It is perhaps best to start by defining exactly what is meant by the term Dark Ages.
It is easy to feel, as we look back at the period following the withdrawal of the
Roman legions from Britain, that the problems this created were something unique
to our island. Far from it; Britain simply suffered the same fate as other Roman
provinces: Dacia in the 3rd century and Gaul, Spain and the Alpine and Balkan districts
in the 4th and 5th centuries.
We use the word dark to reflect the fact that little in the way of accurately recorded
history exists, from the time of the legions’ withdrawal to the settlement of the
Saxon hordes, nearly 150 years later.
We use the word dark because this period heralded a complete breakdown in social
order and administration.
And dark because this was a period of continuing strife and warfare - and, just when
it seemed that things couldn’t get much worse…dark because the climate took a downturn
with temperatures dropping as much as 1.5 degrees Centigrade, with an increase in
rainfall by over 10% over the first fifty years of the period.
So, when and why exactly did all this come about?
In the year AD 406 the river Rhine froze over and some 15,000 Germanic tribesmen,
together with wives and children, crossed into Roman Gaul. At the same time Italy,
too, was threatened by barbarian incursions, and the crack legions had been brought
back to the homeland from the frontiers several years before. This left only mercenary
troops to defend the outlying Roman provinces of western and north-western Europe.
In this same year a succession of usurpers were proclaimed emperor in Britain - the
third of these was a common soldier who gloried in the name of Constantine III. He
soon crossed with his army into Gaul to fight the barbarian invaders there, only
to leave Britain poorly defended and suffering devastating raids by Picts, Scots
There was further devastation in AD 410 when the legitimate emperor Honorius withdrew
all his remaining troops from the island, and wrote to the citizens of Britain directing
them to ‘look to their own defence.’ This rescript traditionally marks the end of
Roman rule in Britain and the beginning of what we call the Dark Ages.
Although the accuracy and impartiality of those few whose chronicles have come down
to us must always be open to doubt, it is possible, by cross referencing and editing
out myth, folklore and political bias, to get a reasonably clear picture of what
was going on in the Post-Roman / Pre-Saxon period of our history. But it helps to
understand who were the chroniclers and historians during this bleak period.
Roman historians have little to say about the post-imperial fate of Britain, and
continental writers of the time tend to dismiss the whole sorry episode with a line
or two. The only written accounts for events in Britain itself come, firstly, from
contemporary, or near contemporary sources; those which rely on good primary sources
and traditions. Next are those authors who, being far removed from the time in question,
are dependent on garbled and unreliable traditions, and finally come mediaeval writers
of folklore and fiction.
The bulk of reliable information comes from the writings of the British monk, Gildas,
who, sometime before AD 547, wrote a book De Excido Britanniae (The Destruction of
Britain) which was a history of the island from the time of the Roman conquest to
his own day. He also wrote a much longer work The Epistle in which he severely rebuked
his countrymen for their sins, and for their lack of unity and downright cowardice
in the face of danger. The first of these works The Destruction of Britain is the
only account to have survived which was written by a Briton. Nevertheless, by the
time this author died in AD 570 the British had been holding out against the Saxon
invaders for over 150 years.
The next of the most reliable sources are The Welsh Annals and The Chronicle of the
Princes of Wales.The Welsh Annals or Annales Cambriae are known from a number of
copies but the original master copy, although in eleventh century script, certainly
accurately represents the original text. The first entry is for AD 444. After this
there are 23 blank years and the manuscript ends in AD 977.
Another very readable source is the writings of Nennius – a Welsh monk. This chronicler,
writing in the late ninth century, tries to put together a coherent history of the
past in his book Historia Britonum (History of the Britons) unlike others who simply
give a year by year account. Much of his earlier evidence is secondary and even tertiary,
but his work is nevertheless based on the sound primary sources of others and its
interpretation of events and facts is well thought out.
Other sources such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and
Asser’s Life of Alfred are useful for a primary account of early Saxon history but
all borrow heavily from previous authors in referring to the history of the Dark
Finally, medieval chroniclers such as William of Malmesbury, and Geoffrey of Monmouth,
delve too much into the world of fantasy and folklore to be reliable. Of course,
Malory’s Morte d’Arthur is pure fiction with only the slightest thread of fact woven
to enhance and complement an otherwise cracking good story!
