Historic British Coins Part 2


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Historic British Coins Part 2 Feb 12 2012 Coins

By William MacKay

This series of short articles takes as its subject a British coin which neatly enscapulates an important moment in the history of the British Isles.

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No. 2.  HAROLD REX INTERFECTUS EST - 1066 and the Norman Conquest of England.



A silver Penny, 1.28g, of Harold II, King of England, January 6th - October 14th 1066, struck at Lewes, Sussex, by the moneyer Oswold. Obverse, crowned, bearded head left, sceptre before, +HALOLD REX ANG, Reverse, +OZPOLD ON LEPEEI, legend commencing at 8 o'clock, the letters PAX between two lines within inner circle.


On a hill near Hastings in the late afternoon of October 14th 1066, having resisted the assaults of the horsemen of Duke William of Normandy all day long the line of warriors that was the English shield wall, gave way. Falling for a ruse by the Normans in which they mimicked a retreat, the English warriors set off in pursuit. The Normans stopped, turned and began to cut down the English now exposed outside the tight defensive discipline of the shield wall. What followed was a rout where Norman horsemen cut down the English, first the foot soldiers then the warrior housecarls and finally king Harold and his brothers. By nightfall Duke William had won a resounding victory. The short reign of Harold II was over and his kingdom was at the mercy of William and his followers. 

The final events of this day are graphically captured in the needlework of the Bayeux Tapestry. Harold is traditionally associated with a figure seen grasping an arrow attached to his helmet. It is from this that the popular story of his being felled by an arrow in the eye is derived. But it is more likely that he was killed by the Norman cavalry and is the figure, without sword and his battle axe out of reach to one side, being cut down by a Norman horseman beneath the words 'HAROLD REX INTERFECTVS EST - KING HAROLD HAS BEEN KILLED.'

1066. A date that stands out from others in the history of the British Isles with no other so evocative of change. 1066 was truly remarkable. It was a year whose events decisively changed the course of history; a year of three kings and three great battles. It began with Edward the Confessor (1042-66), a direct descendant of Alfred the Great on the throne. On January 6th 1066 he died childless at Westminster. His death immediately precipitated a contest of rivals based in England and abroad each of whom sought to claim the vacant English throne. It seems that within hours the throne had been offered to and accepted by Harold Godwinson, an Anglo-Scandinavian, who as the Earl of Wessex, was the most powerful noble in the kingdom, a son of Earl Godwin, who had been granted the Earldom by Cnut (1016-35). His becoming king can be seen in the Bayeux Tapestry - 'HIC DEDERUNT HAROLDO CORONA REGIS'- 'HERE THEY OFFER THE CROWN TO HAROLD,' who stands holding his battle axe looking thoughtfully at two cloaked nobles as if contemplating his destiny while they hand him the crown. Later he is seen at his coronation 'HIC SIDET HAROLD REX ANGLORUM' - 'HERE SITS HAROLD KING OF THE ENGLISH'.

This was only the beginning as both Duke William of Normandy and King Harald Hardrada of Norway believed they also had a claim to the throne of England. Harald, a legendary viking fighter, who had seen service with the Byzantine Varangian guard in Constantinople, became the focus for Scandinavian interest in the English throne. He allied himself with Harold Godwinson's disaffected brother Tostig and landed in Yorkshire with a Scandinavian army. The northern Earls Edwin and Morcar met the invaders at Fulford outside York on September 20th and, in the first of the three battles of 1066, were soundly defeated. News of this invasion reached Harold who then collected an army in the south of England and marched rapidly north catching the invaders by surprise ten miles south east of York at Stamford Bridge on September 25th and defeated them, leaving both Harald Hardrada and Tostig dead on the field.

At this point Harold might have seemed secure but a quite different threat to his kingship lay across the Channel in Normandy. William's claim to the English throne lay in Edward the Confessor's mother being Emma of Normandy (d.1052), his great aunt, who had married Aethelred II (978-1016), Edward the Confessor's father, and later Cnut by whom she had a second son, Harthacnut, king 1040-42. The Bayeux Tapestry has the story of Harold being wrecked in Normandy and subsequently swearing an oath to support William in his claim to the throne in the event of the death of Edward the Confessor. Harold's taking the throne and breaking this oath was used as the casus belli by Duke William who spent the summer of 1066 preparing an invasion force. On September 29th, as Harold was in York after defeating Harald Hardrada, William landed at Pevensey in Sussex. Harold then came south at great speed to meet William and his fate at Hastings on October 14th 1066. With the English leadership destroyed at Fulford and Hastings, William was able to seize London and became the third king of 1066 when he was crowned in Westminster Abbey in Christmas day 1066.

This coin connects us directly to this momentous year. Being struck at Lewes, a port a few miles from where William landed, it is very likely from one of several hoards deposited in Sussex at the time of the Norman invasion in 1066. It is noted in chronicles of the period, and illustrated in the Bayeux Tapestry, that William engaged in pillaging areas of Sussex many of which were estates owned by Harold. These actions are most likely the reason for this series of the hoards being secreted.

The reverse of all Harold's pennies carry the word PAX - PEACE, a curious statement given the events of the year. The explanation for this may lie in the new king seeking to present his rule as a fresh start that will bring peace and unity to the English people. Making such a statement on the coinage was not new for Edward the Confessor's first issue pennies of 1042-44 also carry the letters PACX in the angles of a voided long cross. In this case the reason is linked to his accession and a desire by his supporters to emphasise his bringing unity and peace to the kingdom after the interlude of Danish conquest and division under Cnut and his sons. It seems very likely that Harold set out to make the same statement in 1066, looking to unite the English after the at times fractious reign of Edward the Confessor. This Anglo-Saxon practise was to reappear under the Normans on the last issue PAXS pennies of William I, now thought by many scholars to be the first issue of his son William Rufus (1087-1100), and on an issue of Henry I (1100-35) where it may reflect the coming of peace across the Norman domains following his victory over his elder brother Robert Curthose at Tinchebrai in 1106.  

Pennies of Harold II are scarce and much sought after by collectors building monarch by monarch collections of English coins. Spink may have examples in stock from time to time or offer examples at auction.