Take a walk down through Lydford and you will see a street sign that says, “Silver Street” which might seen a trifle odd – see ill. 1 here. But the very name is an indicator to exactly how important the settlement of Lydford once was. Why should the street be named after a metal? To answer that question, Room, 1992, p.95 explains that in many cases where streets are called ‘Silver’ it, “refers to the minting of money”.
Ok, so there was a mint at Lydford, but where, when, and why? The exact location of the mint is unknown, the only evidence being the old street name. When and why can be answered by the fact that by around AD911 the settlement of Lydford was a Saxon burgh. The origins of the burgh lies rooted in the defensive measures taken by Alfred and his son Edward against the Danes in Wessex. Sir Frank Stenton (1971: p.264) describes the scheme whereby no village was more than 20 miles from a fortress, which formed a unit in a network of national defences, twenty miles representing a day’s march. These fortresses or burghs varied in size and design, they were maintained and garrisoned by men living in the surrounding countryside. Wormald (Campbell, 1991: pp.152-3) states that many burghs conformed to a common town-plan consisting of back streets running parallel to the main street with other streets intersecting at right angles and a street around the inside of the wall .- see ill. 2 here. He also notes that many burghs were planned not only for defence but also settlement and commerce. There were 4 burghs in Devon; Lydford, Exeter, Halwell and Pilton. The consensus is clear regarding the first documentary evidence of the settlement and that is in the Burghal Hidage. Haslam (2004: On-line source) notes that the Burghal Hidage is the name given by W.F. Maitland in 1897 to a document composed in the early 10th century. Loyn (1991: p.140) describes this document as being written between AD911 and AD919 , it gives a list of burghs in Wessex and lists the Hidage of each burgh.
It is thought that by the early 970’s there were around forty active mints in England, Loyn, p.125. Devon had four mints of which Lydford was the last to be established and began producing coins c. AD973. It has been suggested that the actual mint was not centred in one building but spread around several workshops which would have been located in the more larger houses of the burgh. These coins were made from silver and have become known as ‘Lydford Pennies’ – see ill. 3 here. It is assumed that the silver was mined locally as documents show the existence of latter day silver mines – see ill. 4 here, thus proving the natural occurrence of the ore in the locality. Allan, 2002, p.17, estimated that during the period the life of the Lydford mint around about 1.5 million coins were struck – see ill. 5 here.
The coins were minted by a man known as a moneyer and were struck between two iron dies. One bearing the obverse design and the other the reverse design. The moneyers had to purchase their dies from the Crown which acted as a method of controlling coin production and usage, Allan, 2002, p.10. In around the year AD973 king Edgar proclaimed that all coins in current circulation were to be demonetised and recalled. These were then melted down and re-struck as uniform pennies which would remain in circulation for six years (this was later shorten to three years). To control this process more mints were established and the coin dies produced at a central place. These new coin dies had the name of the moneyer and the mint where it was used incorporated into the coin legend, Laing, 1979, p.158. By very dint of this it is possible in certain cases to track the careers of the moneyers. For example, it’s known from the coins that around 983 the moneyer at Totnes was Called Hunwine. As Anglo Saxon names go, Hunwine was a seldom used name which is why his movements can be traced with some certainty – see ill. 6 here. In around 990 he moved from Totnes to the Exeter mint and in addition minted coins at Ilchester. The moneyship at Watchet then became vacant which lead to him leaving Exeter and moving there. Over the next 25 years his skills become known and he also began minting additional coins at Axbridge, Lydford and once again at Exeter. This arrangement must have involved a lot of travelling because from Watchet it would have been a journey of some 40 miles to get to Ilchester and 75 to Lydford. His last coin appears to have been struck at Lydford in about 1025 which meant his career of moneyer lasted around 40 years, finally ending when he was in his late 50’s or 60’s, Allan, p.20.
Again from the coins that have been found it is possible to draw a list of other moneyers working at Lydford and also the different spellings of the place-name – see ill. 7 here. Although in addition to this list, Allan includes; Ælfstan, Æthelraed, Æelstan, Beorhtwine, Edric, Edwine, Hunwine, and Vikingr, p.19. It is estimated that today around 400 coins survive that bear the Lydford mint signature. Date-wise they range from the end of Edgar’s reign, into Edward’s, Æthelred II’s, Cnut’s, Harold I’s, and Edward the confessor’s reigns which covers the period c.973 – c. 1050, Allan, p.11. It is suggested that during the period of between 973 and 1066, Lydford ranked 34th amongst the English mints, this has been estimated by the number of known coins, Allan, p.17. Lydford Pennies had a wide circulation with single finds and hoards being discovered in Finland, Russia, Poland, Northern Germany, and Ireland, but by far the greatest concentration comes from Scandinavia, especially Sweden. Oddly enough, very few Lydford coins have been found in Britain and even stranger, as yet none in Devon. One was found at Wedmore in Somerset, another was found at St. Lythans in south Wales. Others have been found at Mawgan Porth in Cornwall and London with a recent hoard being discovered in Eastern England. Today, it is estimated that the only examples of Lydford Pennies to be seen in Britain are 21 in the British Museum, 1 in the National Museum of Wales, 7 in the Exeter Museum and 4 hanging up in the lounge bar of the Castle Inn at Lydford.
