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A serpent appears on Danish coinage, and a fatal game of chess


Nap

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The political situation in the North Sea nations changed significantly in the 11th century.  England was a united entity by the early 900s, but the Viking realms of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden took a little longer.  It was not until the late 900s that these territories were truly organized into kingdoms.  Around the year 1000, a powerful ruler known as Sven "Forkbeard" had become king of Denmark and Norway, and set his sights on conquering England.  The English king, Aethelred II "the Unready", had been dealing with multiple Scandinavian raids throughout his reign.  In a moment of fear and frustration, Aethelred made the poorest decision of his many poor decisions, and ordered the death of all Danes living in England.  A slaughter followed, in what has been remembered as the "St. Brice's Day massacre".  Word of this genocide reached Denmark, and Sven, likely looking for any excuse, planned a massive retaliation invasion.  Ultimately Aethelred was deposed, and Sven won the kingdom... only to die a few weeks later.

Sven's death left his son Cnut in charge, but Cnut would have to earn it.  Aethelred returned and it wasn't until the death of Aethelred and his son Edmund, that Cnut could establish control in England.  Cnut's brother Harald was made king of Denmark, but died several years later, leaving Cnut with a North Sea Empire.

Coins of Aethelred of England are common, while coins of Sven are exceedingly rare, perhaps 3-4 known in public collections, none owned privately.  Coins of Edmund and Harald are unknown.  Coins of Cnut are common.

This is a long backstory, but I thought it was useful as these people are not household names for everyone.

So Cnut had an empire consisting of England and Denmark.  But ruling an empire, especially a multicultural empire geographically separated by water takes work, and there are always others who think they can do a better job.  So Cnut had his share of difficulties.  Both internal and external.  One of Cnut's men was a Dane called Thorkell "the Tall".  Scandinavians tended to be larger in stature than people from England or the Continent, so Thorkell must have been a real giant.  Thorkell apparently revolted against Cnut, but was subsequently forgiven and given an important job, as jarl (earl) of Denmark, to manage affairs there when Cnut was in England.  Thorkell stayed loyal but seems to have died in 1023 or so.

Thorkell's replacement as Jarl of Denmark was Ulf, Cnut's brother in law through his marriage to Cnut's sister, Estrid.  Ulf is remembered as a crafty politician.  No sooner than Cnut had left him in charge of Denmark, Cnut's young son Harthacnut was elevated to the position of co-king.  It's not clear whether this was Cnut's idea or someone else's.  Ulf, Harthacnut's regent, is likely the one who ordered coinage to be made in Harthacnut's name.  Danish coinage had been present in the name of Cnut for several years, copying contemporary and recent coinage from England.  But with Harthacnut's coinage, an entirely new national Danish coinage came on the scene.  This coinage does away with the king's portrait, and rather features a serpent on the obverse, while introducing a new reverse type with a curvilinear cross or possibly a shield on the reverse.

This is a remarkable coinage, and described as having a national character for Denmark, rather than the previous copies of English coins.  Interestingly, three types of the serpent coinage are known, coins in the name of Harthacnut, coins in the name of Cnut, and blundered coins without legible letters.  Based on the number of dies and surviving examples, the coins in the name of Harthacnut are the dominant type.  The blundered coins were probably later, and the coins in the name of Cnut might have been produced later, or by parts of the country more loyal to Cnut than his son or jarl.

It is not clear whether Jarl Ulf was actually betraying Cnut by changing the coinage and coining in the name of Harthacnut only.  But it is likely that Cnut was not pleased with this situation.  Ulf's next actions are uncertain, depending on the source.  An invasion of Norwegians and Swedes, led by their respective kings Olaf Haraldsson and Anund Jakob, attacked Denmark and Cnut was present at the battle of Helgea.  Ulf was present too, and depending on the source, he was either Cnut's second-in-command controlling the navy, or had defected and fought with the Swedes.  The Swedes used a clever tactic, they breached the dam upriver and sent a massive current straight into the Danish ships which were gathering in the harbor.  Cnut's fleet was scattered, but not severely damaged, though some of the men he had landed were drowned.  The sources suggest that it was the Swedes who won a small victory, being left in control of the field, but without causing serious harm to Cnut or his navy.  The big picture was that the invasion had failed to meet its objectives and once Cnut had regrouped, the Swedes retreated, leaving Cnut master of the North Sea.

If Ulf defected, he and Cnut were subsequently reconciled and Ulf remained in power in Denmark.  However, even if Ulf fought alongside with Cnut, something about the battle upset both men, and they would remember..

In 1027, Cnut and Ulf were at a Christmas party in Roskilde.  Both probably had too much to drink.  There was some sort of disagreement between the two men, and the next day Cnut had Ulf killed.  A number of sources discuss this, but the most colorful is Snorri Sturluson's account, written much later but full of those great details you don't get anywhere else..

