Though it is still hotly debated if a historical Arthur ever existed, the legends about him are some of the most compelling in the Western World. The fanciful myths of Mallory, de Troyes, and other later writers are certainly not accurate; Arthur and his knights would not have been beautifully attired in silks and plate armor. However, a real person might exist behind the legends. The basic picture is of a warlord keeping order in 5th century Britain, preserving the last bits of the Roman Empire on the island, and keeping back the invading Anglo-Saxons. When the Romans left the British Isles, their mint remained…and their coins.
The Romans had developed very reliable systems for governing large areas with a minimal presence. Though Britain had produced some coinage before the Romans came, local coinage would quickly have been stopped and replaced with Roman coinage. The Iceni, for instance, minted coins that are in high demand for collectors; it is unclear if their minting operations continued up until their failed revolt against the Romans in the first century AD, lead by their queen Boudicca. (Boudicca is said to be buried under Platform 10 at King’s Cross Station in London, though no proof has ever been found.) Iron Age Britain was primarily a barter economy, and coins used as status symbols, similar to the early Viking culture.
While an army may march on its stomach, it will also insist on being paid. The advance of Roman troops in Britain created an urgent need for large amounts of coinage. A great deal of coins had been brought from Rome itself, which was quickly introduced into local economies. The two precious metal coinage denominations were the gold aureus and the silver denarius. An aureus was worth 25 denarii, and was not used in most common transactions. Other coins were struck in orichalcum, copper, and bronze. According to the Omskirk & West Lancashire Numismatic Society, base metal coins “were a token coinage, in the following fixed relationship to the silver: 1 denarius = 4 sestertii = 8 dupondii = 16 asses. The as had further subdivisions called the semis, or half as, and the quadrans, or quarter as, but these, as well as the gold and silver quinarii – half aureus and half denarius – were used mainly in Rome and the more developed provinces.” This is called the Augustan monetary system.
Though a Roman soldier would have been paid one denarius per day, due to withholdings, most soldiers appear to have been paid smaller amounts in base coinage. The requirements for this amount of coinage cause the Romans to begin minting coins closer to the British Isles. The first Roman British coins were unofficial copies of the small aes. Despite not being true Roman coinage, they seem to have been accepted as currency. Countermarked coins from previous emperors were also common.
Shortly after the Iceni revolt, the Empire began minting coins at Lugdunum, Gaul (modern Lyon, France.) Coin hoards from this time period indicate that the quality of precious metal coin began to decline during Nero’s reign; before this period, republican coinage made up about half of the silver circulating in Britain.
Coinage in circulation continued to debase through the second and third centuries; during the late third century, several of the appointed rulers of western Roman lands seceded from the Empire, establishing what is known as the Gallic Empire, consisting of modern Britain, France, and Spain. These Gallic emperors struck coins, including precious metal coins, at Trier and Cologne; during the short-lived Gallic Empire, these were the primary coins entering the British Isles. (Some of these coins have the excellent name “barbarous radiates.”)
The Gallic Empire gave way to the British usurper Carausius (AD287-293) followed by Allectus (AD293-296.) Since the area was cut off from the central Roman Empire, the coin shortage became desperate, and the first identifiable British Roman mint opened in London, with a second mint following in Colchester. Carausius marked some coins during his reign with “AVGGG,” the extras “Gs” intended to refer to his “colleagues” in Rome and Byzantium.
Diocletian, however, had no intention of sharing his power, and sent Constantius Chlorus to deal with the usurpers and bring Britain back into the western Roman empire. As part of the overhaul of the empire, Diocletian also reformed the coinage of the empire. Over the next century, his coinage faded from popularity, and was replaced by lightweight silver coins like the miliarense and the siliqua. A large silver-washed bronze coin worth 20 denariiwas also in use; though the contemporary name of the coin has been lost to history, today it is referred to as the follis or nummus.
Coins entered circulation quickly in Britain, and mixed freely. The London mint proved to be too valuable to the Empire to destroy after Carausius was deposed, and continued to strike coins; coins from lands east of Gaul also made their way to the Isles.
As the Roman Empire continued to crumble, chaos rose in the British Isles. Coinage changed rapidly and continuously. Unofficial coins began to reappear, as well as overstruck coins. The unified coinage of prior centuries disappeared, and eastern coins are only rarely found in British hoards. Roman control of Britain began to be pronounced in the 4th century, and the legions of trained Roman soldiers began to pull back into the collapsing Empire. The citizens of the Isles found themselves increasingly open to predation from Anglo-Saxon and other invading forces.
The Roman army suffered a defeat from British tribes in 367, causing desertion on a large scale as invaders looted the area. Though an effort was made to refortify and rearm the British Roman forces in 369, it would prove to be the last major effort Rome would take to secure Britain. This led to a short period of peace at the end of the 4th century, but the chaos would rise again during the fifth century. It is around this time that a historical Arthur may have been present. The departing Roman forces left a power vacuum, and a populace clamoring for defense from raiders as Irish pirates from the west and Saxons from the east began to prey along the coasts. During this time, the British Isles had a good supply of gold and silver in circulation; however, it seems unlikely that silver was regularly struck after AD404, as few such coins have ever been found.
Arthur would likely have had access to these gold and silver coins; by the late fourth century, coins from the eastern empire were very rare, and probably would no longer have been in circulation. He could have used Roman coinage as it existed, or counterstamped coins for his own use. (No such coins have ever been found, of course, nor has any definitive sign of the existence of a real King Arthur.) Some late fourth century coins found in recent years have been clipped extensively; clipped coins are not common with Roman areas, and it seems that the practice developed after Roman forces retreated.
By the mid fifth century, coin usage was no longer widespread in Britain, though isolated areas may still have used them. Some sixth century sites are completely coinless; after the final fall of order in Britain, coins would not be used until Germanic settlers reintroduced them in the seventh century.