Posted by: kljolly | April 24, 2019


After the traumatic battle of Brunanburh in 937, Aldred is taken to Ireland, as I described in my previous post, Ubi Sunt.  This interlude chapter of the novel consists of letters he exchanges with his godfather and namesake Aldred, and his mother Tilwif and sister Bega. In these letters, he is struggling with doubt and depression, and debt.


The Tune Ship, built c. 910.  Aldred might have sailed on something like this.

I have altered the end of the previous Brunanburh chapter (much earlier draft here) to indicate that he is taken aboard one of the last departing viking ships of Anlaf by two Glendalough monks who befriended him.  Unfortunately, through some linguistic miscommunication and the usual rapacity of such viking captains, Aldred is held for ransom (or at least payment of his passage) when they arrive at Wicklow.  The Glendalough monks pay for him, and now Aldred owes them a debt.

Most of the accounts of ransom that give the amount are for very high status persons involving huge sums of money in gold and silver, plus herds of cattle and the like:  in 858 the abbot of St. Denis and his brother were redeemed for 686 pounds gold and 3250 pounds silver (Annals of St. Bertin, 858); an eleventh-century princeling was worth 60 ounces gold, 60 ounces white silver, 1200 cows, a sword, 120 horses, and exchange of hostages (Hudson, 111).  On the other hand, a slave might be manumitted for 10 mancuses (Pelteret, 152-54), about 300 silver pennies (Sawyer, 102-04).

For Aldred, if he is simply being redeemed for the cost of his passage and potential value if held as a slave, I devised this possible ransom scenario, as recounted in his letter to his godfather:

Our Irish brothers redeemed me as hostage from the viking sea captain, who sought payment for carrying me with them to Wicklow.  It seems the value of a weaponless but sturdy young man is one pig, five chickens, and twelve ores of silver.  I am repaying the pig, chickens, and my own food and shelter here with the labor of a scribe, but I am unable to repay the ¾ lb bag of silver, 212 pennies stamped by King Athelstan with a cross.

In what I hope is a good foreshadowing element, I am having Aldred’s debt include the mysterious twelve ores of silver that he later mentions in his colophon to the Lindisfarne Gospels:  eight ores of silver plus glossing the first three gospels, apparently for his entrance to the community of St. Cuthbert, and four ores of silver for the Gospel of John, for God and St. Cuthbert (although see a different interpretation of the silver ores here, as silver borders).

And [I] Aldred, unworthy and most miserable priest over-glossed it in English with the help of God and St. Cuthbert. And, by means of the three parts, he made a home for himself. The Matthew part for God and St. Cuthbert, the Mark part for the bishop/s, and the Luke part for the community, and eight ores of silver for his induction.

And the St John part for himself (it is for his soul), and four ores of silver for God and St Cuthbert: so that he may gain acceptance through God’s mercy into heaven, happiness and peace, on earth, progress and increase, wisdom and prudence through the merits of St Cuthbert.

If Aldred’s ora are Old Norse eyrir (gen. eyris, plural aurar), then each is equivalent to one ounce of silver (A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic; see also Bosworth-Toller).  Twelve ounces of silver would be 3/4 of a pound–often such payments are measured in weight. If translated into English silver pennies, whose weight was set from the time of King Alfred at 1.6 grams (= 0.05643834 ounces), then 12 ounces/ores of silver would be approximately 212+ silver pennies.  Someone please check my math, since numismatics and calculations are not my strong suit!

The common coinage in the viking-dominated Dublin arc, including hoards found at Glenadalough, is ironically the English silver penny (Etchingham, 219-20), such as this one minted by King Athelstan and found at Glendalough:


Athelstan circumscription cross type silver penny.  British Museum 1839,1214.111


As for the repayment, I have Aldred’s godfather send this reply:

The delay in sending this letter is caused by the need to find an honest messenger traveling with a trustworthy armed warband. He brings the payment of your redemption, coin for coin but with the viking mark of St. Peter at York, a gift to the brothers of Glendalough, servants of St. Kevin, from the brothers of Chester-le-Street, servants of St. Cuthbert.

I am not sure, however, what his godfather would call this coin (not “viking”).  Perhaps I am trying to be too clever here, in having Aldred’s Irish friends pay the viking ship captain in English coin of King Athelstan, only to have Aldred’s English godfather repay in local Northumbrian viking coin.

