Gold Dinar: An Offa You Can’t Refuse
By Mark Baldwin-Smith (Medium.com)
Barely a century after the life of Muhammad, a gold coin was minted in Anglo-Saxon England, bearing the inscription ‘there is no God but Allah alone’.
This series tells the rich, under-told and often surprising story of Islam in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, beginning with King Offa of Mercia and this enigmatic gold coin.
Making an Offa You Can’t Refuse
King Offa of Mercia (ca. 730-796 CE) was one of the greatest pre-Norman kings in English history. Seizing the throne after a period of civil war, treachery and perilously short reigns, Offa consolidated control over the traditional domains of Mercia, centred on the Midlands and Welsh Marches. Over his long reign, Offa would go on to dominate the neighbouring kingdoms of Essex, Sussex, Wessex, Kent and East Anglia; essentially uniting all of England south of the Humber estuary.
The 8th Century was a remarkable period in European history, with Charlemagne uniting much of France, Germany and Italy under one Imperial crown and the Umayyad Caliphate conquering most of the Iberian peninsular, bringing what is now Spain and Portugal into a realm stretching as far east as Pakistan. Offa may have been a tribal big-man with delusions of grandeur, in comparison to Charlemagne, but his ability to look beyond England may have been one of his greatest strengths.
Following Charlemagne’s monetary reforms on the continent, the dominions of Offa began minting large, beautifully detailed coins bearing his name or image. Offa and his moneyers were seemingly keen to adapt designs from other realms, as shown by a silver penny bearing the name and portrait of his wife Cynethryth (Fig.1), which was possibly inspired by a similar series commissioned by Basileos Konstantinos VI commemorating his mother, Basilissa Eirene.
The profile of Cynethryth (Fig.1), and of Offa himself in other coins, appears to be loosely modelled on those of Roman design. However, one of the most remarkable and enigmatic coins from Offa’s reign is Arabic in appearance. One of the rarest and most valuable types of coin in Early Medieval Europe was the gold mancus or dinar such as that minted under Offa (Fig.2).
Why did Offa have such a valuable coin minted, bearing the Arabic inscription ‘there is no God but Allah alone’? Had Offa, having spent much of his reign squabbling with meddlesome Archbishops, finally turned to Islam?
Certainly not. Offa’s gold dinar was both a PR stunt and a cunning trade incentive. By 750 CE, the Abbasid Caliphs had ousted the Umayyads, making them the pre-eminent power in the Mediterranean; across which the Islamic gold dinar (Fig.3) was the de facto currency. Offa’s own, home-struck dinar were convincing imitations, protecting Anglo-Saxon merchants from being refused entry to Europe’s most lucrative market. An added benefit, for Offa, was that these coins would spread the ambitious King’s name to far-off lands.
While the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not record Offa’s PR agency by name, we do know that he was the first king elevated, retrospectively, to the title of Rex Anglorum or King of the English.