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English shillings

Started by Figleaf, May 29, 2010, 01:05:54 PM

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I read all Saxon stories of Bernard Cornwell and enjoyed them mightily. Cornwell evidently knows his history way beyond Wikipedia level, yet he insists, quite rightly, that his stories are fiction and spells out his twists and inventions in historical notes.

In those stories, the author repeatedly mention paying an amount in shillings. There was of course no English shilling coin in the times of Alfred the Great and Edward the elder, so there are some options:

  • author's mistake
  • shilling is a weight (the texts do not say anything about weighing)
  • big Arabic silver coins were called shillings
  • shilling is just a word for 12 pennies

We know Arabic coins circulated in Britain. They are found both in English and Norman hoards. At one point, Cornwell does refer to what seems to be Arabic coins. However, at least in my mind, it's a bit of a leap to call them shilling.

We know the English as well as the Norsemen used hacksilver and that must have gone by weight. We know Charlemagne created a Frankish weight system of a pound of 20 solidi, each of 12 denarii, so "shilling" must have been a weight.

So which of these options do you find most likely?

An unidentified coin is a piece of metal. An identified coin is a piece of history.


"Shilling"  was a money of account long before the coin of that name was ever struck.  One curiosity that I've seen in a couple of sources is the claim that, in Saxon times, the shilling represented *five* pence rather than twelve, which I find strange, given its supposed derivation from the Roman libra-solidus-denarius system that spread throughout Europe in various forms.  One of those sources was the "Story of the Pound" (correct title?) that was published a few years ago, according to a review I read at the time.  Could the author/reviewer have been confusing the fact that the shilling was "decimalised" into 5 *new* pence in 1968/71?

UK Decimal +

Looking first at Anglo-Saxons, I then found my way to the dictionary.   I wonder if this gives you some ideas.

Ilford, Essex, near London, England.

People look for problems and complain.   Engineers find solutions but people still complain.


From that source, somewhere in the middle:

O.E. scilling,  a coin consisting of a varying number of pence (...)

source: Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper

O. E. = old English, a set of dialects spoken until the high middle ages. If we take the source for reliable, a shilling is a coin, not a weight or a unit of account, long before English shillings were introduced. I think the only possible candidate for this coin is the Arabic dirham. This coin occurs often enough in English treasures that we may say that it circulated in Saxon England.

The accepted explanation is that these coins came to England by way of Frankish traders. That would make sense, as the Franks were battling the Arabs in the mediterranean and the Iberian peninsula. We also know that the Frankish standard of 12 pence to the shilling, 20 shillings to the pound was followed on the outlying British Islands, not the least to accomodate those same Frankish traders.

An unidentified coin is a piece of metal. An identified coin is a piece of history.


I think you will find that I have explained this one on :D

William I decided that the term shilling should apply to 12 pence, and it has been so ever since.


But William comes some 250 years too late for the story. Also, he didn't decide, but just introduced the Norman system, itself based on the Frankish pound introduced by Charlemagne.

An unidentified coin is a piece of metal. An identified coin is a piece of history.