Circa 900, Northumbrian coinage (previously much debased) was being minted by the viking rulers of York, many found in the Cuerdale hoard (Williams, 198-99; and Blackburn, tba).  The dating for the Scandinavian rulers of York are tricky for the years surrounding Brunanburh, and the coins are not always much help since only some have ruler names on them.  It is too early for Anlaf Guthfrithson’s  York pennies with  Old Norse on them  (939)–he hasn’t gotten back to York yet.  But 937 is also a bit late for some of the other coins coming out of viking York before the submission to Athelstan in 927, some with Scandinavian symbols such as hammers and swords appearing with Christian symbols like the cross:


Silver York penny with cross, hammer, sword.  British Museum 1915,0507.772

It may be safer to stick with the more neutral of these York coins, those with the plain reference to St. Peter and a cross:


York silver penny, St. Peter two-line phase 2.  British Museum 1959,1210.9.

Such coins may still have been in circulation, given to or hoarded at places like Chester-le-Street, rather than re-minted at York in Wessex King Athelstan’s name.  Maybe the community of St. Cuthbert held onto these York St. Peter coins for use on just such an occasion as this, redeeming a Northumbrian cleric from viking pirates in Ireland, with a pinch of irony attached.


  • Annals of St. Bertin, MGH edition, p. 49.
  • Blackburn, Mark A. S. Viking Coinage and Currency in the British Isles.  London:  Spink, 2011.
  • Etchingham, Colmán. “The Viking Impact on Glendalough.”  In Charles Doherty, Linda Doran, and Mary Kelly, eds., Glendalough:  City of God.  Dublin:  Four Courts Press for the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 2011,  pp. 211-22.
  • Hudson, Benjamin. Viking Pirates and Christian Princes:  Dynasty, Religion, and Empire in the North Atlantic. Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Pelteret, David A. E. Slavery in Early Medieval England:  From the Reign of Alfred until the Twelfth Century.  Woodbridge:  Boydell Press, 1995.
  • Sawyer, Peter. The Wealth of Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • Williams, Gareth. “Kingship, Christianity and Coinage:  Monetary and Political Perspectives on Silver Economy in the Viking Age.” In James Graham-Campbell, James and Gareth Williams, eds., Silver Economy in the Viking Age.  Walnut Creek: Routledge, 2007,  pp. 177-214.


  1. You seem to be basing your numismatic calculations on the modern 16 ounces to the pound system with one ounce = 28.3495231 grams. This has its origins in the wool trade of the late middle ages. Before that there were 12 ounces to the pound (from Latin ‘uncia’, a twelfth part). Assuming a pound was always 240 pence, there must have been 20 pennies to the ounce. Depending on the context, one finds references to the ’ora’ as a unit of account worth 16 or 20 pennies. Johannes Brøndsted (The Vikings, London, 1960) gives its weight as 26.4g at the time of the migrations falling to 24.5g as time went on. On average these weights correspond to 16 coins at 1.6g each.
    At 16 pennies per ora Aldred’s ransom would be 192 silver pennies. However, if the ora really was equivalent to an ounce his ransom would be 240 pennies, a whole pound of silver.

  2. Many thanks, especially for the reference to Brøndsted and to the 12 ounce pound. Given the variable weight of, and number of pennies in, the ora, it might be simpler to make the 12 ora he owes equivalent to the larger amount, 1 pound of silver, but skip trying to count the pennies,

  3. I just received Blackburn’s essay on the Scandinavian coins of York and am working my way through it.
    One element to note is that the Scandinavians would have used weight to measure silver in various forms (coins from all over, hack silver, etc), while the Anglo-Saxons would count coins on their minted value. So it makes sense that the Irish monks would pay Aldred’s ransom to the viking ship captain in a weight of silver (12 ores or 1 pound?), even if all of it was made up of Athelstan coins, but that Aldred’s godfather would count the number of coins in that weight or in an ore and send back the equivalent number of pennies.
    The other interesting bit in Blackburn’s essay is the listing of the York coin types in his tables. The swordless St. Peter dates from 905-19 and had a devalued weight of 0.9 grams, while the St. Peter with sword and cross, hammer, or mallet dates to 919-27 at a weight of 1.3 grams as found in earlier York regnal coins. The swordless was issued over a longer period and more survive than the later St. Peter with sword. Athelstan after 927 brought the York coins back up, first to 1.45 grams then the Wessex standard of 1.6.
    So: what if Aldred’s godfather in using the swordless St. Peter coins counted back against the supposed number of Athelstan coins the Irish monks paid for Aldred’s ransom is shorting the monks of Glendalough?

  4. And in case Johnathan Jarrett ( is keeping up, yes I am now having way too much fun running searches in the Fitzwilliam EMC database at
    Feel free to suggest alternative scenarios!

  5. […] sabbatical writing agenda.  That was followed by an account of Aldred’s stay at Glendalough (Ransom) detailed in letters between Aldred and his family.  I then began a chapter that starts with […]

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