British Tribal Coinage

Britain Before the Introduction of Coinage

In late Iron Age Britain, people relied on bartering their possessions, products, and services to conduct transactions before the introduction of coinage. This payment and exchange process could have been made possible by various items, including gold “ring money” (which mostly originated from the late Bronze Age), neck torcs and arm bands made of gold, silver, and bronze, as well as iron “currency bars” that were shaped like swords, spits, ploughshares, and bay leaves, and emerged during the 2nd century BC.

Around 150 BC, Celtic coins started to enter Britain and this continued even after the Gallic War until 50 BC. The imports primarily consisted of gold staters and quarter staters that were minted in Gallia Belgica, located in northern France. These coins were copies of the gold staters of Philip II of Macedon. While some of the Gallo-Belgic coins were brought over by immigrant settlers or British mercenaries returning home after fighting the Romans in Gaul, the majority of the imported coins were likely a result of cross-Channel trade, which included slave trading.

The Greek geographer Strabo (c60 BC – AD 20), whose name means “squint­ eyed”, lists as the principal exports of Britain “grain, cattle, gold, silver and iron … also hides and slaves and dogs that are by nature suited to the purposes of the chase.”

Around 80-60 BC a Kentish tribe, probably the Cantii, produced the first coins that were actually made in Britain. These imitated coins of Massalia (Marseilles) and were cast, not struck, in a tin-rich bronze alloy called ‘potin’. Collectors call them Thurrock potins, named after a hoard of about 2,000 potin coins found in a pit at West Thur­rock, Essex, in 1987.

The first gold coins made in Britain, c70-60 BC, also come from Kent and are known as Kentish A staters. These may have been issued by the Cantii to pay British soldiers to fight Diviciacus, king of the Suessiones, a Gaulish tribe who inhabited the region around Novio­dunum (Soissons, northern France). Cae­sar says that Diviciacus was at one point the most powerful ruler in Gaul and that he held sway over part of Britain (almost certainly Kent).

Cassivel­launos & Caesar

In 54 BC Caesar himself invaded Britain for the second time and reports that he was confronted by a coalition of British tribes commanded by Cassivellaunus , who was probably king of the Catuvellauni Celtic Tribe. In order to fund the campaign against Caesar, it is possible that Cassivellaunos ordered an emer­gency issue of gold coins north and south of the Thames, which are today called Ingoldisthorpe and Westerham staters after the places where they were first found. These emergency war coins are often crudely engraved and clumsily struck, which suggests they were made in a hurry.

In advance of his return to Belgica in 54 BC, Caesar imposed a significant tax on the Celtic coalition tribes of Britain. This tax was to be paid annually by their commander in chief, Cassivellaunos. The threat of a third invasion was a real one, as it could have led to the Roman occupation of south-east England, much like it did a century later. As a result, it is likely that Cassivellaunos adhered to his treaty with Caesar and paid the yearly tribute, at least until Caesar departed Gaul in 51 BC, at which point the risk of defaulting would have decreased. It is also probable that Cassivellaunos raised the necessary funds each year by imposing taxes not only on those directly under his protection, but also by extorting gold bullion from neighbouring tribes, such as the Atrebates, Durotriges, Iceni, and Corieltauvi/Coritani.

This yearly taxation may account for the huge amount of gold staters – Whaddon Chase, Atrebatic Abstract, Chute, Norfolk Wolf, North East Coast – which were struck episodically for some years shortly after Caesar’s second invasion.

During the first fifty years of British minting, which was mostly irregular and confined to specific areas, the majority of the coins produced were unmarked, making it difficult to determine who created them, when, where, and for what purpose. Unlike the Greeks and Romans, the Celts did not write extensively and little is known about Celtic rulers, moneyers, and mint sites. Consequently, any discourse on late Iron Age coin production, including identification and dating, is generally theoretical, despite how scholarly it may appear.

