The Belgae introduced coins to Britain in the second century BC, but they were utilized for religious offerings, tribute payments, or even hoarded as evidence of wealth, instead of for trade. The Celtic economy was mostly conducted through barter, and Caesar observed that iron ingots substituted for money in Britain.
Finds of coins have discovered the names of Celtic chiefs and the approximate extent of their territory, and we discover their concern with animals and their sneaking respect for aspects of Roman culture. Such coins help archaeologists, because their chronology is established for the period of time between Caesar's forays and the Roman conquest.
Celtic coins derive from Hellenic models, especially the stater (a measurement of weight) bearing Apollo's head upon one side and his chariot on the reverse. The design became rougher: the blurred head came to represent some Celtic deity, while the chariot shrank to a wheel beneath a distorted horse, the cult animal of the Celts. A single-tailed horse suggests that Cunobelinus, chief of the Catuvellauni, now controlled regions where previously the triple-tailed horse of the Atrebates had decorated the coinage.
The heads on these coins do not depict individuals, but animals, like horses, boars, bulls, eagles and gryphons, priests holding severed heads and horsemen blowing war-trumpets are readily recognizable. When Verica, the pro-Roman chief of the Atrebates, placed a vine-leaf on his coins, Cunobelinus retorted with an ear of barley, as though proclaiming patriotically that British beer was better than Roman wine. Nevertheless, both these rivals included the Roman title Rex on their coins. Carefully lettered inscriptions, first appearing on British coins circa 25 BC, suggest contact with Rome and some degree of literacy.
These coins were struck in gold, silver and bronze, although some bronze coins were cast in moulds. Inscribed coins frequently bear the name of the mint: Ver (Verulamium) or Cam (Camulodunum). Coinage spread to the Humber and the Severn amongst the Belgic tribes and their neighbors. The Durotriges of Dorset were still casting coins even after 43 AD, but Apollo and his chariot had been reduced to an abstract arrangement of large dots.
By the end of the Anglo-Saxon period. England was both economically and politically extremely advanced in comparison with other regions of northern Europe; nowhere is this more distinctly seen than in the history of its coinage.
The issuing of coins was a vital function of kingship, and by the 10th century English rulers had come to enjoy complete control over minting. This exclusive royal monopoly was exercised through a complicated network of mints and moneyers (money-dealers) and was a major source of profit for the Crown. As well as suggesting a high level of commercial activity, the wide circulation of coins bearing the king's name and portrait was an important reminder of royal authority and a way of augmenting the king's prestige.
Major developments occurred in Anglo-Saxon coinage between the seventh and the 11th centuries. The earliest Anglo-Saxon coins, minted in Kent, were of gold, but these were promptly superseded by silver coins known as sceattas, which were small pellets of silver with designs stamped on them. In the 770s, however, sceattas were themselves superseded by a new type of silver coin: the penny. Pennies were struck in wider, thinner discs of metal, stamped out from sheets of silver. Offa of Mercia issued pennies of a high standard in substantial numbers.
On one side was the King's name, occasionally with his portrait, and on the other side the name of the moneyer who struck the coin. Offa's coinage set the model for the English currency for over 500 years. There were occasional gold issues, and some copper coins in Northumbria, and subsequently some halfpennies were also struck: but the silver penny remained the chief English coin until the 14th century.
The evolution of the coinage after Offa's death mostly reflects the history of Anglo-Saxon England as a whole. During the Danish intrusions of the ninth century the numbers of pennies being issued declined, but following Alfred's occupation of London in 886, large-scale minting resumed, and London became an important issuing center. Other mints, dotted around the country, also developed, and the design of coins varied. Under Edgar. 959-75, there was a thorough reform of the coinage: older issues were withdrawn from circulation and replaced by one standard design of penny for the entirely of England.