Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Contextualizing Medieval Coin finds From Glamorgan

Coins from the medieval period are fairly common finds for us at Hidden Glamorgan and are also common finds for other metal detector enthusiasts too, as when one searches the fields around South Wales one invariably finds coins and other casual losses from the medieval period. These coins are of course a source of curiosity as their intrinsic value alone is enough to provoke interest, but do they have the capacity to elicit any new information about the time in which they were lost?  For example, coin finds found on archaeological excavations can be very useful to the excavators as they can provide a convenient medium with which to date archaeological features; a good example of this usefulness comes from excavations at the medieval village of Cosmeston; a single coin find, a worn penny of Edward I was found in a foundation trench of one of the houses (the farm house); this coin was used to provide a Terminus Post Quem of the present archaeological remains and thus affected the interpretation of not just the one building, but most of the excavated buildings, which because of the single coin find, are thought to have dated to the late 13th-early 14th Centuries.

Useful though coin evidence is, coin finds on most archaeological excavations however are usually quite scarce; Cosmeston as we have seen could boast a single medieval coin find. Excavations at Old Barry Village were also possessed of a single coin find.  Metal detected coin finds in comparison differ enormously as coins from the medieval period are common finds and are often found in proliferation, and thus comprise a totally new resource, but what information can be elicited from these finds?

This article is not concerned with the numismatist side of medieval coins, although some information on this aspect will be given, but to simply use coin finds to help us further elucidate the general social and economic trends that occurred in medieval Glamorgan and to place the many coins we find into some sort of context.

(Cardiff Castle was one of the earliest Norman Castles built in South Wales, and effectively marked the start of an Anglo-Norman government in Glamorgan which not only shaped the character of South Wales but introduced a monetary economy)

Glamorgan as a county has always been Norman/English in character; indeed, the Marcher Lordship of Glamorgan, founded by Norman baron Robert Fitzhamon (and his twelve knights of course) during the last decade of the 11th Century, established the Lordship of Glamorgan, which was at its height much larger than the modern Vale of Glamorgan, and encompassed much of South Wales including modern Bro Morgannwg and Blaenau Morgannwg.

Glamorgan from the time of its inception until The Act of Union in 1536, was controlled by an Anglo-Norman ruling class that was to shape and define medieval Glamorgan establishing most of the towns and villages we see in the county today, many of which began their existence as manors or Fiefs to support an incumbent lord; many of these manors were divided into sub-manors in order to support a knightly incumbent.  The Anglo-Norman (i.e. English) organisation of land was based on a feudal system, in contrast to the hills and valleys of upland Wales, where because of the difference in culture, the socio-economic output, was never conducive to form a monetary economy such as existed in Glamorgan, in particular lowland Glamorgan.

Coin use in Wales however began later than in England, as prior to the extended use of a monetary economy most people living in Wales would probably have used a bartering system. The advent of the Norman Invasion and subsequent establishment of the manorial system and the nucleated village in the late 11th-early 12th Century saw the beginnings of a monetary economy in Glamorgan, but coin finds from this period are very scarce which implies that not only was the population of Glamorgan at this period tiny, but also that only the elite had access to coinage during the early years of Glamorgan's existence.  A small hoard of Henry I (1069-1135) pennies excavated at Llantrithyd during 1962 at the site of an early manorial complex erected soon after the initial conquest of Glamorgan is of interest showing early use of a monitory economy among the Anglo-Norman ruling class.  

It is from the late 12th-early 13th Centuries that we as metal detector users begin to find medieval coins in any number, and although coins from this period are not particularly common, we do find enough of them to suggest that during this period there began a rise in the population of Glamorgan and an extended use of a monetary economy which gradually replaced barter as the main form of transaction.

An assemblage of seventeen coins found (and responsibly reported to the PAS) during the unfortunate destruction of White Farm in Merthyr Dyfan provides us with a medium with which to not only help us further understand the idiosyncrasies of this particular settlement, but to also help show trends in coin use in the wider context of Glamorgan. The spatial distribution seems to have been restricted to one small area contiguous to the church, and probably represents the site of one of the many fairs that were held in the village of Merthyr Dyfan throughout the medieval period.

