King Offa’s Gold Coin
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King Offa’s gold coin

There resides in the British Museum in London, one of the most intriguing gold coins ever minted. It was bought in Rome about a hundred years ago and this is important when considering the purpose of the coin.

The gold coin of Offa, king of Mercia, is a unique object because it imitates a gold dinar of the caliph al-Mansur. Although the Arabic inscription is not copied perfectly,the declaration that ‘There is no Deity but Allah, The One, Without Equal, and Muhammad is the Apostle of Allah,’ is clear.

The King Offa coin

    • This coin was engraved, struck and issued by Offa, King of Mercia, 757 – 796
    • The original from which it was copied was struck in the Islamic year AH 157 (AD 773-74) and whoever the engraver was, it  seems they had no understanding of the Arabic script and this we know because the name and title OFFA REX has been inserted upside down in relation to the Arabic inscription.
King Offa's gold coin
Offa’s Gold Coin

 

Offa was concerned with uniting England under one King but he also made it his business to foster good relationships overseas, both from an ecclesiastical viewpoint but also a trading one

    • He had cordial relations with the Roman See. Two Legates, George and Theophylact, were received by the king at a court held at Lichfield in the year 786.
    • They returned to Pope Adrian with a vow made by Offa  to send 365 mancuses (this denotes either a gold coin or its weight in gold) to the ‘Apostle of God’ (i.e. the Pope), ‘as many as there are days in the year, as alms for the poor, and for the manufacture of lights for the church.’
    • This donation by Offa appears to have been the origin of what has ever since been known as ‘Peter’s Pence,’(a payment made voluntarily to the Roman Catholic Church)
    • The Pope then granted Offa a Mercian archbishopric.
    • Offa struck many coins most of them ‘penny’ class. They were of silver and weighed from eighteen to twenty grains.
    • It is believed that Offa was the first monarch to introduce the ‘penny’ into England.
    • The form of this coin, but not the type, was derived from the denier of Charlemagne which in itself is interesting because Offa had many dealings with Charlemagne.

So why does King Offa’s gold coin exist, inscribed with Islamic script?

A number of theories abound:

  • That Offa had become a convert to Islam and declared his faith by striking the coins with the Arabic text. This is unlikely as Offa had petitioned the Pope to grant him a Bishopric and promised to pay an annual payment in gold to the Holy See. After the conquest of Kent by Offa in 775, the Archbishops of Canterbury acknowledge Offa as their overlord and  coins struck by the Archbishops of Canterbury,who possessed the right of minting money at that period, have his head/name engraved on them.
  • That the script was seen by Offa on coins he had handled in his overseas dealings as being merely ornamentation and he struck them in a likeness but added his name without understanding the significance of the script.
  • For pilgrims leaving England for the ‘Holy Land’, the coin was struck so that it might be more readily accepted by the Muslims and so help their passage
  • The coin may have been one of those struck to send to the Pope but would it have had Islamic script on it if used for this purpose? Well other coins have been found with inscriptions in both Roman and Islamic script bearing other Christian princes names, so it is possible and Islamic coins could be found in Rome at the time as they were given as gifts to the Pope so for Offa to make a copy of one seems plausible.
No other coin the same as this one has been found and so it seems feasible that it was a ‘limited edition’ minting, probably to give to the Pope as part of Offa’s vow and the fact that it turned up in Rome seems to lend credence to this argument.
Whatever the answer, the coin remains a beautiful and symbolic artefact, telling us of a world of mixed cultures and identities twelve hundred years ago.