It isn’t possible to summarise the Dark Ages as a single period. As successive waves
of immigrants arrived, and became more or less assimilated, their situation and plight
changed with each passing decade. In the years immediately following the Roman legions’
withdrawal life for most people probably went on much as before.
Towns continued to function as, although the military had pulled out, the Romano-British
civilian administration remained intact. There would certainly have been shortages
brought about by the gradual reduction of trade with Europe, especially in those
luxury goods for which the Romano-British elite had developed a taste.
There would have been uncertainty about what the future held and unease as to the
security situation and general law and order. Indeed there was a steady drift of
population to areas of refuge in the west, in particular the marches and hills of
Wales – just as the Iron Age peoples had done when the Romans first invaded. It is
therefore not surprising that much of the writing was done by Welshmen.
Then, as the decades of the fifth century moved on and barbarian raids increased,
the rule-of-law, and central and regional government, began a downward slide. Trade
with Europe slowed, then ceased almost completely and raw materials such as metals
were in short supply. By the middle of the fifth century no new coin supplies had
been received for nearly fifty years.
Then things got worse. By the beginning of the sixth century the infrastructure of
the country had broken down completely, government as such didn’t exist, anarchy
ruled and famine and bloodshed were commonplace. This, then, was the ‘darkest’ of
the Dark Ages.
The End of Coinage?
The last Roman coins to be struck in Britain were gold solidii and silver siliquae
of the emperor Magnus Maximus (AD 383-388) which come from the mint of London, then
known as ‘Augusta.’ Following the ending of minting in Britain, supplies of fresh
coin had been regularly shipped over from mints in Gaul and the east. The last coins
to reach Britain in any quantity were those of Theodosius I and his sons, Arcadius
and Honorius. It is safe to say that somewhere around AD 412 there was a break in
regular communications between Britain and the continent. Coins of any Roman Emperor,
of West or East, later than Honorius occur only sporadically in Britain. Because
of the barbarian invasions, coinage in the West of the Empire was, in any case, rather
scanty after about AD 400.
But the story is not one of total isolation. The coin evidence from the AD 1997 Patching,
Sussex, hoard indicates that sporadic trade with Europe was still going on as late
as the 460s. Certainly the Chroniclers record several cases of travel to and from
the mainland. The presence of Visigothic gold of the emperor Valentinian III (AD
425-455) and silver issues of Majorian (AD 457-461) and Severus III (AD 461-465)
take the deposition date of this hoard to possibly as late as AD 470, a full sixty
years into what we have called the Dark Ages.
So, Britain still had some sort of coin economy going well into the fifth century.
Coin from Europe was still trickling in through occasional trade – albeit in minute
volumes. However, there is also the possibility that the Patching hoard represents
booty buried by one of the many Teutonic raiders, in which case it would not be truly
representative of a late fifth century British moneyed economy.
On many British sites the Roman series is continuous down to Honorius, whereas on
others, especially in the extreme north of England, it can break off much earlier;
for example at Gratian (AD 367-383) This phenomenon is known as ‘coin drift’ in which
the circulation of new issues, and in some cases even the knowledge that there was
a new emperor, could take many years to reach outlying areas of the Empire. Of course
if the principle of ‘coin drift’ is applied to money after 412 then it could be argued
that certain areas would have noticed the bite of coin shortage far later than others.
Just how long money continued to be used is guesswork. It probably went on into the
very early years of the sixth century. By then, with nothing to buy, no taxes to
pay, no business to conduct and society in disarray, money as such would have had
little meaning. Survival itself would have been difficult enough.
The First Signs of Light
This situation persisted until nearly the end of the sixth century when a chink of
light finally appeared, with renewed political and commercial links being forged
with the Merovingian Franks, and a trickle of Merovingian gold tremisses began to
appear in Britain through cross channel trade. These tremisses (one third of a Roman
gold solidus) were followed by a native Anglo-Saxon gold thrymsa in about the 630s.
By the middle of the seventh century the gold coinage was being increasingly debased
with silver – finally giving way to a purely silver coinage of Saxon sceattas by
about AD 675.
