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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

Bringing civilisation to medieval Scots! An historical and numismatic story from the 12th century

Until the reign of David I (1124-53), Scotland had no coinage of its own. Its economy depended on barter. Presumably for large scale international trade they used bullion, silver and gold bars, much of which was itself sourced by barter from continental Europe.

Then in 1136, David struck the first Scottish silver pennies, closely following English models. Perhaps this latter fact is not surprising because these first Scottish coins were struck in England at Carlisle by a former mint master to English King Henry I (died 1135), a man called Erewald - a good Saxon name.

Why was this? Well, after Henry I's death the previous year there was a dispute over the succession to the English throne which led to years of civil war, known as 'The Anarchy'. The claimants were Henry I's nephew, Stephen of Blois, and his daughter, the Empress Matilda. David saw his opportunity of seizing land in Northern England when England itself was preoccupied with the civil war. As part of the territory seized by David was Carlisle. This capture not only handed the city's mint to the Scots but its silver supply from the silver mines around Alston.

David was roundly defeated by an English army, commanded by the Archbishop of York, in 1138 at The Battle of The Standard, which was fought near North Allerton. David thus lost the war but he was to win the peace. King Stephen was desperate to do a deal with David so as he could put all his energies and resources into defeating Queen Matilda. Thus at the subsequent peace negotiations between Scotland and England, David was able to hold on to all his territorial gains in Northern England. In fact Scotland held on to this conquered territory until Henry II ascended the English throne and the land returned to English control in 1157.

The silver mines around Alston had first been worked around 1120 and the mint at Carlisle established a few years later. The mines must have been profitable at first because we know that the owner paid the Crown £500 p.a. in 1154 for the right to mine them and take the profits. Some historians have suggested that at their peak the mines produced up to 5 tonnes of silver p.a.. This seems unlikely and a more accurate figure may be in the region of half that amount or even lower. By the beginning of the 13th century, the mines were near exhausted, and in 1212 produced only 700 ounces of silver. This was the age old problem for medieval moneyers across Europe -steady supply.

David, however, had got the minting bug and established mints in Scotland from Perth and Aberdeen in the North to Roxburgh and Berwick in the South. He even utilised Scotland's own small deposits of silver from Islay to Silver Glen at Alva in Clackmannanshire.

PS 1 Prices of David's silver Carlisle pennies. You would need anywhere between £1,500 to £5000 to acquire one of these for yourself. Yes, for those asking, I would like one for next Christmas, even two!?!

PS 2 Many of you know I like drawing lessons from history to illustrate the present. I couldn't possibly comment on the relevance of this history to the demand by Nicola for Scottish independence and for an independent Scotland's ability to be financially sound.

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