In the spotlight: Bloodaxe, Vikings and other early coins

I am Georgia Charitou, and I am an intern from Greece, where I study at the University of Thessaly. For the last couple of months I’ve been working on the Stenton Coin Collection owned by the University’s Special Collections and Department of Archaeology, which span from the 7th to the 20th century. The main task has been to re-house the coins in new, secure drawers and ensure that our photographs and information relate to the correct coins. So far it’s been a really interesting procedure for me which has helped me learn more about the history of the British Empire. I have to concentrate and consider every detail of each coin as it has to match with the information and the number of photograph we have in the database.

It’s difficult to select my favourite coins of the six hundred (!) so far, but I decided to choose those which caught my eye and made me observe them again and again. Here are my top five.

1. Eric Bloodaxe (885–954)



Eric Bloodaxe is the nickname of Eric Haraldsson, the last Viking king of York. He was the King of Norway and twice the king of Northumbria in the 10th century CE (c. 947–948 and 952–954). The nickname ‘Bloodaxe’ is generally seen in the context of his Viking raids in Scotland, and his glorious crowning as the last independent king of Northumbria. He also more than earned it by murdering several of his brothers in order to secure his succession to the Norwegian throne. The name Eric Bloodaxe conjures up an immediate image of the archetypal Viking warrior: huge, hairy and heroic, and the proud owner of a large axe. More careful examination of Eric’s story suggests that things were rather more complicated. Despite his reputation as a warrior, Eric apparently abandoned Norway to his brother Hakon without a fight, and he was subsequently driven out of Northumbria at least twice. The sagas represent him very much as a henpecked husband, with a wife generally portayed as an ‘evil witch.’ As you can imagine the origin of his nickname is murky, and perhaps less glorious than being down to his prowess in battle.

The coin on the obverse side depicts a sword with the inscription ‘ERIC’ ‘REX’ and on the reverse depicts a cross in the centre with the inscription ‘INGELGARA’

The coin reflects the changing relationship of Eric Bloodaxe with the Anglo-Saxon dynasty in Wessex. His early coins had a small cross on each side, like contemporary Anglo-Saxon coins, while this later coin instead shows a Viking sword. The sword was the symbol of St Peter, and had earlier been used on Viking coins struck at York in the name of the saint. However, it also symbolised warfare and conquest, and may signify that in his later years Eric tried to hold York by force against his former overlords.

2. Early Anglo-Saxon Sceatta

anglo saxon

These coins belong to the Early Anglo-Saxon period and are a valuable source for the economical and political history (for instance, the coin in the middle is most likely Frisian and traded from the Frankish empire on the continent). However, apart from wider context, we don’t have any other information about these coins individually. Physically they are very small with various geometrical shapes.

3. Anlaf Guthfrithsson (939–41)


Throughout the Danelaw period, during which parts of the northern England fell under the control of the Vikings in the late ninth century, Viking rulers issued their own coins. The main areas of coin production were York and East Anglia. Some of the Viking coins were closely copied from Anglo-Saxon designs, but others were more distinctively nordic

Some of the most remarkable coins are those of Anlaf (or Olaf) Guthfrithsson who ruled in York and also parts of the East Midlands. His most famous type, such as this one, shows a bird of prey, probably an eagle or a raven. Both birds were associated with the Norse god Odin, but the eagle is also associated with St John the Evangelist, so the religious message of the coins is uncertain. It could be a deliberately pagan symbol, or one which both pagans and Christians could accept. However, the inscription ANLAF CVNVNC means ‘King Olaf’ in Old Norse. Most Viking coins had Latin inscriptions, like Anglo-Saxon coins, and the use of the Scandinavian language of Old Norse seems to be a clear indication of Viking independence.

4. King Alfred (849–899)


Alfred the Great was the only Anglo-Saxon King to successfully defended his kingdom against the Viking conquest and subsequently he is the only English monarch to be called ‘the Great’. Alfred had the reputation of a man who encouraged education and improved people’s quality of life.



Alfred the Great was King of the Wessex, an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, in the South of England. Although London was not part of this region, one of his coin types has a monogram of the name LONDONIUM. These coins have traditionally been linked with a reference in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to Alfred ‘restoring’ London in 886CE. This has been taken to mean that Alfred captured London from the Vikings that year, and celebrated his conquest with new coinage. Either way, the coins have nothing to do with Alfred’s ‘restoration’ of London in 886, as reported in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as by 886 London had been in Alfred’s hands for several years. The ‘restoration’ is more likely to refer to repairs to damage done during a Viking raid of 885 than any new conquest by Alfred.