From around 60 BC to 30 BC, a significant number of unmarked silver coins and a few bronze coins were minted. The early gold coins had a standardized style, all featuring variations of the Apollo-head-and-horse motif. These coins were most likely used exclusively by tribal leaders and their privileged classes for specific purposes such as paying warriors, offering bride prices, and paying tribute. Conversely, the early silver and bronze coins were less strictly regulated, featuring more diverse designs, and were probably used for daily commerce by farmers, merchants, craftsmen, priests, and other affluent members of the community.

Coins of King Commios

In approximately 45-30 BC, King Commius or Commios of the Atrebates minted the first British coin to feature the ruler’s name.

An Iron Age plated gold stater of the Southern Region / Regini and Atrebates, struck for Commius, dating to the period c.50-25 BC, ‘Commius E-Type’. Obverse: Wreath design with two hidden faces. Reverse: Horse right, wheel below, E symbol above COMMIOS below and in front , British Museum CC BY-SA 4.0

Commios has been identified as the Gaulish chieftain who worked with and was greatly respected by Caesar.

the faithful and valuable services of this Commius, in Britain, in former years: in consideration of which merits he had exempted from taxes his [Commius’s] state, and had conferred on Commius himself the country of the Morini

Caesar De Bello Gallico, VII, 76

However, Commios later turned against Caesar and in 51 BC, he was one of the leaders of the Gaulish army that attempted to relieve the siege at Alesia, where Caesar defeated Vercingetorix. After further skirmishes with Rome, Commios offered hostages to Antony in about 50 BC as a guarantee of his compliance. Although Antony accepted the offer, Commios reportedly fled back to Britain instead of living where he was bidden.

The Commios who issued Britain’s first branded coins may be the Com­mios of Caesar’s De Bello-Gallico or it may be his son of the same name; opinion is divided on this matter. However from this point tribal leaders in southern Britain started to use coinage for publicity.

While Commios was the first to inscribe his name on the Atrebatic/Regnan staters around 45 BC, Addedomaros quickly followed suit by placing his entire name on the Trinovantian/Catuvellauni coins in response to Commios’ display of vanity. This competition soon spread to other tribes, and by the end of the millennium, all but the Durotriges and Eceni / Iceni were minting inscribed coins. The Durotriges had been economically marginalized by the Atrebates, while the Iceni, surrounded by sea and marsh, had become an independent “island state”.

During the first four decades of the new millennium, Britain’s coinage was largely influenced by the growth and inter-tribal conflicts between the two dominant Celtic dynasties: the house of Commios in the south of the Thames and the house of Tasciovanus in the north of the Thames. This rivalry led to intense battles in war zones located in Essex, Kent, and north Hampshire.

Both ruling families adopted Roman-style designs for their coins, with some of the dies possibly even cut by Roman engravers. Boldly displaying the king’s name, they boasted of their military might, often depicting armoured cavalry charging into battle wearing helmets and chain mail, and brandishing swords or war trumpets. Both houses also occasionally featured competitive imagery on their coins.

King Cunobelin of the Catuvellauni and Trinovantes placed a large ear of barley on his gold staters, possibly alluding to his agricultural power.

CAMV (Camulodunum) either side of corn-ear | CVN (Cunobelin) below horse

King Ver­ica of the Atrebates and Regni – not to be out-shouted by his rival north of the Thames – placed a large vine-leaf on his gold staters, referring maybe to all the fine Roman wine that he was importing from Gaul and distributing to his courtiers at Celtic festivals and regal feasts. Such public displays of largesse were a significant factor in boosting – often with prolonged boozing – the prestige and popularity of Iron Age war­rior kings.

Obverse: Mounted warrior bearing shield and sword faces right. Annulet above. Reverse: Vine leaf, legend: VI R[I]

Despite their admiration for Roman culture, the Celtic kings of Britain during this time were still violent warlords who relied on clan disputes, land seizures, cattle theft, and slave trade to expand their power. The descendants of King Tasciovanus were particularly successful in their aggressive expansion, and by the time of the Claudian invasion in AD 43, they had gained control over all the land and people in southeastern England. The widespread circulation of coins bearing the names of King Cunobelin, his brother Epaticcus, and his sons Caratacus and Amminus, attest to the dominance of the north-Thames royal dynasty.