So, what happened to coinage between the years 410 and 600 – a period of approximately
It is easy for us to imagine the Romano-British population as being an oppressed
community of neo-Celts living their daily lives under the yoke of Roman occupation.
But by the time the Romans left the province in AD 410 they had governed the island
for 367 years. To put this into modern terms, it is the length of time from the start
of the English Civil War in about AD 1640 to now! Or, in America, in roughly the
same span of time, the descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers have changed from dissident
English to people who would hardly now regard themselves as anything other than pure
In such a length of time, some fourteen generations had been slowly but thoroughly
Romanised. Their cultural origins would have been bred out through cross marriages,
political indoctrination and simply fading memories.
Of course Celtic traditions lived on in the more remote areas of Wales, in Cornwall
and in Scotland but, generally speaking, the population of what is now England had
become totally Roman. By the fifth century, life would have been conducted in the
Roman way. Latin was the language of the courts, big business and the elite of the
community. Just as Celtic traditions took a number of generations to melt after the
initial Roman invasion of AD 43 so the Roman way of life would have persisted well
into the fifth century and beyond.
Apart from the many benefits Romanisation had brought – which could fall under the
caption "...and what did the Romans ever do for us?" - the one thing which had proved
to be the powerhouse of the Roman Empire was wealth and, apart from land, wealth
equalled money, and money was coin and a continuous supply of it in every-day use.
History has proved time and time again that when money is in short supply – the people
turn to a token or obsidional coinage, no matter how base, rather than do without
money as a medium of exchange completely. This has been demonstrated by siege coinages,
lead tokens, brass farthings and merchants’ tokens over the millennia.
A Twofold Question
The question is then twofold. It is beyond doubt that towards the end of the Dark
Age period money certainly ceased to be used – but for how long? Then, if money or
coin was used, at least throughout part of the Dark Ages, what form did it take?
And can it be identified as such?
Good Roman coinage would certainly have lasted, albeit in short supply, for quite
a few decades following AD 410, slowly wearing down in much the same way as worn
Victorian pennies were accepted as legal tender right up to the early 1970s. However,
the fundamental difference was that the twentieth century pre-decimal coinage in
circulation was constantly being topped up by the introduction of new coins. What
would have happened if the Royal Mint had stopped issuing coins? And, what if this
decision was concurrent with a spate of panic coin hoarding? Gresham’s Law of ‘bad
money drives out good’ would have certainly applied. What reasonable coin was still
in circulation would have been quickly snatched and buried for safe keeping in the
hope that better times would be round the corner.
This action would have left only a base metal coinage with varying degrees of wear
to supply the needs of commerce and the necessities of daily life. How long such
a state of affairs could prevail must be open to speculation, but a guess would be
seven or eight decades at the most.
The famous Hoxne Treasure was buried some time before AD 450, long after the legions
had left, and yet it contained a large savings accumulation of gold and silver coins.
Interestingly, many of the silver siliquae had been trimmed right down to the portrait
and others were forgeries presumably made from the trimmings (?) An analysis of the
Hoxne material has shown that at least 80% of the siliquae were clipped in this way,
and some 178 siliquae out of a total of 14,205 in the hoard are forgeries. A recent
hoard of 870 siliquae found at Whitewell, Leicestershire contained 42 such forgeries,
some of which are from the same dies as forgeries from the Hoxne hoard. Hoards of
silver siliquae are, surprisingly, only found in Britain and Romania, although the
coins were struck at mints all over the Empire.
Interestingly, the clipped siliqua on average weighs the same as the earliest Primary
series sceatta of the Anglo-Saxon coinage of the 670s (i.e. 1.1 grammes). Is this
coincidence, or are there other conclusions which can be drawn from this? I’m sure
many theories will be proffered!
The practice of clipping away as much as half of the original coin could only have
taken place so openly after the end of Roman rule in Britain; furthermore the occurrence
of such clipped siliquae is peculiar to Britain. The clipping would certainly have
stretched the metal supply, either legally or illegally and, in the fullness of time,
the clipped coins would have been accepted as the standard. Who knows?
What then are the contenders for Dark Ages coinage?
Coin issues of the late fourth/early fifth century emperors would have stayed in
circulation for quite some time, gradually wearing down.