Snorri wrote that Cnut and Ulf were playing chess, and Cnut tried to cheat.  Ulf was not amused and threw down the chessboard, walking away.  Apparently nobody had taught him the most important rule of chess- you always let the king win!  Anyway, Ulf got up to leave and Cnut mocked him, asking if he was running away like a coward.  Ulf, offended, foolishly said something to the king rebuking him for his retreat at Helgea and questioning his bravery.  Presumably this was a public discourse in the middle of the party.  This was a line you did not cross, you do not publicly insult the king.  Ulf might have realized his mistake when he sobered up, and gone to church to pray for forgiveness.  It didn't help.  The next day, Cnut had one of his soldiers assassinate Ulf, right in the middle of the church.

It is likely that the serpent coinage ceased after Ulf's death.  While it was somewhat prolific, it probably only lasted 4 or 5 years.

 

This was a lengthy story, and probably only minimally related to coinage, but I thought it was a fun one.

Here is an example of a serpent penny in the name of Harthacnut, by the moneyer Theodred at Lund, a Danish city that is now part of modern day Sweden.

harthacnut-serpent-1.jpg.1622e221b9ac2c58d62da9607cf139fe.jpg

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The serpent penny is an iconic viking design- what a great coin! You can see one of the few examples of coins minted in Sven Forkbeard's name here: https://vikingar.historiska.se/object_details.php?object=300522_KMK&e=no&l=en).  The earliest Danish imitations of English coins are also thought by academics to have been minted for Sven Forkbeard with later imitations minted for Cnut, even though the regnal name on the coins is Aethelred II of England or blundered. The Danish imitations of Aethelred II Long Cross type and Last Small Cross type imitations are most numerous but this example I have mules an Crux type obverse with an Intermediate Small Cross type reverse so is considered to be among the earliest of the imitative Danish coins. It has a York mint signature but is thought to have been minted at Lund - it doesn't have the jawdropping design of the later serpent penny but is very rare and one of my favourites:

Svend I Tveskaeg Penny.jpg

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Fantastic example, @Grimulfr.  I have one possible candidate, bought as an official issue, which just mmmMight be an early imitation like this, but compared to yours, the blundering is so subtle that it might as easily have been from an Anglo-Saxon die sinker on a bad day.  ...If you knew of a website that covers this, a link would be keenly appreciated.  What I have in print (in English) is decidedly fragmentary.

But speaking of iconic Viking motifs, I posted this already, but it's a fun complement to the Jörmungandr (Viking 'world serpent' https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jörmungandr).  And this time, I found some contemporary echoes in other media.  

image.jpeg.580439689cef2c7bee5f86bd7f5ffd38.jpeg

Denmark. Time of Magnus the Good.  AR Penning of Roskilde, c. 1042-1047.  (17mm, 0.85g.)

Obv.   Triquetra.  Indecipherably blundered letters in fields.

Rev.  IIOOII[...] across a diamond; ornamental dots above and below.  

(From 7 o’clock:)  [...] VOIII [...]. 

Hauberg, Magnus, 21; Cnut, 35 for the immediate prototype.

This features the triquetra, which also shows up on Swedish runestones and pennings of Harald Hardrada, funly demonstrating the cultural homogeneity across Scandinavia at this juncture.  

Triquetra on one of the Funbo Runestones (11th century), located in the park of Uppsala University.

Norwegian penny minted under Harald Hardrada (r. 1047-1066)

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triquetra)

 

Edited by JeandAcre
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12 hours ago, JeandAcre said:

Fantastic example, @Grimulfr.  I have one possible candidate, bought as an official issue, which just mmmMight be an early imitation like this, but compared to yours, the blundering is so subtle that it might as easily have been from an Anglo-Saxon die sinker on a bad day.  ...If you knew of a website that covers this, a link would be keenly appreciated.  What I have in print (in English) is decidedly fragmentary.

For the Crux type mule imitations, best starting point is probably "Some 'Northern' Variants Etc of the Crux Issue of Aethelred II", BNJ Vol.30 XVIII (1960) - available online https://www.britnumsoc.org/publications/Digital BNJ/pdfs/1960_BNJ_30_18.pdf  but the plates are not very clear.  I think the best reference would be Brita Malmer's The Anglo-Scandinavian Coinage c.995-1020 if you are able to access a copy (I don't know of an online version - please share if anyone knows of one!) as this has a full corpus of coins and die-chain analysis. 

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20 hours ago, Hrefn said:

I think this may be the obverse prototype of your penny, @Grimulfr

or close to it.image.png.8a56e33bcf45001b0b472679d2c5138f.png

 

Thanks @Hrefn - does this coin have a Crux reverse? It would be interesting to see the mint and moneyer signature.  The Crux pennies with right facing busts are thought to be the earliest of the Crux pennies and are very rare - this looks to be a "second hand" portrait which I think are the earliest.  There is a very smart hiberno-norse imitation of this type with right facing bust but I haven't heard of a scandinavian imitation with a right facing bust. 

