I found this coin this afternoon on the BBC History website. Click here to enlarge the coins. They are actually very detailed for their size. The coin is described as being about the size of the fingernail from the little finger. I’d say that makes them a little smaller than an American dime. Their interpretation of this coin is that it is a part of a five part series that illustrate the five senses – sight, taste, hearing, smell and touch. This coin which shows a king drinking from a chalice illustrates taste. The obverse they suggest its either a noble holding a falcon or St Oswald and his raven. I don’t know about coins themed on the five senses. They don’t show any of the other coins in this hypothetical series. They point to the large knot on the headband of the king as being typical “imaginative” art from the Anglo-Saxon period. It looks to me like an attempt to incorporate some typical knotwork onto the small coin.
This coin has prominent crosses on both sides which makes me think it is more than just a ‘five senses’ series. It is interesting that this coin does not have the mark of a moneyer like other Anglo-Saxon coins. This makes me wonder if the moneyer could have been the church. I suppose it is possible that a moneyer could have used a depiction of a saint as his mark.
On the front, there is cross hovering above the chalice that makes it a liturgical chalice. Looking closer at the reverse there is the bird in one hand and is that a long cross in the other hand? If you look down from the hand there is a raised ball that looks like the end of a a cross or staff. If that is a long cross then it looks more like St Oswald than a random noble out falconing. Again there is a cross hovering over his shoulder even if the shaft doesn’t extend down to his hand (though I think it does, the more I look at it). If this is Oswald, then it shows that the raven was part of his story from a very early date. It appears that the king is wearing a mail shirt or breastplate that may rule out typical falconing. On the other hand a warrior king like Oswald may have been depicted by contemporaries in his war gear all the time, shown here with the cross from heavenfield in one hand and a war raven in the other. I’m not sure what that semicircle under the figure is supposed to be. A boat? or just decoration?
So why would Oswald have been on a Kentish coin? We know of no chapels or shrines to Oswald in Kent, though we can not rule out the dedication of alters or side chapels within churches. Bede does give us one clue. A late entry into Bede’s History, seemingly added during his last revision for King Coelwulf (missing from class c of the text), is the story of Oswald’s intercession against the plague in Sussex. When the plague ended with no more deaths after the boy, Bede records that “not only in this monastery but in many other places, the heavenly birthday of this king and soldier of Christ [Oswald] began to be celebrated yearly by the celebration of masses”(HE IV.14, McClure & Collins, p. 196-197). We know that Bede got the story from Bishop Acca but we don’t know when Acca first heard the story or how long it took for the story to diffuse throughout the churches of England. On thing is for sure, a reoccurrence of the plague or any epidemic illness would have increased the speed to commemorations. It is even possible that other kings used Oswald’s example to support their own rule in a time of instability caused by an epidemic. The king of Kent from 692/4-725 was Wihtred son of Egbert who was known for his devotion and zeal, coming to the throne after considerable dynastic instability. Wihtred’s grandfather Eorcenberht had died of plague in 664. Thus the plague had played a role in the dynastic instability of Kent after 664*. It may have also been a gesture toward Northumbria during a period when Kent was under pressure from Mercia and Wessex. It could also simply reflect the growth of St Oswald’s veneration.
This coin is not the only one to feature St. Oswald. Eneas Mackenzie’s An Historical, Topographical, and Descriptive View of the County of Northumberland (1825) reports the discovery of a large coin depicting St Oswald (Oswald’s head on one side and a large cross on the other) during the restoration of a chapel of St Oswald at Heavenfield (p. 300-301). Mackenzie reports that the convent of Durham used it as its seal for many years in honor of St. Oswald. Mackenzie also claims that in the field (at Heavenfield?) skulls and hilts of swords are frequently turned up by farmers. (p. 301) Whether or not this is the dead from the battle of Denisesburn or not, it does bring up the point that many battlefields may have been lost because they have been ploughed up over the centuries. It seems likely that the dead of a battlefield would have been buried fairly shallow just because of the amount of work it took to bury them all. It is even possible that they were not buried at all but left to decay and eventually be covered by dust and silt. Skulls would have been noticed more than other bones because they are more distinctively human; fragments of other bones could have more easily passed as animal bones. Anyway, there are other coins with Oswald as well. Swiss coins from the 1500s also have a sharp depiction of St Oswald and his raven. St Oswald is the patron saint of the canton of Zug, Switzerland.
* Ok, so Eorcenberht’s murder of his nephews Æthelred and Æthelbert and his own succession over an elder brother Eormenred indicates that the throne may not have been as stable as it appears. Regardless, the plague must have hit Kent hard in 664 to take both King Eorcenberht and the Archbishop of Canterbury in the same month. As far as we know, Eormenred may have fallen ill with the plague as well, assisting his younger brother’s rise to the throne. Even if Eormenred didn’t die of the plague, such a significant illness could have gotten him passed over for a younger, healthier brother.