Earliest Depiction of St. Oswald?

Kentish coin, c. 720 from BBC-History.
Kentish coin, c. 720 from BBC-History.

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.

Coin Reverse
Coin Reverse

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.

17 thoughts on “Earliest Depiction of St. Oswald?

  1. I’m quite familiar with these coins after an exhibition of early Anglo-Saxon pennies I helped with at work some time ago. (There was supposed to be an accompanying virtual exhibition which has got a very similar piece in it, if it ever does go live I’ll let the blogosphere know as I was quite proud of it.) I’m afraid to say that it’s a long way from established that these pieces do depict St Oswald, that’s just one explanation that’s been proposed for what is essentially a lost signification. However, I can give you some related remarks that I know are reasonably sound, and I can tell you where you could read more.

    Actually, for pennies this early, moneyers’ names are very unusual; in fact names at all are so unusual that when they turn up we can’t be sure they’re moneyers’.
    However, the Church did, we think, issue some of these coins, as some that do have legends on have MONITA SCORVM, which is read as moneta s[an]c[t]orum, money of the saints, or SEDE, read as a reference to an issuing see.
    The use of a standing figure with a cross is very common, but as far as I know (could easily be wrong here) the guy with the bird doesn’t turn up on the marked-as-Church issues.
    Additionally, your fellow here is standing on a curved surface that has been read as a boat, which if it’s true suggests to me rather a missionary from over the sea; that is, in a Kentish context I’d be tempted to read it as Augustine except for the bird.
    That aside, the conventional reading of these bloke-with-cross-and-bird (not the technical terms you understand) is any one of:
    a king or nobleman with a falcon
    St John with his eagle
    St Oswald with a raven

    I think that you raise some quite justifiable problems with the interpretation of the image as Oswald—too soon, too far south, whence the raven? etc.—so I’d be inclined to opt for the Evangelist here, especially as the boat would fit well with his fisherman’s heritage. But really, this stuff is all up for grabs: we just don’t know.

    The two key texts on this sort of thing are Anna Gannon’s The Iconography of Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage, Sixth to Eighth Centuries (Oxford: OUP 2003) and Tony Abramson’s Sceattas – An Illustrated Guide: Anglo-Saxon Coins and Icons (King’s Lynn: Heritage Marketing & Publication 2006), but our just getting that exhibition live would be a start 😦 No-one in the field agrees with anyone else, anyway, so you should absolutely feel free to come up with your own interpretations, they’re as likely to be right as the experts’…

  2. I hoped this might entice a comment from you. 🙂 If I’m free to come up with my own interpretation… then its certainly Oswald. 🙂 Have you ever seen John on a coin holding his eagle?

    Seriously, it does look like it has a breast plate or some type of mail shirt on though. There is actually cross hatching there. That doesn’t match either Augustine or John the Evangelist. I also think that it is a long cross that reaches to the ground. That is a typical cross for Oswald. It looks like long hair as well? I guess John might have long hair but more likely a king. If the front is supposed to thematically match the back, then I think it must refer to a king.

    I wonder if Oswald traveled south to Kent and Wessex etc by sea? We assume that he came down through the Roman road system, but by sea might be safer and certainly faster in a good weather season. We known that Eanflaed traveled back and forth between York and Kent by sea twice (in 633 and c. 642). Interesting thought given his problems with Mercia. That could explain why Kent might see him as a sea king.

    As you say if it is part of a series, then it would help to see at least one other in the series.

  3. This is a very scholarly article and I thoroughly enjoyed the read. You clearly have a deep knowledge and profound interest in Anglo-Saxon England. You may like to visit my site called the Nothgyth Quest Hypothesis, the URL of which is given above, and read my paper. It is a reconstructed history of the South Saxons and their rulers. My best wishes, David.

  4. [I’m afraid these are going to be out of order now. I don’t understand why wordpress holds up only some of your posts for approval.]

    Michelle, glad to be of service. I only wish this dratted exhibition was up to point you at. The thing is that both the cross and the cross-hatching, or at least ornament, are usual for the figures on these coins. It may be that that means they are indeed all kings and saints, but I suspect that the earliest Anglo-Saxon converts would have envisages missionaries and churchmen, and priests, as kinds of noble, and so dressed as such, though Bede’s story about Coifi might suggest otherwise I suppose.

