SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: A recent discovery of coins suggests that the date of the foundation of Croydon as a strategic location between London and Canterbury was more than 150 years earlier than historians had previously suggested, writes DAVID MORGAN
It took an intervention from a friend who is a numismatist to further extend my knowledge of the history of Croydon Minster.
“Have you ever seen these coins before?” he asked, showing me a picture of two coins, one gold, one silver.
“You want to look carefully at them because the two people whose portraits are on the coins came to Croydon Minster. The gold coin has the head of Coenwulf on it, the King of Mercia, and the silver one has the head of Archbishop Wulfred, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
“An Anglo-Saxon charter which was signed by both these men was drawn up ‘iuxta monasterium quod dicitur Crogedena’… translated that means next to the Minster in Croydon.”
So I was left to follow up these revelations.
It’s long been understood that there has been a significant church in what is now Croydon since Saxon times. There is a record of “a priest of Croydon” from 960, although the first record of a church building is in the Domesday Book, from 1086.
The coins may help to show that a church and settlement existed in Croydon more than 150 years earlier.
Wulfred was Archbishop from 805 to 832, having been consecrated at the Council of Acle in Norfolk. Coenwulf was the King of Mercia from 796 to 821. The lives of these two powerful men were often tangled and after a period of friendship, there were several conflicts and disagreements.
In the 800s, kings on their travels often stopped at minster churches or monasteries, as there were few establishments that were large enough who were able to host a king and his retinue travelling through his realm.
Coenwulf and his court, including the Archbishop, came to Croydon in 809 to do business. A 9th century Minster in Croydon will have been one of three large religious foundations in Surrey at the time, the others being at Chertsey and Bermondsey, according to historian John Blair.
Coenwulf came to the throne of Mercia in December 796, succeeding Ecgfrith, who only reigned for only 141 days. Ecgfrith was the son of King Offa, the builder of Offa’s Dyke between England and Wales. The suspicion is that Coenwulf, who was only a distant relative of Offa, managed to dispose of the new king and usurp the throne.
In the confusion surrounding Ecgfrith’s death the people of Kent rebelled. Coenwulf, with the backing of the church, invaded Kent in 798 and established his brother Cuthred as king there. Coenwulf proved himself to be a powerful leader, quickly strengthening his own position before extending his kingdom into Wessex.
The gold coin from Coenwulf’s time was discovered in 2001 by a metal detectorist. This coin, exceptionally well-minted and better preserved than any other Anglo-Saxon coin previously found in this country, was one that had been manufactured to circulate as general currency.
Only seven other gold coins have ever been found which can be dated to this era.
On the reverse of the coin there are written the words “DE VICO LVNDONIAE” meaning “from the trading place of London”.
The Latin word vicus, rather the word civitas, would indicate that London was a trading centre rather than one having a royal authority.
This coin is similar to ones discovered on the continent from Coenwulf’s contemporary, Charlemagne, although both are modelled on earlier Arabic gold coins from the previous century. The words on Charlemagne’s coins read VICO DORESTATIS. It may have been that Coenwulf, who was by now the ruler of most of southern England as well as Mercia, was trying to make a statement to compare himself to the most powerful ruler across the Channel.
Turning over Coenwulf’s coin reveals a portrait together the words COENWULF REX M, meaning king of the Mercians. Mercia was settled by the Angles, probably from the area in Germany today we call Schleswig. The kingdom stretched from the River Thames in the south to the Humber in the north, and from the Welsh marches in the west to the Wash in the east.
The portrait shows the king as having a prominent nose, long hair and large eyes. There is no circle around Coenwulf’s portrait on the coin. This suggests to the experts that care was taken to prevent people gilding pennies, which had the circle, and then passing them off as mancuses, which were coins of a higher value. One had to beware of scammers even in the 9th Century!
Silver pennies of this period, however, are more common. Some of the silver pennies were minted in Canterbury. Both the pennies and the gold coin are now part of the British Museum collection.
Wulfred, probably brought up in a wealthy household in Middlesex, was the 16th Archbishop of Canterbury, taking over after the death of Ethelhard. This was only a little more than 200 years since Augustine was appointed as the first Archbishop of Canterbury in 597.
No evidence remains of Wulfred’s early life. He is first mentioned in 803 as a member of the church synod held in Canterbury.
The silver coin with Wulfred’s portrait on it was minted in Canterbury. Dorovernia was the Roman name for Canterbury and this is written on the reverse of the coin. Wulfred’s portrait showed his tonsure, his clerical robes, and that he was clean shaven.