Types of Coins from Celtic Britain

Collectors classify five main Celtic denominations in Britain as follows: gold staters, gold quarter staters, silver units, silver minims, and bronze (or potin) units. The principal denomination of pre-Roman Britain was the gold stater. The Gallo-Belgic Goddess or Large-Flan Ambiani, the first to cross the Channel in considerable quantities, is a stunning coin with a diameter of up to 27 mm and a weight of 7.8 gms, made of gorgeous golden gold. It is truly a magnificent coin by any standards. The first gold stater produced in Britain, the Kentish A, dating back to c. 70-60 BC, is 19 mm in diameter, weighs 6.7 gms, and has a golden color.

Following the Gallic War, the availability of gold bullion dwindled, causing British staters to decrease in size, weight, and gold content. Eventually, they reached an average weight of 5.4 gms and exhibited an orange or pink hue, depending on the amount of copper the moneyer used in the smelting process.

To address the scarcity of gold, or possibly for fraudulent purposes, staters were frequently manufactured with a bronze center and then coated in gold. The plating was so well done that it was difficult to distinguish them as “counterfeits.” By around 50 BC, Durotrigan moneyers appeared to have exhausted their gold reserves entirely, resulting in the production of only silver staters. These eventually devolved into bronze staters weighing a mere 3.0 gms.

Gold quarter staters are 8 mm. to 14 mm. in diameter, weigh 1.0 gm to 2.0 gms on average, and are comparatively scarce as a denomination (fewer were minted).

Silver units are 11mm. to 15mm., weigh about 1.0 gm on average and offer a dazzling diversity of designs, many of them copied from contemporary Roman denarii.

Silver minims are about 8 mm, weigh 0.3 gms and were issued mostly by the Atrebates, c25 BC-AD 43, though earlier types exist. They are miniature master­ pieces of the Celtic die cutter’s craft- and, since the Wanborough hoard was unearthed in 1984 (damaging a Romano­ Celtic temple site), thousands have come onto the market, some of them previ­ously unknown. Bronze and potin units, both struck and cast, vary widely in size and weight and are often corroded after 2,000 years in the soil.

It is probable that within a couple of years of the Roman invasion, the minting of Celtic coins in Britain was completely halted. The cast bronze coins made by the Durotriges at Hengistbury Head in Dorset were likely the last Celtic coins produced in Britain, possibly as late as AD 45.

11 Celtic Coin Producing Tribes

The only tribes in Late Pre-Roman Iron-Age (LPRIA) Britain to issue coinage were those in the south-east part of the island. It is significant that the military aims of the first Roman governor of Britain, Aulus Plautius, would appear to encompass only these territories.

The tribal who produced coins can be broken into two groups:

  • The first group was the core in the southeast, which shared numerous cultural characteristics with the Continent. These were the Cantiaci, Atrebates, Regni, Catuvellauni and the Read more about the Trinovantes.
  • The second zone was the periphery, consisting of an arc of tribes that issued coins, stretching from Dorset to Lincolnshire and beyond. These were the Belgae, Durotriges, Dobunniand East Wiltshire people to the south and west of the Thames, and the Eceni / Iceni and Coritani to the north and east of the Thames.

Aside from the Iceni, who were at first allowed to govern themselves, all tribes who did not possess a monetary system were outside the scope of the Claudian invasion mandate; the seemingly nomadic Cornovii of the West Midlands and Welsh Marches were later steamrollered by Plautius’ successor in the post Ostorius Scapula in his rush to control the silver and copper mines in north Wales, the fractious and disorganised Dumnonii of the Devon and Cornwall peninsula had controlled the lucrative British tin trade for many centuries and were the obvious target for the early legionary fortress at Exeter, also the populous and powerful but somewhat backward Brigantes of northern England who were at first placated with diplomacy, later riven by internal dissent and annexed by Rome.

These tribes, along with pastoral septs in Wales and the north-east, were gradually conquered over the following thirty years by later Roman Governors, until Agricola finally overran Anglesey and conquered Scotland during the late-70’s/early-80’s.