    Lacking the exhibition, let me instead point you at some images from it:

    (1) here is a parallel to your obverse, with the elaborate ear-pieces, from Kent or London; my boss reads this as a king with an exaggerated diadem, which would suit your interpretation, but Anna Gannon sees it as Hearing as you describe;

    (2) here is another bloke in a boat, but this one has two crosses and is supposedly from the Thames Valley (Series L), but the same cross-hatching;

    (3) here is another long-haired wildman with crosses, different ornament but I think it’s still supposed to be some kind of armour he’s wearing; but these people clearly aren’t warriors, because they have no weapons; we’re not sure whence this one cometh;

    (4) and here is the closest parallel we have to your reverse (though not being at work I can’t tell you what it’s paired with, pity but as ours is supposed to be unique it’s probably not the same as the one you’re using), bloke in a boat with cross and bird, and this one likewise is origin unknown I’m afraid.

    I’m not sure this helps you a great deal, but if I have a message it’s that the experts don’t agree, aren’t sure, and a plausible case is going to be firstly acceptable, but not to many people, and secondly, unprovable…

  5. Oh, and:

    Have you ever seen John on a coin holding his eagle?

    No, but I have seen him depicted with it many other places. Have you ever seen Oswald on a coin at all, ravened or otherwise? I’m pretty sure the answer comes down to these coins, no? So probability is on the Evangelist’s side 🙂

    Mainly, I think the problem with identifying these figures as Oswald is that they come from a wide area of the South, while Northumbria doesn’t seem to make them. It’s very hard for me to accept that the South could be so obsessed with Oswald as not to pick up on their own local saints, while Northumbria at large doesn’t care. On the other hand, why John? The other Evangelists aren’t there and you’d expect Peter if anyone, yet no coins with keys, and while there are coins with lions there aren’t any with lions and a man with a cross… And certainly, no coins with books, so this also needs special pleading. This is why no-one agrees, you see 🙂 Christian sea-kings generally, is as far as I’d want to go, so who is the most likely Christian sea-king to appear with a bird? At which point Oswald seems to have won again, but I still don’t like it, so round we go again.

  6. Have I ever seen Oswald on a coin holding his raven? YES. Granted its from the 1500s and Swiss. The Mackenzie book in the original post also refers to a coin found at Heavenfield during renovations, found apparently before 1825, that had Oswald on it. How many coins are known from Northumbria at all for c. 720? I thought precious few.

    It also seems to me that if it were John then there would have been a series of evangelists rather than the five senses. Are you sure about that five senses theme?

  7. Well, if I have at the Early Medieval Corpus on the Fitzwilliam’s website, feed it the date-range 600-750 and the parameter Kingdom=Northumbria (600-867) and set for results from both EMC and SCBI, I get 180 answers, of which 30 are described as tempus Aldfrith or earlier, and the rest of which are all Eadberht’s. These are not like your piece here however, as they all bear the king’s name and all have a reverse type of a quadruped. This is not a Northumbrian coin by that reckoning, though I wonder if an anonymous issue would necessarily be placed here; a search for Northumbrian findspots brings up vastly more coinage, including a lot of anonymous pennies (635 coins in all). There’s enough evidence to boggle at, and more coming in every year.

    As for the Senses, they do turn up as types, which is why it’s one intepretation of the Alfred Jewel, and I showed you one extra one above; I’m not sure I’d seen a Taste one till this example of yours, however, it’s not common I don’t think.

    Yon Mackenzie citation, however, since we don’t know now what’s on the things I don’t know how he’d have been any clearer that it was Oswald on the coin than us. I’m pretty sure we should imagine him looking at one of these pieces and, like you, being quite sure it was Oswald, without scholarly agreement necessarily being widespread…

  8. Actually Mackenzie’s may be recoverable. He does give a reference for a good picture of it and he says that Durham used the coin in its seal for many years. So its one of the seals used by Durham probably in 1800-1825. I suppose that may mean that Durham has it stored somewhere unless it got lost or damaged while being used to press seals.