Wulfred was the first Archbishop of Canterbury to have his portrait put on to the coinage and, significantly, minted them with no reference to the kings of Mercia.
Coenwulf’s name can be found in several annals of the day, largely because of his interactions with the church. He thought it would be a good idea to bring all the churches of England under one Archbishop. He petitioned Pope Leo III to move the Archbishop of Canterbury to a new seat in London. The Pope did not agree, deciding that Coenwulf and his brother had managed to quell the Kentish troubles of the 790s and that there was no need for any significant changes.
When Wulfred became Archbishop in 805, it marked the beginning of many disputes of land between him and Coenwulf. In fact, the charter signed near Croydon Minster was to bring a resolution to one of those land disputes. On this occasion, Coenwulf granted the Archbishop 7 sulungs – an old Kentish measurement of land – at Barham in exchange for £30. This was just more than 1,100 acres, almost two square miles, so it was a significant deal.
Another land dispute was ended with a charter in 811 when Coenwulf sold extensive areas to the Archbishop in Rainham, Faversham and at Canterbury, as the Archbishop tried to consolidate Canterbury’s land holdings a little more rationally.
Coenwulf and Wulfred fell out again later with the Archbishop trying to take over the revenues of a range of monasteries, including Reculver, effectively owned by the kings of Mercia. They carried on arguing about it through to Coenwulf’s death in 821. The argument was rather academic in the end, as in 825 Kent was taken over by Wessex and the Archbishops had to deal with a different set of kings.
Coenwulf died of natural causes in North Wales in 821. This would seem almost improbable for a ruler who gained his extra territory by wielding a sword. Ironically, at the time of his death, he was preparing for further battles in that area in order to extend his kingdom again. He would be the last really powerful Mercian kings; after the Battle of Ellendun in 825, where his brother and successor, Coelwulf, was defeated, King Egbert of Wessex became the most powerful king south of the Humber estuary.
Coenwulf was buried in Winchcombe Abbey, Gloucestershire, which had been dedicated by Archbishop Wulfred in 811.
Wulfred is recognised as being an Archbishop who worked hard to reform the churches. He laid down rules and regulations informing priests and staff how they should live, work and pray. His arguments with Coenwulf as to whether church people or lay persons should run the monasteries became so intense that the Archbishop went to Rome to appeal to the Pope. In effect, Wulfred went into a kind of exile, during which time coins were minted in Canterbury without his name appearing on them.
We know little more about the early Minster church in Croydon.
But while Croydon officially celebrated its Millenium in 1960, the visits of a King of Mercia and Archbishop of Canterbury suggest that the Minster and small town had already existed for more than 150 years before 960.
We can speculate that as it would have taken time to become established as a Minster Church, we can go back some at least 30 years before 809 to when it might have been founded.
Thanks to the numismatists, however, we are able to have an image of the two powerful leaders who visited Croydon more than 1,200 years ago.
Previous articles by David Morgan:
- It’s long overdue that Hurlstone’s music is heard once again
- Tudor vicar who stood with Thomas More against Henry VIII
- Wedding that ended in gruesome death and Old Bailey trial
- Croydon dowry proved not enough for heroic General Wolfe
- The church fire that consumed a thousand years of history
- David Morgan is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups
To read all his previous articles on the history of Croydon Minster and the people connected with it, click here
If you would like a group tour of Croydon Minster or want to book a school visit, then ring the Minster Office on 020 688 8104 or go to the website on www.croydonminster.org and use the contact page
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I remember an earlier date for Croydon’s existance than 960 being talked about by the Friends of Old Palace in the early 2000s when I used to help with their tours, though I had not heard of the coin and am not sure the date they had was so early. “iuxta monasterium” could suggest the building in question was the Old Palace?
I think it’s as much a question of when did this area start being called Croydon and when did a church get established here?
There’s evidence of human activity in the area going back thousands of years and although there’s not huge Roman activity there are some Roman roof tiles in the walls of the Old Palace.
It would be interesting to find out what dates the Anglo Saxon burials on Park Lane are from, whether they are significantly before 800 or not?
Also there is an early Medieval History group run by the U3A if anyone wishes to learn more about the period
Thanks to David Morgan for another fascinating glimpse of Croydon’s rich history. It’s really interesting to hear about this clever piece of historical deduction which has added to our knowledge of the early
development of our area.