Most of the coin finds are represented by penny and half-penny denominations with the earliest coin in the assemblage being a half-penny coin of King Stephen (1135-54) which was minted around the middle of the Twelfth Century; it is unlikely this coin was lost during the time it was minted however due to its worn condition.  Five of the coins are of the short cross variety (a series of coins minted between 1180-1247 which spanned the reign of four monarchs, Henry II, Richard I, John and Henry III), and represent some of the earliest coins in the assemblage giving us a good indication of when coin use began to occur at Merthyr Dyfan, and of course an indication of when coin use began in Glamorgan.  

(This penny and half-penny coin are examples of short cross coinage, and date to the late 12th and early 13th Centuries; and although not common finds they are among the earliest types of Medieval coinage found in Glamorgan

The vast majority of the inhabitants of England and Wales lived at the bottom end of the medieval social hierarchy; these people were called villeins or serfs.  It is very likely that it was the medieval serf who was responsible for dropping the majority of the small denomination coins we find in the fields as it was they who comprised the vast majority of the population living in Glamorgan during the medieval period. Although most serfs owed service to their local lord, which meant that they had to provide unpaid labour and work on the lord's demesne land a certain number of days per year, many serfs were able to grow a surplus of crop or produce a superfluous amount of produce, which enabled them to sell their goods at one of the many markets and fairs that occurred throughout the year.  The late 13th and early 14th Centuries were a time of prosperity which saw an increased population growth triggered by factors such as a warmer climate and the occupation of marginal land. There is documentary evidence from the 14th Century that suggests that because of these circumstances many serfs had seen an increase in prosperity and had access to hard cash.

(A hard days work... Intense agricultural activity as depicted in this illustration from Queen Mary's Psalter C 1310 gave Medieval serfs ample opportunity to lose their change, and no doubt other personal items)

Documentary evidence for this occurrence comes from Ogmore, where by the mid 14th Century customary labour services were commuted to cash payments for those who could afford it, and agricultural work on the lord's demesne carried out by full time agricultural laborers.  This was probably a ubiquitous occurrence throughout South Wales which is seemingly reflected in coin finds as coins from this period are among the most numerous found by metal detector enthusiasts.

The majority of the coins in the Merthyr Dyfan assemblage date from the mid 13th Century to the mid 14th Century, with no less than ten of the coins dating to this period.  Certainly the majority of our own medieval coin finds, which were not far off one hundred at last count, date to this period.     
Pennies appear to be the most numerous denomination coins found; these coins were often cut into half and quarter denominations which would have been used for small transactions. Higher denomination coins however, such as groats (four pence) and half-groats (two pence) are occasionally unearthed; and very rarely gold coins.  A number of these higher denomination medieval coins were recently unearthed at St Lythans. Whether or not this cache of coins, which consisted of no less than five gold coins and numerous silver groats, was accidentally dropped or was deliberately buried is unclear.  Most people at this time however would not have had access to gold coins, hence their rarity as finds. 

(These pennies, which date to the late 13th and early 14th Centuries span the reign of Edward I Edward II,and are some of the most numerous medieval coins found by us and other metal detector users.)

(These half and quarter noble gold coins dating from the reign of Edward III (1312-1377), both of which were found by the authors of this blog-site at separate locations, show that higher denomination coins are not unrepresented as metal detected finds)

Archaeological evidence also exists that seemingly reflects the proliferation of coin finds from this period. A good example is to be found in the medieval village of Barry, the archaeology of which shows evidence towards increased prosperity, as during the late 13th and early 14th Centuries', all of the timber peasant buildings were enlarged and rebuilt with stone, with some even sporting fancy architectural embellishments, such as decorated stone windows.  The medieval village of Merthyr Dyfan, now a district of modern Barry, shows a similar occurrence taking place. There will of course be nuances that will echo the idiosyncrasies of each different settlement, but the proliferation of coin finds seems to reflect both written and archaeological evidence and suggests that the late 13th and early 14th Centuries were a prosperous time for many in Glamorgan.