5. Edward III gold noble (1312–1377)


Edward III is noted for his military success as he transformed the Kingdom of England into a powerful military force in Europe. By the 1340s CE England was in a position to join other western European lands in successfully circulating a gold coinage. The English Parliament petitioned the monarch, Edward III (132777), for the innovation of gold coins to help with international trade. The Noble was the first English gold coin produced in quantity, having been preceded by the Gold penny and the Florin earlier in the reigns of King Henry III and King Edward III, which saw little circulation. The value of the coin was six shillings and eight pence, which was equivalent to eighty pence or one-third of a pound sterling, and the weight was changed from issue to issue.

The coin was introduced during the second minting (1344-1346) of King Edward III and it depicts the king holding a sword and shield in a ship.

Not strictly ballroom: Kon-Tiki and dancing the hula with Princess Margaret

This post comes from Brian Ryder, one of our volunteers here at Special Collections. Brian’s history with Reading collections is a long one; he used to be one of our project cataloguers and is now working his way through the Routledge & Kegan Paul archive.

In 1948, Philip Unwin of publishers George Allen & Unwin went on holiday with his family to Norway and broke the ‘tedium’ of endless days of leisure by pleasing his hyperactive uncle and boss Stanley Unwin, the firm’s founder, by visiting Oslo’s leading publisher. A result of this initiative was the offer of first refusal for English language rights in The Kon-Tiki Expedition by Thor Heyerdahl – the story of six men, led by the author, who constructed a raft from balsa trunks and sailed for 100 days and 6,000 kilometres from Peru to the Polynesian islands. The object of this exercise was to test Heyerdahl’s theory that in pre-Columbian times it was South American Indians who had first populated these islands.

A colourised photo of Kon-Tiki

A colourised photo of Kon-Tiki

The English translation, by F.H. Lyon, was completed in the summer of 1949 and the book was published on 31 March 1950. Heyerdahl wrote, and spoke, excellent English and threw himself into a punishing series of events to launch the book in London. He was helped in this task by having a film to show about the expedition – a compilation of footage taken on the journey – which the following year won an Oscar for best documentary. No publisher had been found for the book in the United States but the availability of their English translation enabled Allen & Unwin to secure one. Translations into other languages also appeared around the world, several of them made from Lyon’s English edition rather than from the original Norwegian.

The book became a bestseller; the first Allen & Unwin had ever had during their thirty-five year existence. In this it had a pace-maker in the equally successful The Wooden Horse by Eric Williams, a World War II escape story, published a few months earlier by Collins; both claimed worldwide sales of a million copies at about the same time. Stanley Unwin was generous with the immense profits made by the book, giving a Christmas bonus to everyone inside the firm and to all those outside it, like F.H. Lyon, who had played a part in the book’s success. He also set up a company pension scheme although, just as there had been only one bestseller in the firm’s first thirty-five years, there had only been one employee to have retired – this being the company secretary Spencer Stallybrass, and he waited until he was eighty to do so.

Two other members of Kon-Tiki’s crew also became authors and were published by Allen & Unwin. Erik Hesselberg, the team’s navigator and artist, illustrated his own amusing account of the expedition and Bengt Danielsson, like Heyerdahl an anthropologist, wrote several successful books including The Happy Island about Raroia, upon which Kon-Tiki had beached at the end of its voyage. Other Norwegian authors, noting what Allen & Unwin had done for their literary compatriots, offered them their works. All in all Philip Unwin’s holiday in Norway had resulted in his uncle’s firm joining the big league of British publishers.

Authors’ correspondence with their publishers rarely concerns more than routine matters of production and publicity, but Heyerdahl and Philip Unwin became firm friends and some of Thor’s letters contain interesting and amusing reports of his life. On one occasion in 1953 Heyerdahl was among two hundred guests at the British Embassy in Oslo for a ‘gala with ball’ at which Princess Margaret was the guest of honour. The ambassador and his wife, along with Heyerdahl and the Princess, dined separately; ‘with much champagne and nobody to disturb us, we got very friendly and had a lot of fun. THEN it happened!’ It turned out that Heyerdahl was to open the dancing by partnering the Princess. While he protested that he had never danced anything, apart from the hula-hula and Indian war dances during his travels around the world, the band struck up with a samba and the Princess said, ‘If you do not want to dance samba with me, then I shall have to dance hula with you!’ ‘By then I was left with no choice, everybody there waiting for us to get going, I closed my eyes and pushed the Princess onto the big open floor and jumped around in what according to the music was supposed to be a samba!’

At the end of what Thor described as her very well-received visit to Norway the Princess returned to London for her sister’s coronation. On the day after that she wrote to Heyerdahl and told him she still did not believe that he did not dance while Philip Unwin reported to him that the British popular papers were full ‘of your prowess on the dance floor’ in their accounts of the ball at the embassy.