But why should so many Lydford Pennies be found in Scandinavia? Simply one word – Danegeld. In theory this was a ‘tax’ or ‘tribute’ exacted by the Vikings to ensure ‘peace’ during the reign of Æthelred II. Or in other words it was extortion money paid to the Vikings in the hope that they would refrain from raiding and pillaging the Saxon lands. This resulted in many of the coins being taken back to Scandinavia by the raiders. Laing, p.139, estimates that during the year of 991, Æthelred paid 22,000 lbs. of gold and silver to the Danes to ensure a peaceful existence. Interestingly enough, this very expensive protection racket was not the most water-tight agreement Æthelred entered into and certainly it didn’t do an awful lot for Lydford. The Anglo Saxon Chronicles states the following:
“997. Here in this year the raiding-army travelled around Devonshire into the mouth of the Severn, and there raided, both in Cornwall and in Wales and in Devon; then they went up at Watchet, and wrought great harm there by burning and by slaughtering of men, and after that turned back around Penwith Tail to the south side, and then turned into the mouth of the Tamar, and then went up until they came to Lydford, and burned and killed everything that they met, and burned down Ordwulf’s monastery at Tavistock, and brought indescribable war-booty with them to the ships“, Swanton, 2003, p.131.
As this scheme did not work too well Æthelred decided that on St. Brice’s day (13th November 1002) all the Danes living in England were to be massacred. Unfortunately having stuck his hand in the bee’s nest he then had to reap the vengeful anger of the Vikings. This left the only option of raising an army and fighting, the money coming from a new tax called the Haregeld. Sadly, Æthelred was defeated by Cnut who then became king of England, once the fighting was over he too began a frantic period of minting coins in order to pay his troops. Some of which took the English coins and returned home to Scandinavia which was another way the coins arrived on foreign shores. Today, the archaeologists have excavated the hoards and placed them in their museums, I say if the Greeks want their Elgin Marbles back then Devon wants their Lydford Pennies back – or a few of them at the very least!
Usually currency of any kind goes hand in hand with forgery but during the Saxon period this was a rare occurrence. Laing, pp. 159 – 9, explains how the silver coins of the day had a greater purchasing power above the face value of the silver which prevented them being melted down. However, ‘coin clipping’ became a common practice, this was where tiny pieces of coin were trimmed off in the hope that the reduction in weight was passed off as normal wear and tear. Once enough clippings had been amassed they would be melted down and sold as silver or in some cases gold. In order to prevent this a ‘long cross’ was placed into the design of the coin – see ill. 8 here. This meant that as the arms of the cross stretched to the edge of the coin so it would be easier to tell if it has any pieces clipped off. The long cross design of coin was introduced at Lydford around AD997.
So if the coins were so valuable what in Saxon times could you buy with a Lydford Penny? It is suggested that one silver penny was about the going rate for a peasant’s days work. A sheep would have cost between 3 and 5 pennies and a cow 10 pennies which meant a peasant had to work for 10 days to buy a cow. In comparison, the average daily wage for the UK in 2005 was £28,258 for full time workers, this equates out to around about £108.68 per day. In September 2006 the market price of a milking Friesian cow was £637.80 which means today a ‘peasant’ would have to work for 6½ days to buy a cow. So, in theory, you could either say that wages haven’t improved that much over the past 1,000 years or a milking cow is not worth as much as she used to be.
The other interesting point is that as mentioned above, in the year AD 973, king Edgar (who was a Saxon or modern day European) introduced the ‘single currency’, today, 1,033 years later Europeans (namely the E. U.) are once again trying to impose a ‘single currency’ on us – what is it with these Europeans that makes them want to standardise everything?
If at any time you find yourself in Lydford, take a stroll down the Saxon streets and you may here the ringing of an old moneyer as he mints his coins. As I have noted, if you want to see an actual Lydford Penny, pop into the Castle Inn where there are 4 hanging on the wall. Normally, they sell replica Lydford Pennies from behind the bar for about £2 which make nice souvenirs to remind you of a visit to a Saxon burgh and its mint.
Allan, J. 2002 The Anglo Saxon Mint at Lydford, The Devonshire Association, Vol. 134.
Campbell, J. (Ed) 1991 The Anglo-Saxons, Penguin, London.
Laing, L & J. 1979 Anglo Saxon England. Book Club Associates, Thetford
Loyn, H.R. 1991 Anglo Saxon England and the Norman Conquest, Longman, Harlow.
Room, A. 1992 The Street Names of England, Paul Watkins, Standford.
Stenton, F. Sir 1971 Anglo Saxon England, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Swanson, M. 2003 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Phoenix Press, London.