The coinage of the Scandinavian kingdom of York offers some remarkable insights into the politics, culture, organisation and economy of this short-lived state. The re-establishment of a mint in York c.895 after a thirty-year interval was a notable event, and the coins produced there during the first decade of operation, in the names of Kings Sigeferth and Cnut, are innovative in a number of respects, not least their designs and inscriptions. This is a large and well-organised coinage with some 40 different combinations of design. Cross motifs dominate, and the size and prominence of these leave the viewer in little doubt as to their importance to the designer. Their variety embraces the Greek cross, Cross-crosslet, Patriarchal cross, Christogram, Cross-on-steps, Small crosses or groups of four pellets in the field and Lozenge-shaped (i.e. cruciform) ‘O’s. Most of these designs do not appear to have been copied from other coin issues, but draw upon the stock of Christian iconography that was probably current in Northumbria at the time. The designs are complemented by the inscriptions. Some quote phases from the liturgy DNS DS REX, DNS DS O REX, MIRABILIA FECIT a practice not otherwise found on English coinage of the Anglo-Saxon period, although on the Carolingian coinage of Eudes (888-97) there are liturgical phrases which may have provided the inspiration for the York inscriptions. The most exceptional form of inscription, found in several types, is the arrangement of letters such that they have to be read in the order top-bottom-left-right, i.e. in a sequence that makes a sign of the cross. This occurs on no other coinage in any country or period, but it is paralleled on the Ruthwell Cross and in early medieval Italian art. The dominance of the Christian theme in design and legends and the energy and innovation with which it is presented suggests that this was a deliberate and important feature of the coinage. But who was responsible and what was the intention behind it? This is an overtly royal coinage, and its economic significance was such that the Scandinavian kings would not readily have alienated their right to control the mint. Yet it is reasonable to suppose that the archbishop both influenced the general policy and advised specifically on the designs. Indeed, the very survival of his office through the Scandinavian conquest and Archbishop Wulfhere’s documented associations with the York kings shows that the Church had a role in the Viking strategy. That is not to say that the coinage shows that the Scandinavians of York had been thoroughly converted by the late ninth century, but it does suggest that they recognised the political advantage of embracing one of the principal tenets of Western states in order that they might be accepted by their Anglo-Saxon, British and Carolingian neighbours.
A development is noted between the earliest coin production, the gold issues - when the coins conformed to the well-established Merovingian prototype of bust and cross - and the later Silver Series (c. 710-750), a time of great inventive freedom, with over a hundred different designs. From the earliest phases of production, Anglo-Saxon designs are outstanding for their great elegance and wormanship. A correspondence between fine metalwork, manuscript illumination and coin design is evident, with patterns recalling favourite techniques such as cloisonné work or favouring the repetition of cross patterns as seen on illuminated carpet pages, which are believed to be devotional.
A remarkable change is observed in the Secondary phase, the Silver Series. The production has fewer crosses among its designs for reverses, however, these are very complex patterns formed by interlace and count on our visual awareness in recognising more than one cross in the design. One can in fact focus on subsidiary crosses made up by extra large pellets, representing the Five Wounds of Christ, or by ‘rosettes’ under the arms of the main crosses. It is argued that these ‘rosettes’ are actually conventional representations of bunches of grapes, so that it is suggested that the iconography of the coins presents a sophisticated double image of Salvation through the cross and the Eucharist alluded to by the bunches of grapes. This concept is also apparent in the vine-scroll of the Lowther cross.
The iconography of many of the coins of the Silver Series can be easily paralleled amongst the surviving sculptural heritage of Anglo-Saxon England, and in particular amongst the high crosses, not only in the interlace, as already mentioned, but in the many birds and animals finding food and refuge amongst the coils of vine-scrolls, as well as with human figures. In some cases one can even observe a precise correspondence between the two sides of a coin and the imagery of the high crosses. It is suggested that the coins functioned as ‘chips off the Rood’, miniature reproductions of well-known and liked motifs, possibly chosen on account of their auspicious connotations (as in the case of the bird-in-vine motif), and redemptive significance. Rather like relics, their diminutive size and reduced iconography did not impair the apotropaic power of the whole cross, and although coins are not themselves shaped like crosses, the fact that they so obviously carry such imagery testifies to the centrality of the Cross in Anglo-Saxon England.
A change of mood, as far as the coinage is concerned, is detected in the dramatic change apparent in the new coinage of King Offa ((757-96): here one can find many crosses, but these are now mere patterns and variations on standardised designs rather than witnesses to a great age of faith.