A “hugely important” newly discovered coin of Charlemagne that honours his wife Fastrada was inspired by pennies depicting an Anglo-Saxon consort.
That’s according to a study of the 8th-century silver denier, which was recently acquired by the Centre Charlemagne museum in Aachen, Germany. It argues that the coin — which is the first of its kind to be recorded — gives new insights into the Frankish ruler’s relationship with his third queen, as well as his ties to the English kingdoms.
In his paper, numismatist Dr Simon Coupland suggests that, by issuing coins in the name of his own queen, Cynethryth, King Offa of Mercia, in the English Midlands, inspired Charlemagne’s decision to honour Fastrada. He says this evidence of Mercian influence hints that Offa may also have been the brains behind far-reaching monetary reforms implemented in both the Frankish kingdom and Mercia around the same time.
He writes: “It is interesting to note that political and cultural influence has generally been perceived as extending from Francia to England at this time more often than the other way around; by contrast, the Fastrada coin shows that such influence could also work in the other direction.”
Commenting on the Fastrada coin, Rory Naismith, professor of early medieval English history at the University of Cambridge, said: “It is hugely interesting. I think it is one of the most important coins to come to light in a generation or more. And it gives us a window on to how coinage relates to power politics and gender — and to Anglo-Frankish relations — in a way that is really quite remarkable for just one silver coin.”
The circumstances of the discovery of the 1.63g, 21mm coin are not known. Its obverse has the inscription +CARoLVSREXFR[ancorum], “Charles, king of the Franks”, around a cross. The reverse has +FASTRADA REGIN[a], “Queen Fastrada”, around Charlemagne’s monogram. It is the first known coin of the Frankish Carolingian dynasty naming a queen, or any woman other than the Virgin Mary.
At this time, for some context, a denier could buy 12 loaves of bread.
Because coins of this size and weight were only introduced by Charlemagne in 793 and Fastrada died in August 794, it can be precisely dated to those years — not so long before Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman emperor by Pope Leo III in 800. Significantly, it was minted several years after Offa first produced pennies in the name of his queen Cynethryth — using the same abbreviation REGIN for “queen” — in the 780s.
Coins honouring emperor’s wives were common in Roman times. However, the pennies of Cynethryth, which were clearly influenced by Roman models — especially coins of Faustina the Elder, wife of Antoninus Pius — are the only known coins naming or representing an Anglo-Saxon queen. Not even Alfred the Great’s queen Ealhswith or daughter Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, were honoured in this way. The Cynethryth pennies, scores of which survive today, were also the earliest coins featuring any queen or queen consort in post-Roman northwest Europe.
Offa, whose other monetary innovations included striking at least one gold coin imitating a “dinar” of the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur, is considered one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon rulers. He seized the throne of Mercia in a civil war following the death of his relative Æthelbald in 757. He consolidated his power and held sway across all central and southern English kingdoms by the 780s, when he ordered construction of his eponymous dyke on the Welsh border.
Under his rule, close trading and diplomatic contacts developed between Offa’s realm and the territories of his contemporary Charlemagne, which included large parts of today’s France, Germany and Italy. English goods exported to the continent included woollen cloaks, while records suggest that black porphyry, salvaged from Roman buildings, may have been among the luxury commodities travelling the other way.
Both rulers were preoccupied with expanding and centralising their power and emulating an imperial Roman past. Naismith said: “They were doing similar things. We know a lot more about Charlemagne, because there’s a much richer stock of textual information. There are more charters, chronicles and letters. For Offa’s reign, unfortunately, the material is much slimmer. We have to rely quite heavily on things like coins, stone sculpture and manuscripts that were probably made in Mercia at that point. And these do points in the same direction — these were rich societies that were constantly looking back to Roman heritage.”
Accounts of a row over an abortive marriage alliance between Charlemagne’ son and Offa’s daughter are more evidence of closeness, albeit with a power imbalance. It is thought that Offa agreed to the match on condition that his son also marry Charlemagne’s daughter — giving Mercia a potential claim on Francia — and Charlemagne was outraged. Coupland said: “It was a case of, ‘You must be joking. Who do you think you are?’ So there were clear ties but also a clear power imbalance between them.”