Silver coins were not the only specie to suffer from clipping during the period in
question. The supply of bronze had all but completely dried up and make-do-and-mend
must have been the order of the day. Even coins of bygone eras, well out of living
memory, if found were trimmed and put back in circulation.
If the coinage had become purely ‘token’ then one coin could easily be transformed
into three, four or even more parts, possibly each with the original purchasing power.
The photographs of the unclipped centenionalis of Magnentius (AD 350-353) the clipped
standard coin, and two cut fragments interestingly both showing an ‘ear,' demonstrate
how a single coin could be divided into many units.
One of the most abundant reverse types in circulation at the end of Roman occupation
would have been the famous FEL(icium) TEMP(orum) REPARATIO type - generally translated
as 'restoration of the good times' - which was used by many emperors and first issued
to commemorate the 1,100th anniversary of the founding of Rome
This next coin, although clearly based on the issues of the later fourth century,
is almost Saxon in its appearance and may well date from later in the period.
The use of the FEL TEMP REPARATIO type, with its optimistic legend, might have deliberately
echoed a forlorn hope that things would someday improve.
These imitative copies hark back to the glory days of the Roman province and would
have been images, no matter how crude, that a few people would remember.
As the situation in Britain deteriorated so, possibly, did the use and appearance
of coin. Even the most barbarous of copies seem to have seen so much circulation
that they have been worn almost smooth.
Later still, as even the token worth of a base metal coin was to become meaningless
with the declining monetarisation of life, it seemed that not only did design not
matter, even the size and condition were seemingly unimportant.
This fifth century bronze minim shows just how many coins could be made from one
original AE3 or follis. It’s hard for us to imagine using such tiny base coins as
currency, but if there’s nothing else to hand, and everyone you know is doing the
same, then you have to adapt and the absurd becomes the norm.
The unofficial copying of Roman coins in circulation had been known throughout the
period of occupation and was always hard for the authorities to control. But without
any authority to enforce rules or standards, the acceptability of genuine or copy
coins would have been much the same.
Right from the beginning, through the third century, and presumably through the Dark
Ages period, these copies presumably circulated alongside official issues, in much
the same way as 18th century copper halfpennies did.
Is it possible to draw any firm conclusions from the evidence and suggestions? Harold
Mattingly thought possibly not. He argued that the use of coinage probably died out
within a few decades of the Romans legions leaving. Others have, I feel more reasonably,
argued that coinage in whatever debased or hardly recognisable form continued well
beyond the end of the fifth century and possibly into the sixth, only being totally
abandoned when money as such ceased to have any relevance to every day life.
Finds of many hundreds of base barbarous coins have been found during excavations
at house sites in a mid 6th century settlement around Richborough. The coins were
scattered in a way that would indicate disposal rather than loss or concealment.
Perhaps, as suggested, they had ceased to have any meaning as units of exchange.
If so, this theory would mean that a complete numismatic void of at least some 80
years existed before the slow introduction and acceptance of Anglo-Saxon currency.
Like the Iron Age Celts had melted into the Roman mould, so the Romano-British would
have slowly, through the eight or so generations since the Romans left, become Romano-Saxon,
and so on until the whole cycle was destined to repeat itself with the coming of
the Normans 400 years in the future.
As a final footnote; the similarity in style between certain barbarous copies of
Roman issues, and the earliest gold thrymsas and sceattas, can not have gone un-noticed.
Yet the numismatic world steadfastly refuses to accept any sort of link between the
two, mainly on the basis of lack of hoard evidence, the time gap between the two
issues, and the background cultural differences.
Personally, I feel that the stylistic similarities could have been intentional on
the part of the Saxon issuing authority, rather than coincidental. What better way
to introduce, and have accepted, a new coin or indeed the new concept of ‘money’
to a weary, wary and probably mistrusting indigenous population, than to imitate
characteristics that were still possibly held in living memory by a few.
Unfortunately, it is most unlikely that any additional supporting written evidence
will come to light in the future. Nor is it likely that hoards will turn up to show
a definite link, or the contrary. Base metal copies did not tend to be hoarded unless
part of a mix of sound issues. Most finds of 4th/5th century barbarous issues are
singletons, casual losses, or, as stated, abandonments.
On this rather dull and negative note I conclude. But, after all, it was the ‘Dark