The events that were to occur during the second half of the 14th Century however, such as the Black Death, war, famine and economic downturn, were to severely diminish the population of Glamorgan,these events are once again reflected in our coin finds, or lack of them.  These events are well documented; for example,  once again from the Lordship of Ogmore, it appears that by the year 1363 rent had fallen by 19 per cent; it's mills bringing in 25 per cent less revenue and the demesne land now leased at low rates; even the town of Cardiff experienced economic downturn as in 1349 the income from its mills, fisheries, trading tolls and the brewing of ale all saw substantial reductions. Another good example of the severity of these events comes from the town of Llantwit Major, one of the most affluent lordships in medieval Glamorgan.  During the 13th Century its population was estimated at approximately 2000 people; a thriving place by the standards of the day.  Between 1349-1375 however its population fell by more than a third. 

The events of the mid to late 14th Century are of course to be found within the archaeology of Glamorgan, as many a nucleated settlement shows evidence of being severely reduced in size, with many of the buildings seemingly abandoned during the mid to late 14th Century.  Evidence for this sad event is to be found at Cosmeston, Barry, and of course Merthyr Dfyan, as the archaeology of the majority of the peasant buildings indicate that the disasters of the mid to late 14th Century hit these villages hard.

(The reconstructed medieval village of Cosmeston)

Despite these events some of the more industrious serfs who survived were able to prosper; one of whom was one Thomas Hyot of Southerndown, who in the early 15th Century started out with a modest holding of 22 acres, but by 1433 had acquired, at reduced rates, a sixteen year lease of "all vacant lands of Sutton and Southerndown" which consisted of twenty cottages and 198 acres; quite a rise in circumstance.  In the year 1440 Thomas further expanded by acquiring another 18 acres of vacant land outside Oldcastle.  This rise in predicament was precipitated, and indeed made possible by the catastrophic events of the mid to late 14th Century, which killed at least half of the population in Wales, drove up wages and contributed to the decline of the manorial system, which conversely led to the rise of the Yeoman farmer in the 15th and 16th Centuries.

Even though there were opportunities for individuals such as Thomas Hyot in the 15th Century the disasters of the previous century had taken their toll with many towns and villages in Glamorgan being reduced in population; thus diminishing the socio-economic role of the medieval manorial system and in turn affecting their revenues; this is reflected in coin finds, as coin finds from the 15th Century are scarce. A pertinent example for this occurrence once again comes from the Merthyr Dyfan coin assemblage; the latest medieval coins in the assemblage consist of three pennies of Edward III (1327-77), after which there is a gap of nearly two centuries before any more coin finds, with the earliest post-medieval coin in the assemblage being a debased silver groat (four pence) of Henry VIII (1509-47) dating to 1544-47, indicating that the village of Merthyr Dyfan was hit particularly hard by the events of the mid to late 14th Century. Coin finds from the 15th Century are not unknown however; a notable example is a small purse loss of groats found in Llantwit Major during 2008 which date to the early 15th Century, but they certainly are scarce in comparison with earlier coin finds.

(A selection of various denomination medieval coins found by us, including a gold quarter noble, a very unfortunate loss for its owner)

Written evidence too seems to corroborate the general lack of coin finds from the period.  Accounts of the manor of Llantwit Major in the year 1492 contain an explanation for the consistent fall in revenue "because many tenants had departed from the country, and their tenements were burnt through the rebellion (of Owen Glyndwr) in Wales". There are similar accounts from Burgesses in Cardiff who cite the rebellion of Owen Glyndwr as the reason for both a diminished population and rent return; despite the fact that it occurred nearly one hundred years before the time of writing. 

The Medieval coin finds from Glamorgan are an interesting and useful supplementary source of information when compared and contrasted with both archaeological and written evidence, as well of course as having an intrinsic value and interest.  The coin assemblage from Merthyr Dyfan is of particular interest representing a microcosm of the socio-economic events that spanned the entire medieval period, as well as helping to illuminate the particularities of Merthyr Dyfan, which as the coin evidence indicates, was all but obliterated during the middle of the 14th Century.    

Metal detected coin finds from Glamorgan give us a good indication when the majority of people begun to use coins to replace barter, an occurrence that seems to have occurred during the last decades of the 12th Century.  The coin evidence also shows that throughout the 13th and early 14th Centuries coin use increased; this increase in monetary wealth reflects the general prosperity that is found in both written and archaeological sources.  Conversely, the general lack of coin finds from the mid 14th Century on-wards, suggests that the effects of plague, wars and famine, drastically affected population levels in Glamorgan, a population level that did not fully recover until the mid 16th Century.

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