthed by an unnamed metal detectorist exploring near the village of Wymondham in the county of Norfolk in eastern England. This valuable cache of coins included seven pieces minted during the reign of King Stephen, an ancestor of William the Conqueror, and two more dated to the reigns of Stephen’s successors, Henry II and III. The discovery of pennies dating back to the time of King Stephen is especially notable, as these silver pieces are among the hardest-to-find of all medieval coins.
The coins the detectorist found were not all intact. The silver pieces from King Stephen’s time included two whole pennies, three cut halfpennies and two cut quarter pennies, while the collection included two cut quarters from pennies minted during the reigns of the two Henrys. Despite the dismemberment the silver pieces, all had value during their time, as a common 12th century laborer would generally earn between one and two pennies for a day’s work.
More Change Than Treasure
The discovery of this remarkable collection of ultra-rare coins was announced by numismatist (coin expert) Adrian Marsden from the Norfolk Historic Environment Service. In an interview with the BBC, he expressed his opinion that the coins minted during King Stephen’s time had been carried together inside a coin purse, while the other two silver pieces had been lost separately at a later time by another individual.
“I suspect this is a purse loss because you’ve got chopped halves and quarters,” he stated. “With a hoard, you hide the best pieces you’ve got.”
The purse contained cut pennies such as this one. (Royal Institution of Cornwall)
In actuality, these cut coin pieces hark back to a time when England experienced serious monetary deflation, meaning coins were scarce and people were desperate. It was the impact of the Norman Conquest of 1066 that damaged England’s “very monetized and sophisticated economy… setting the country back at least 100 years,” Marsden noted, making valuable metals like silver and gold difficult to obtain.
With currency in short supply in the 11th and 12th centuries, pure silver pennies were crudely chopped into pieces of various sizes as a way to “reinflate” the money supply (put more money in circulation). Because new coins weren’t yet being minted in significant quantities during King Stephen’s 12th century kingship, the newly discovered coins are an unusual and therefore valuable discovery, even in their less-than-pristine condition.
Who Was King Stephen of England?
Despite being born and raised in the county of Blois, France, King Stephen was crowned king of England in 1135. In addition to being the grandson of the legendary William the Conqueror, he was also the nephew of the prior king, Henry I, who had actually expressed his desire that his daughter the Empress Matilda replace him after his passing. But intrigue in the court prevented that from happening, as enough powerful elites supported Stephen’s secret plan to seize the throne that he was able to jump in line ahead of Matilda to become the new monarch after Henry I’s death (much to the outrage of Matilda and the deceased kings most immediate family, naturally).
King Stephen, by unknown artist, held in the National Portrait Gallery, London. (Public Domain)
Having ascended to the crown under a cloud of controversy, King Stephen’s 19-year reign as England’s head of state shared the characteristics of a storyline from Game of Thrones, missing only the dragons and other supernatural elements.
Stephen’s time as king was marked by upheaval and chaos, so much so that this period of English history came to referred to by historians as ‘The Anarchy.’ Matilda was bitter about the duplicity that had denied her the throne, and she led a rebellious army that challenged King Stephen for control of England continuously throughout most of his reign. The two sides in the conflict traded successes on the battlefield, and for a while it appeared Matilda would emerge from the war victorious.
After a disastrous defeat in the Battle of Lincoln in 1141, Stephen was dethroned and taken prisoner, and Matilda rushed to London to take his place as monarch. But Matilda was rejected by most of the public, and by the nobility in particular, who resented her efforts to thwart their will. Eventually the tides of the war turned, and Stephen’s forces regained the upper hand, after which he was released from custody and returned to the throne, where he remained until his death in 1154.
In truth, Stephen’s reign was undermined by more than just the attacks against him by his spiteful cousin Matilda. By all accounts Stephen had an affable and likeable personality, but he was a lightweight politically, a pampered and spoiled aristocrat who lacked the vision, intelligence and toughness necessary to be a decisive and effective king. Consequently he was dominated by noblemen who exploited his weakness, and used their influence in the court to enrich themselves at the expense of the small farmers and laborers who comprised the majority of the population. It was this latter group that was forced to cut pennies into smaller pieces to survive the economic hardship of the times, much of which could be traced to Stephen’s ineptitude.
Referring to the actions of both his enemies and supposed allies, a historical text known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle described Stephen’s monarchy thusly:
“In the days of this King there was nothing but strife, evil and robbery, for quickly the great men who were traitors rose against him.”
Ultimately, his inability to rein in the nobles assured he would retain his position as king, as his puppet masters supported him in his battles against Matilda to ensure she would not disrupt their supremacy.
When King Stephen died, more intrigue followed. Rather than one of his own heirs, it was Matilda’s son Henry who took Stephen’s place, much to the chagrin of those who had long opposed Matilda’s familial claim to the throne. But Stephen had agreed to this arrangement in the 1153 Treaty of Wallingford, which had formally ended England’s ongoing civil war and included Matilda’s acknowledgement that Stephen was the rightful king.
Given how quickly Stephen passed away after this treaty was signed, it seems Matilda and her family prevailed in the end, and she was given the satisfaction of watching her heir attain the royal position that had been denied her 19 years earlier. In fact her son Henry II was the first of 14 kings who served over three centuries representing the House of Plantagenet, a royal line created by the marriage of Empress Matilda and Geoffrey, the count of Anjou, who passed away in 1151.
A Timeless Treasure of the Crown
As of now, the final fate of the recently discovered coins has yet to be decided. As required by UK law they will be the subject of a treasure inquest, which is a type of investigation designed to determine whether newly discovered historical artifacts deserve to be recognized as national treasures.
If the ‘treasure’ designation is awarded—and that seems likely in this case, because of the rarity of coins dating back more than 800 years—the silver pennies will be declared property of the Crown, after which they will be put on display at a museum somewhere in the Norfolk region. The detectorist and the owner of the land where the coins were found would split the reward for this discovery, and in this case the reward should be quite handsome given the rarity and antiquity of the coins, which were minted less than 100 years after the Norman Conquest that changed English history forever.
Top image: One of nine medieval coins found in 2019 metal detecting rally. Source: Royal Institution of Cornwall
By Nathan Falde
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