  9. Going back up to comment 4, the guy with the two crosses and boat — looks like a halo around his head, so I would guess a saint there. If from Kent, then maybe Augustine? Although I don’t get the cross hatching. It doesn’t seem likely to have been part of a bishop’s wardrobe.

    Your coin 4 – the guy with the bird and cross does seem very close. http://www.chiark.greenend.org.uk/~jjarrett/images/00374r00.jpg

    Looks even more like Oswald to me. 🙂 Seriously in that coin it looks like a helmet on his head, with the head in profile. The coin that this post is on could have a halo…

    There is another consideration for John… that is that if the Anglo-Saxons envisioned a warrior Christ with his thegns/disciples (as in The Heliand) then perhaps a disciple like John would be depicted as a warrior. Indeed any saint could be depicted a ‘soldier of Christ’, as Bede calls Oswald.

  10. One last question… how do we know that this coin was produced in Kent if it doesn’t list a king or moneyer? Does this just mean that it was found in Kent?

  11. I think (though we’re at the edge of my knowledge here) that the reason for the Kentish attribution is that not just this piece, but other coins like this, are principally found there; there aren’t really better reasons for attribution in our current state of knowledge.

    The John-as-warrior point is what I was trying to get at in the first paragraph of comment four, but we’d still need the other Evangelists if it were really a series, and they don’t seem to be there. The bird doesn’t seem to be explicable with the missionaries (on the other hand, perhaps one of them was a keen falconer and we just don’t know… ). On the other hand the finds distribution is still very odd for Oswald. So basically I want another option :-/

  12. Does Kent usually depict such full body figures on boats? The sea has to have been vital to their economy and identity.

    Scrolling through the blog last night I couldn’t help noting the similarity between this coin and the coin of Constantine III in the post “Constantine and Gerontius in Britain”. The smaller figure here has just been replaced by a bird, and perhaps the god of victory by a saint. If that is so, then I still think it looks like Oswald as the saint. 🙂 As Constantine III was the last Roman emperor in contact with Britain, who was raised up in Britain with a British general, there many have been many of his coins in south-east Britain.

    If it is not modeled on this Constantine coin, then there are two options for explaining Oswald’s presence on a coin in Kent. First, the spread of the plague stopping miracle may have had a big impact in a era of plague. Second, as for the boat, as I suggested, Oswald may have traveled to Kent and up the Thames by boat.

    I tend to think its not feasible to attribute a coin with no king, specific kingdom symbol, or words to any kingdom unless you can find the dye that struck it…

  13. I don’t think there’s a ‘usual’ practice for sceattas, really, because the attribution of them is so shaky. I think you might have something with the Imperial precedent though. There are many many borrowings from Roman coins (if the exhibition was up, etc.) and there’s a range of types with emperors or Jupiter holding a sceptre or standard and a figure of Victory, which ultimately borrow from Greek coins of Alexander the Great… It doesn’t need to be Constantine III, whose coins are actually surprisingly rare now; I suspect there just wasn’t the money in the coffers to make them by then, and Britain may still have been awash with poor-quality radiates of Victorinus and Tetricus which are still favourites for any Roman coin find now. That might be our extra option, in fact, but once you account for the type you still have to wonder how it was read, and there Oswald might be the answer. So might John of course 😛

  14. Having slept on this, I’m now wondering if there isn’t some genuine mileage in this. I shall have to pay some attention to Anna’s book. The question is, is the deformation of the Roman prototype merely artistic, or are they taking the design and investing it with a new significance? The birds on these coins are sometimes supposed to be doves that represent Christianity; at that rate, I am more and more inclined to see this design as a missionary coming from over the sea bringing the Faith, produced by altering an older Imperial design as you say. I don’t know whether it needs to be Kentish, or whether it could be more general, then. If we can manage to agree on this we should write something 🙂 But I’ll try and make sure Anna hasn’t covered it first…

  15. I’d say we have surpassed my knowledge of coins already. Isn’t this pattern found somewhere else on manuscripts or other metalwork? I can’t think of anywhere but I don’t know anything about Kentish manuscripts or artifacts for that matter. What about on manuscript seals? If its not found elsewhere then I would think that it would strengthen the Imperial modeling reinterpreted a Christian setting. So we have gone from Oswald’s raven, to John’s eagle to a dove?

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