Coins of the Cantii

The Cantii, also referred to as “Cantiaci” by the Ravenna cleric of cAD 700, inhabited the area now known as Kent. Late Iron Age borders appear to align with modern county boundaries, and the county name bears a striking resemblance to its Celtic counterpart. Julius Caesar mentions four Cantii kings – Cingetorix, Carvilius, Taximagulus, and Segovax – but does not provide any information on when or where they ruled in Kent, or whether they ruled concurrently or consecutively. Based on Kentish coin discoveries, it is plausible that there were four distinct socio-economic groups in the region, situated along the Stour, Medway, Darent, and Weald rivers. The distribution patterns of various Iron Age pottery fabrics support the notion that these three coastal groups were separate entities. It is therefore feasible that Cingetorix, Carvilius, Taximagulus, and Segovax ruled over these four Cantian groups simultaneously and were responsible for minting the uninscribed Celtic coins during the Gallic War era or shortly thereafter.

The name Cantii possibly means “people of the corner land.” The tribal centers and mint sites of the Cantii were likely situated in Canterbury (Durovernum) and Rochester (Durobrivae), where clay molds for coin flans have been discovered. The significance of fishing to Kent’s Celtic communities is apparent in the rectangular fishing net depicted on many of their early coins. Following the Gallic War, the Cantii’s influence appears to have diminished, and the Kentish tribes were on the fringes of the economic expansion that occurred north of the Thames. According to Cunliffe, this may have been due to their violent opposition to Caesar in 55 and 54 BC, resulting in their possible exclusion from trading connections with the Roman province of Gaul.

Coins of the Catuvellauni

The Catuvellauni were one of the two the core tribes north of the Thames during the late Iron Age period, the other being the Trinovantes. The Catuvellauni occupied an area that covered roughly the counties of Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Huntingdonshire, and Cambridge, with parts of Buckinghamshire, Essex, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, and Suffolk. Their boundaries were continually changing, and it is difficult to establish any definite limits. The Catuvellauni are first mentioned in history under their King Cassivellaunos, who put up a strong resistance to Caesar in 54 BC. It is probable that they were the most powerful tribe in Britain at that time. The first king of the Catuvellauni to put his name on coins was Tasciovanus, a king who is completely unknown to history. The name Catuvellauni may mean “men good in battle,” as they were undoubtedly a warlike tribe. Coins were probably minted at their capital, Verulamium (modern-day St Albans), and at Braughing. Many uninscribed coins of the Catuvellauni feature a winged symbol, which may have been a tribal emblem.

Coins of the Trinovantes

During the reign of King Cunobelin, the Trinovantes emerged as the most powerful core tribe north of the Thames. They controlled the entire area of Essex and the southern parts of Suffolk. Julius Caesar reports that the Trinovantes were enemies of the Catuvellauni, and it was they who provided Caesar with provisions during his second landing in Britain in 54 BC. Prior to Cunobelin, the only known rulers of the Trinovantes were Mandubracius, a prince whose father was killed by Cassivellaunos, and Addedomaros and Dubnovellaunus, who both minted inscribed coins.

Coins of the Trinovantes

The Trinovantes tribe, whose name may mean “the very lively ones,” likely minted their coins at their tribal center in Colchester, known as Camulodunon or “fort of Camulos.” Many early Trinovantes coins feature two crescent moons, one waxing and the other waning, which is also seen on coins from the Catuvellauni and the Eceni tribes. In the eastern part of England, where the land is relatively flat and the sky is broad, the moon may have held greater significance to these Celtic communities due to its prominence in the night sky and its role in the farming cycle.

Coins of the Belgae

Initially settled by immigrant groups around the Solent, Itchen, and Test, the Belgae occupied most of modern-day Hampshire, including the Isle of Wight (Vectis). The name Belgae may mean ‘the proud ones’, and it is believed that Belgic coins were initially minted at a coastal site, with later production occurring at Winchester (Venta Belgarum “market of the Belgae”). In his writings, Caesar mentioned in passing an invasion of Belgae into Britain at some unspecified time in the past. While it was once believed that these invaders settled in Kent and the Thames valley region and were associated with Gallo-Belgic coins, this theory is now considered less likely. It is now thought that the incursion was limited to the east Solent region, penetrating Hampshire. The strongest evidence for this is that during the early Roman reorganization of the province, this area of Hampshire, with Winchester as its center, was referred to as the canton of the Belgae.