Mutual trade embargoes that resulted from the spat were short-lived. In his study, in the journal Early Medieval Europe, Coupland argues that against this backdrop of mercantile and diplomatic ties, coins of Francia and Mercia would have crossed the Channel in large quantities. He writes: “It is not hard to imagine a member of Charlemagne’s court with Anglo-Saxon connections (Alcuin comes to mind, but there were many others) drawing a coin of Cynethryth to the king’s attention as a remarkable object.”
Alcuin of York was a Northumbrian-born cleric and scholar who played a crucial role in the court of Charlemagne in the 780s and 790s, introducing English methods of learning into Francia. Alcuin was also familiar with Mercian court politics. In his correspondence, he described Cynethryth as mistress of Offa’s household and implied that she was regularly busy with the king’s business.
Naismith argues that Offa’s coins naming Cynethryth made a statement about her importance in the Mercian regime. He said: “Cynethryth appears in many charters by which Offa granted people land, often in conjunction with the king and their son Ecgfrith. It’s usually thought that this was a kind of dynastic message — showing the whole family as a unit. And the coinage feeds into that. You had Offa and his wife issuing coins as a couple, in the same way as Roman emperors and their wives had done 500 years before.”
If the pennies of Cynethryth spoke to her exalted position, Coupland believes the same goes for the coin of Fastrada. She married Charlemagne in 783, a few months after the death of his second wife Hildegard, and became stepmother to a large brood before giving birth to her own two daughters. Coupland cites historian Professor Dame Janet Nelson who has argued that contemporary texts related to Fastrada reveal “a capable stand-in for her husband” who “assumed at Frankfurt, in Charles’s absence, political importance in her own right”.
While Fastrada is today little known outside scholarly circles, she is relatively well documented and contemporary sources show that Charlemagne bore her real affection. The Royal Frankish Annals for 792 state that “the most gentle king joined his wife the lady Fastrada in the city of Worms; and there they rejoiced and were glad and praised God’s mercy together”. In a letter written in September 791 while Charlemagne was on a military campaign against the Avars, he addresses Fastrada as “our dear and very lovely wife the queen”.
As for the broader monetary implications of the Fastrada coin, both Charlemagne and Offa reformed their currency around 793, making their silver coins larger and introducing new design standards. Coupland said: “There’s a lot of discussion — it’s an enduring question — did Offa do it first and Charlemagne copy him, or did Charlemagne do it first and Offa copy him?”
He said if it could be shown that Offa’s reform preceded Charlemagne’s, that would be evidence of significant influence in terms of policy. “Although we can’t prove it, this coin of Fastrada gives a little hint that perhaps that influence was there. It might show that Offa was a bit more creative and imaginative than Charlemagne.”
Naismith said: “I agree with Simon. It hints that Offa may have reformed his coinage first. The fact that we know Charlemagne was copying Offa in this respect to my mind adds weight to the possibility that he was copying Offa in terms of reforming his coinage at all.”
The currency reforms standardised the size and weight of the coins in Offa’s territories and Charlemagne’s but to different criteria. Naismith explained: “Before this, they had been quite similar, so that, in terms of silver content, there wasn’t much difference between English and Frankish coins. After these two reforms, there was a significant difference. The Frankish ones were quite a bit heavier.”
He added: “The reforms had lasting effects in two senses. One is that, after this date, you see a stronger separation between the areas that used English currency and Frankish currency. Before this, there had been a certain amount of mixing — mostly Frankish coins coming into England, less the other way around. After this, there was much less mingling of the two.
“The other legacy is that, in England and especially in the Frankish world, it ushered in a period of frequent reforms of the coinage. This was not really a practical necessity, because coins don’t incur damage or forgery that quickly or easily. It was a moral exercise — a good way of illustrating to all the people in your kingdom that you were keeping things running well.
“You reformed the coinage as a way of demonstrating to everyone that this was good governance in your pocket.”
The top photo shows an 1850s painting by the German artist Adolph Ehrhardt envisaging Charlemagne mourning the death of Fastrada. Photo: Alamy