King Arthur’s Coins: Minting in Roman Britain

 

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.

 

Celtic_gold_stater_Iceni_tribe.jpgThe 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.

 

hadrian_denariusWhile 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.

 

800px-Llanvaches_Roman_coins

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.”)

 

antoninianus_carausius_leg4-ric_0069vThe 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.

 

 

A Brief History of the Postcard

For as long as the postal system has existed, people have been posting cards in the mail. The cards just weren’t labeled as postcards yet.

The first known “postcard” lookalike went through the mail in 1840, painted on the front and sent to English writer Theodore Hook with a penny black stamp. Rumors say he sent the card to himself as a taunt to postal workers, judging by the postal worker caricatures painted on the card.

Postcards officially happened in 1861 when H. L. Lipman bought the patent for commercially available cards. Said cards had a decorative border and not much else, allowing plenty of space for writing the address on the front and a full space on the other side for the note. Writing took priority over any pretty pictures.

1905DuPontMillpcardback

A postcard with an undivided back.

The first postcard with a printed image came in 1870. Camp Conlie, a training camp for soldiers in the Franco-Prussian war, made a lithographed design with the inscription “War of 1870. Camp Conlie. Souvenir of the National Defence. Army of Brittany”. However, these cards may have been sent in envelopes, making them less postcard-like.

The Edwardians brought postcard fads to a whole new level. They used postcards (thus renamed from “private mailing cards”) for sending information on every little thing going on in their lives, not unlike today’s text messaging and social media. This was the age of postcards with undivided backs, when people could only write on the front of the card.

An Edwardian postcard showing a little girl with a crown of flowers.

An Edwardian postcard.

During WWI postcards were popularly sent from soldiers. These “silks” were high quality cards and frequently passed from soldiers to family members as a way of greeting.

In the 1920s, dyes grew brighter and postcards became embossed to help with the new kind of ink. Humorous postcards also became very popular around this time.

Linen postcards entered the market from 1931 to 1959. Though not actually made out of linen, these cards had a linen-like texture to them. Many popular postcard companies made these at the time, like Curt Teich, E. C. Kropp, and more.

A typical British seaside postcard

A typical British seaside postcard

In the 1950s, Donald McGill and other artists made numerous successful British seaside postcards, many of which made innuendos and double entendres. The British government became concerned about Britain’s morals and made the decision to prosecute Donald McGill for obscenity. Though his postcards weren’t the most risque at the time, he was more popular than other postcard artists, making him the messenger to other risque postcard artists.

The 1980s did see a resurgence of seaside postcards with much more risque images, this time without the restrictions of the 1950s to stop their publication. Less saucy postcards of the British seaside still continue in popularity today.

In later years, postcards have become a conglomeration of subjects, with no one subject or material being more popular than the other. But postcards still stand their ground as essential tourism items and ways to say hello to loved ones in print.

World War I Silk Embroidered Postcards

Embroidered postcards made their first appearance at the 1900 Paris Exhibition. Collectors can still find these lovely cards today, though it’s difficult to find them in great condition since many have faded from being placed on window sills or displayed close to sunlight.

Embroidered postcards reached a level of popularity during WWI from 1914-1918 that would never be reached again, thanks to soldiers on duty who would send these bright, colorful cards home to loved ones.

You won’t get this level of detail from any postcards today. It was mostly French and Belgian women refugees who hand-embroidered the designs onto silk mesh, which were then sent to factories for putting on postcard material.

Many of these postcards were actually envelopes, prepped for carrying even smaller cards with sentiments like “To my dear Mother.”

Up to 10 million handmade cards were made during the war!

These postcards became very popular with British and American soldiers in France. You can clearly see the patriotic themes in the cards; almost all of them have British, French, or American flags.

Starting in 1930, machines made simpler cards with less character; the unique silks had lost their time in the sun.  But if you’re lucky you can still find and own these special historical postcards.

 

Sources:

Propaganda cards

Library of Birmingham

Vintage Blog