It is likely that several coin types, such as Cheriton, Chute Transitional, Thin Silver, Chichester Cock, and various Danebury and Hayling Island types, which have been traditionally associated with the Durotriges or Atrebates, actually belong to the British Belgae.

The coins of the Durotriges

The Durotriges, a tribal confederacy based in present-day Dorset, were a closely-knit group of smaller units. They were known for their seafaring ways and strong aversion to the Romans. Their territory closely corresponded to the later Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex. The Atrebates to the north were separated from the Durotriges by the Wylye, while the Avon marked their boundary with the Belgae to the east. The Durotrigan coins and pottery extended westwards along the Yeo and Parrett valleys, providing limited access to the Bristol Channel.

The history of the Durotriges can be separated into two main periods: an early phase, approximately between 100-60 BC, and a late phase from 60 BC until the Roman conquest. During the early phase, the Durotriges experienced rapid growth due to overseas trade, while the late phase was characterized by a decline, isolation, and economic hardship. This decline is clearly demonstrated by the gradual deterioration of their coinage, particularly when comparing the magnificent white-gold Cranborne Chase staters from around 50-40 BC with the crude cast bronze Hengistbury coins from around AD 10-43.

The Durotriges, whose name could have originated from “dwellers by the water” or “the water-rat kings”, had their main tribal centre at Maiden Castle. They minted their coins at various sites including Hengistbury Head and potentially Badbury Rings. Interestingly, a rat can be observed on a Durotrigan silver quarter stater.

Coins of the Dobunni

The Dobunni were a Cotswold tribe focused on Gloucestershire, Worcester­ shire and Avon, extending to the river Brue on Somerset, north and west Wilt­ shire and west of the Cherwell in Oxfordshire. Dobunnic coin distribu­ tion forms two clusters of concentra­ tion, approximately divided by the Bris­ tol Avon, and may therefore represent two power bases within the single tribal territory. A similar two-fold split can be detected in Dobunnic pottery and its distribution in the 1st century BC.

The northern centre of the Dobunni was at Bagendon, Gloucestershire – evi­dence of minting was excavated here – and the southern centre may have been at Bath or at Camerton in Somerset.

The meaning of the  name Dobunni is uncertain, but the meaning of the tribe’s Roman capital – Corinium – may be “medlar-tree”, which may provide the identity of the Dobunni’s tree-like emblem, which is prominently dis­ played on all their gold staters, except those issued by Boduoc. The medlar is a small Eurasian tree (Mespilus germanica) of the rose family; it bears a fruit resem­ bling a crab apple, known in Welsh as ceri. The name Corin may have been newly given to the Roman fort at Cirencester or, more likely, was trans­ ferred from the Dobunnic oppidum at Bagendon, which lies just three miles to the north.

East Wiltshire

To the east of the Dobunni there may have been a separate tribal group whose name is unknown and who for convenience is labelled “East Wiltshire.” Allen and Van Arsdell both refer the coinage of this area as “Dobunnic irregular” and in 1989 Van Arsdell claimed that “recent finds have occurred in other parts of Dobunnic ter­ ritory, however, today it is difficult to prove a ‘sub-Dobunnic’ coinage actually existed”. During the last decade, how­ ever, further new East Wiltshire types have come to light, such as the Wilt­ shire Wh,eels and Vale of Pewsey gold quarters and Snake Head, Upavon Moon Head, Potterne Moon Head and Wiltshire Wings silver units.

It seems more sensible to attribute these new types, together with the Sav­ernake Forest staters and Savernake Wheel quarter, to a distinct tribal group that was centred on the Vale of Pewsey, the northern part of Salisbury Plain to the Marlborough Downs, and the Upper Thames, Bristol Avon and Ken­ net forming its natural boundaries.

