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North Devon in 100 Objects: 89. A Barnstaple Penny

A penny from the 11th century. On the reverse is a cross which provided a guide to cutting the coin into halves or quarters.
A penny from the 11th century. On the front (obverse) face is the stylised head of the King wearing a pointed helmet and with a sceptre.

This 11th century silver penny was produced by the Barnstaple mint during the reign of Cnut (AD 1017-1035) – otherwise known as King Canute. In the Saxon period there were authorised mints throughout the country; in Devon there were mints at Exeter, Totnes, Lydford and Barnstaple. The earliest known coin from Barnstaple dates from the mid-10th century. These Saxon coins from our town have been found as far afield as Dublin and Denmark because silver pennies were used to pay the Danegeld, the money with which the English kings bought off the Danes whose ‘empire’ extended from Scandinavia to Ireland.

On the front (obverse) face is the stylised head of the King wearing a pointed helmet and with a sceptre. On the reverse is a cross which provided a guide to cutting the coin into halves or quarters. Remember this was a penny, half of which was a halfpenny and a quarter of which was a farthing (which literally means ‘quarter’). The silver penny was the principal unit of currency for 500 years. Its weight was standardised to 1/240th of a pound of silver, which is why there were 240 pence to the pound in pre-decimal coinage.

In order to maintain the standard of the coinage the name of the moneyer and location of the mint had to be displayed on the reverse. On this example the name of the moneyer is obscure, but the name of Barnstaple is visible as BEARD, a short form of Beardanstapol, the Anglo-Saxon name of the town.

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