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@Grimulfr, here is the reverse of the penny above.   image.png.0c82e123e3ac977e6a8a73d5ed4249e7.png

As you can see, the reverses are not at all alike.  I believe mine is the second Manus Dei type, moneyer is DUDA m-o CARNT for Canterbury.  But so far as the obverses go, I think it is not uncommon on imitative coins to see elements reversed as the engraver copies the prototype coin onto a die.  Your celator did a good job on the obverse inscription, only omitting two letters.   The portrait is reversed, but the cloak is not!  And I do not think he understood the diadem ties.  He very faithfully copied the dot (curl of hair?) below Ethelred”s ear, though.  

Fantastic coin, by the way.  

 

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32 minutes ago, Hrefn said:

 As you can see, the reverses are not at all alike.  I believe mine is the second Manus Dei type, moneyer is DUDA m-o CARNT for Canterbury.  But so far as the obverses go, I think it is not uncommon on imitative coins to see elements reversed as the engraver copies the prototype coin onto a die.  Your celator did a good job on the obverse inscription, only omitting two letters.   The portrait is reversed, but the cloak is not!  And I do not think he understood the diadem ties.  He very faithfully copied the dot (curl of hair?) below Ethelred”s ear, though.  

Fantastic coin, by the way.  

 

That's a nice coin @Hrefn. It looks to be a rare moneyer and mint combination for the second hand type - there are none in the EMC like this but there was one in the Magnus Collection sold by Spink (your coin?).  My coin follows a slightly later obverse design (the Crux type) where the bust points to the left, although there are a few coins which mule the second hand obverse with a Crux reverse. 

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1 hour ago, Grimulfr said:

That's a nice coin @Hrefn. It looks to be a rare moneyer and mint combination for the second hand type - there are none in the EMC like this but there was one in the Magnus Collection sold by Spink (your coin?).  My coin follows a slightly later obverse design (the Crux type) where the bust points to the left, although there are a few coins which mule the second hand obverse with a Crux reverse. 

I will have to check the Spink sale.  There was no information on provenance provided when I purchased the coin two years ago.  Though with the deep toning it has, it has probably been out of the ground for a long time, so a search for past sales records might be fruitful.  

Edit:  I found it.  Magnus collection auctioned March 2012.   Good eye, @Grimulfr

Edited by Hrefn
addendum
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On 6/28/2023 at 12:42 PM, JeandAcre said:

Many thanks, @Grimulfr, on both counts!  I'm about to go looking for Malmer online.  If a print copy wasn't scarily expensive, I'd be in the market for one.

I have copies of the following Malmer books that were written in English.  My knowledge of Swedish is not so good 😞

The Sigtuna Coinage 995-1005
The Anglo-Scandinavian Coinage 995-1020
Serpents and Crosses

The last one was just released this year.  It is a posthumous work as Brita Malmer died in 2013.  Serpents and Crosses deals with the Serpent coinage of Denmark and was my main source for this post.

If you need anything looked up in any of the above books, just let me know.

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@Nap, I was going to send you this in a second message, but then it dawned on me that it might as well go on this thread, for other people's edification.  This is the AEthelred penny I was thinking just might be an early Scandinavian or Dublin imitation.  As you can readily see, the legend blundering is decidely subtle.  What do you make of it, Holmes?  To further wallow in the obvious, if it's not even a plausible possibility, you'd have no occasion to cite Malmer.

 

image.jpeg.5431d51c72e3521618abdfd5590fb77d.jpeg image.jpeg.85bdf2fa8c61f248895e5000f41fa3f0.jpeg

Edited by JeandAcre
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This looks like SCBI 1020.1032 from the R.P. Mack collection (ex Argyll) - great provenance if so... The form of the regnal name is unusual but the lettering doesn't look retrograde and the bust looks conventional - if it's a Viking imitation, it's a good one!   

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18 hours ago, JeandAcre said:

@Nap, I was going to send you this in a second message, but then it dawned on me that it might as well go on this thread, for other people's edification.  This is the AEthelred penny I was thinking just might be an early Scandinavian or Dublin imitation.  As you can readily see, the legend blundering is decidely subtle.  What do you make of it, Holmes?  To further wallow in the obvious, if it's not even a plausible possibility, you'd have no occasion to cite Malmer.

 

image.jpeg.5431d51c72e3521618abdfd5590fb77d.jpeg image.jpeg.85bdf2fa8c61f248895e5000f41fa3f0.jpeg

 

It's not listed in Malmer's book, and it may be an English type with semi-blundered legend.

 

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