Like the Dobunni, these East Wilt­ shire people developed their own coinage later than other tribes, possibly around 30 BC, and it may have ceased altogether by AD 30, when the Vale of Pewsey probably fell under the sway of Cunobelin.

Coins of the Eceni or Iceni

The Eceni, also spelled Iceni on their coins and in historical accounts such as Tacitus’ Annals and the Antonine Itinerary, were an autonomous tribe in East Anglia. They inhabited Norfolk, north Suffolk, and parts of the Cambridgeshire fenland, extending to the Nene valley. The Eceni do not fit neatly into Cunliffe’s core and periphery classification, unlike the Catuvellauni and Trinovantes who likely held more influence before the Roman invasion. However, throughout the late Iron Age, the Eceni were a prosperous and politically self-governing tribe. As Cunliffe notes, ‘The material nature of the territory differs little from that of the south-east. No other tribal area has yet yielded such vivid evidence of opulent aristocratic display.’ Based on their continued prosperity, one could argue that the Eceni were part of the south-eastern core.

Despite being located in the heart of Roman Britain, the Eceni tribe of Norfolk exhibited a coinage that was predominantly ethno-Celtic in character. With the exception of a handful of silver coins that may have been issued after AD 43 by King Prasutagus, the Eceni’s coins retained a distinct Celtic style, even as they incorporated inscriptions in their later types.

The origin of the name “Eceni” is uncertain, but it is believed to mean “horse people,” with the hard “c” sound as in Icknield Way and other related place names in the area. Interestingly, the term “ickeny” was used in the dialects of Norfolk and Lincolnshire to describe difficult and unwieldy things, particularly horses. This could be a remnant of the Eceni’s reputation as skilled horse dealers and breeders. The only other surviving mention of the tribe’s name is in place names. It’s worth noting that the Eceni’s coinage, with the exception of a few silver coins, retains a distinctively Celtic style, suggesting a strong ethno-Celtic identity.

There seem to have been at least three tribal centres in the region of the Eceni – Caistor St Edmund (later Venta Icenorum “market of the Eceni”), Thet­ ford and Saham Toney. Each had asso­ ciated defensive earthworks, which might suggest that the Eceni were orig­ inally an amalgam of clans, rather than a single tribal entity. Ecenian coins may have been struck at Thetford, Saham Toney and Needham (clay flan moulds have been found at all three places) and maybe also at Lackford. Here the Celtic name, Camboritum “the ford at the bend”, may be recorded on silver coins inscribed Cans Duro (the word duro was often added to names of wet settlements).

The Corieltauvi

Originally thought to be called the Coritani, it wasn’t until a tile was discovered in 1965 that the correct name of the tribe was revealed to be the Corieltauvi (R.S.O. Tomlin, Antiquaries Journal, 1983). The Corieltauvi were a tribe located in the East Midlands, with their center situated on the uplands of parts of Lindsey. Eventually, they expanded their territory to include Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, parts of Humberside, and potentially even parts of Derbyshire and South Yorkshire. Despite being once considered a primitive tribe, archaeological studies conducted after 1960 have shown them to be quite advanced. The Corieltauvi were early adopters of the potter’s wheel, and their coinage was some of the earliest produced in Britain. They even used complex privy marks to control the dies, specify weight, and possibly identify the metallurgical content of their coins. The sophistication of their coinage is now being more fully appreciated, and it’s likely that astounding findings will continue to emerge in the coming years.

Corieltauvian tribal centres were probably located at Dragonby, Old Sleaford, Lincoln (Lindo “lake river”) and Leicester (Ratae Coritanorvm)[/link_post (Ratae “ramparts”) with other major settlements at South Fer­riby, Ki,rmington, Owmby, Ludford, Horncastle, Ulceby Cross and [link_post post_id="6335" type="link"]Ancaster. Coins were probably struck at Old Sleaford where over 4,000 fragments of coin flan moulds have been found (by far the largest deposit of such debris in all Europe) and also at other unidenti­fied mint sites.

Coinage by Tribes

More about British Tribal Coinage