The dating of the Sutton Hoo ship burial, and hence the likely identity of its occupant (more on the possible candidates on another page), turns on the coins found in the burial. The coins were in a magnificent purse carried on a belt, and consisted of thirty-seven gold tremisses from Merovingian Gaul, three blank gold coins, and two gold ingots.
Dating Merovingian coins is non-trivial, as coins do not always carry the name of a ruler or of an identifiable mint. Of the 37 Sutton Hoo coins, 32 give the name of a mint on one side and sometimes the name of a moneyer on the other, with no ruler identified. Only five name specific rulers:
In 1960 the French coin expert Lafaurie identified the latest date of the coin group as AD 625. More recent analysis of the gold content of the coins (which progressively declined over time as Frankish mints recycled the metal), has indicated that the coins could all have been made by AD 613 (Carver 1998). Fortunately, both these dates are reasonably consistent and place the earliest possible date for the burial in the early decades of the seventh century (it could of course be later, as the coins could have been in circulation for a while before being buried).
No two of the coins come from the same mint. At first sight this looks remarkable, and it has been used to suggest that the coins were selected for some deliberate and specific reason, perhaps representing a diplomatic or symbolic payment of some kind. The historian Norman Scarfe suggested that they may have been the 'blood money' offered by Aethelferth of Northumbria in his attempt to bribe Raedwald to murder Eadwine (Edwin) of Northumbria in 617 (Carver 1998) - although why Aethelferth should have gone to the trouble of assembling his bribe from 37 different mints is not clear to me.
Another possibility is that the coin collection indicates some political relationship between the kingdoms of East Anglia and Merovingian Gaul, perhaps payment of tribute or a payment made to seal some diplomatic bargain. Martin Carver has suggested that they represent a form of tribute, with each major Merovingian mint sending a coin in recognition of the dead man's achievements (Carver 1998). In this context it may be significant that Sigeberht, who was king of the East Angles in around 630-635, had spent time in Merovingian Gaul as a political exile in his youth (Bede, Book II Ch. 15). Our knowledge of the political history of the time is so sketchy that an alliance between Merovingian Gaul and East Anglia could easily have gone unrecorded.
It has been suggested that the three blanks were added to round up the 37 coins to a total of 40, representing payment for 40 oarsmen, and the two ingots represented payment for a steersman. This is an ingenious and attractive explanation, and there is nothing to rule it out, although it is by no means certain that the ship would have had 40 oarsmen (Carver 1998).
However, the coin collection may not be as special as it first appears. Thirteen of the coins either have no mint name or an unidentifiable one, leaving only 24 from the known Merovingian mints. According to Alan Stahl, there were so many different Merovingian mints in operation in the seventh century that the Sutton Hoo coins represent only a small fraction of the known mints. Stahl estimates that a random collection of 37 coins would have about a 50% chance of containing two coins from the same mint. In which case, this suggests that the Sutton Hoo coins need not represent a conscious attempt to select coins from different mints; it is as likely to have arisen as a random collection of 37 coins that happened to be in circulation.
Alan Stahl also points out that most coins in England in the early seventh century came from Merovingian Gaul, and that the main metal for currency north of the Mediterranean was gold. So the fact that the Sutton Hoo coins were Merovingian gold coins does not imply any special relationship between East Anglia and Merovingian Gaul. Most if not all of the coins available in England at the time would have been Merovingian and made of gold.
The presence of the blanks and the ingots need have no special significance either. Other coin hoards found outside Merovingian Gaul (at Nietap, Crondall and Dronrijp) have contained coin blanks and/or ingots along with coins, suggesting that commerce outside the Merovingian kingdom could use gold bullion alongside coins (Stahl 1992). This reminds me of the Norse system of using silver bullion (hacksilver) by weight for trade in later centuries; perhaps this was a long tradition. The combined weight of the coins, blanks and ingots is 61.11 g, and Stahl argues that this represents 48 tremisses by weight (Stahl 1992). There may be a symbolic significance to the number, or it may just be a convenient amount for commerce.
Gipeswic (modern Ipswich) was a major trading centre in the later seventh century and could have been an important source of wealth for the East Anglian kings. Perhaps it was founded by the Sutton Hoo Man, and the coins in his purse recognised the importance of trade to his kingdom? ("A nation of shopkeepers" indeed!).
As ever, many explanations are possible and you can take your choice.
Stahl, AM. The nature of the Sutton Hoo coin parcel. In: Kendall CB, Wells PS (Eds). Voyage to the other world; the legacy of Sutton Hoo. University of Minnesota Press, 1992, ISBN: 0816620245.
Carver M. Sutton Hoo: Burial ground of kings? British Museum Press, 1998, ISBN: 0-7141-0591-0.
Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, translated by
Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X