Above: The gold Dinar of Offa.
Let’s get a few things straight before launching into this blog on coins. Mercia was a kingdom of Anglo-Saxon England that existed between the years 527 and 918. The kingdom covered the breadth of England and a bit of what we now know as Wales and stretched from an area near modern day Birmingham right up to modern day Liverpool.
Here you go:
Between 757 and his death in 796, Mercia was ruled by Offa. Offa is perhaps best known for the coins that circulated during his reign – many of which bore Islamic inscriptions. This is particularly odd given Offa was a Christian King. So what explains the unique currency?
We’ll get to that, but first, let’s look at the coins. According to the British Museum, Offa minted a coin circa 773 that imitated a Dinar, the coins used by the Islamic Abbasid Dynasty (much of modern day Iran, Iraq and north Africa) during the same era. The coin itself bears the Shahadah, engraved in Arabic, as well as the extremely not-Arabic words ‘OFFA REX’ (that’s Latin for King Offa, FYI).
The exact reason the Christian Offa wanted a coin that bore the inscription ‘There is no God but Allah alone’ isn’t entirely clear, but theories abound. The most prominent one centres on a financial practice that still exists today: fraud.
Many historians argue that the Abbasid Dinar was ripped off by Offa to make it easier for Mercia to trade with Islamic Spain. As the British Museum says: ‘Islamic gold dinars were the most important coinage in the Mediterranean at the time. Offa’s coin looked enough like the original that it would be readily accepted in southern Europe, while at the same time his own name was clearly visible.’
The theory seems to hold water, as many legitimate Islamic coins – without sketchy, nonsensical engravings – have been found on British shores, suggesting currency moved relatively freely between Mercia and the Mediterranean back in the 700s.
Whatever the case, the coins only serve to highlight the age-old connections between Britain, Europe, and the Islamic world.