During his lifetime Heyerdahl did not give up on his theory about the origins of the first settlers on the Polynesian Islands but nor was it generally accepted. However, in 2011 DNA testing did reveal that genetic links could be made between today’s islanders and South Americans while a Norwegian feature film simply entitled Kon-Tiki was nominated for both Academy and Golden Globe awards in 2012. Heyerdahl and his expedition are not forgotten.

–Brian Ryder, in memory of David and Periwinkle Unwin, good friends of the archive. David Unwin (1918-2010) was the elder son of publisher Sir Stanley Unwin and became a successful children’s author under the pseudonym David Severn. From childhood he had always appeared to be in poor health but after his marriage to Periwinkle, a niece of the author A.P. Herbert, his health greatly improved and he outlived his apparently more robust and younger siblings. He did not spend much of his working life directly employed by the firm but they did make use of his photographic and typographic skills and also his many enthusiasms including those for art, film, horticulture and the countryside in which fields he was often asked to supply reader’s reports. After his brother Rayner, then in charge of Allen & Unwin, deposited its archive with the University David and Periwinkle paid visits to see how it was housed and what gems I, the cataloguer, had found. Later, they occasionally invited me to visit them for lunch after which I usually found myself returning with donations of books and other items relevant to the Unwin publishing and family collections. After David died Periwinkle deposited his publishing correspondence with us along with volumes from his library which were of value to our children’s literature collection. Sadly she died just before Christmas 2014.

New exhibition on early Venetian printing

Written by Fiona Melhuish, UMASCS Librarian

The year 2015 marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Aldus Manutius (c. 1451-1515), one of the most influential figures among the early Venetian printers. Our new exhibition features some examples of his publications from the University of Reading rare book collections, together with works by his son, Paulus Manutius, and some of Aldus’s contemporaries who were working during his lifetime and afterwards.


The printer’s device of Aldus Manutius

At the turn of the fifteenth century, Venice was at the centre of the book market, with about 150 presses at work in the city. Aldus established a reputation as one of the finest printers of the period, producing quality, compact and affordable editions of classical and contemporary texts for the growing market of humanist scholars. Aldus is known for his development of an italic type, cut by Francesco Griffo. The condensed size of this type, which was based on the humanist script, enabled Aldus to create compact editions which were popular with scholars for their portability.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is an illuminated edition of the works of Giovanni Gioviano Pontano (1426–1503) [see image below], the celebrated Italian humanist and Latin poet, published in 1505 and an example of one of Aldus’s compact publications, printed in the italic type designed by Francesco Griffo.



The exhibits also include a facsimile reprint of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a romantic allegory, which was published by Aldus in 1499. Illustrated by an unknown artist, the book has been described as “the most beautiful woodcut book ever published”. The use of illustrations in printed books was a relatively new development at this time. This work is also notable for the way in which the content of the illustrations closely follows the storyline of the allegory.

The exhibition will be on display in the staircase hall at the Special Collections Service until 27 March 2015.

Art and nature: Allen Seaby lecture and exhibition

Bullfinches, woodcut by Allen W. Seaby

Bullfinches, woodcut by Allen W. Seaby

In our last post we mentioned that we’re celebrating the centenary of Ladybird books, and we noted our BBC Breakfast appearance and upcoming lecture with Lawrence Zeegan.

Our Ladybird material will also make appearances at a number of exhibitions around the country – starting right here in Reading at Reading Museum’s current exhibition: Allen Seaby: Art and Nature, which runs until 22 March. Seaby (1867–1953) was an illustrator, teacher and novelist well known for his bird and animal paintings as well as his role in incorporating Japanese woodblock techniques; he was also a Professor of Fine Art at the University of Reading.

The exhibition features a number of books from our Children’s Collection illustrated by Seaby as well as a series of the artwork he did for Ladybird, including the Ladybird book British Birds and Their Nests. A beautifully illustrated book – Allen W. Seaby – Art and Nature by Martin Andrews and Robert Gillmor – has been published by Two Rivers Press to accompany the exhibition.

This Saturday (17 January), Reading Museum’s annual Friends Lecture will focus on Seaby. Martin Andrews, printing historian, artist and author (as well as a Special Collections regular), will discuss the life and work of Seaby.

The event will include a seated lecture, refreshments and a demonstration of printing from woodblocks in the Japanese style. It runs from 2–3pm and can be booked by emailing the Secretary of the Friends.


Celebrating 100 years of Ladybird

Shopping with Mother (used with the kind permission of Ladybird)

Shopping with Mother (used with the kind permission of Ladybird)

In 1915, jobbing printer Wills & Hepworth published the very first Ladybird book in Loughborough. They soon registered an official logo and devoted themselves creating ‘pure and healthy’ literature for children. After the WWII, the publisher expanded its remit to include educational nonfiction, and Ladybird books have been a beloved part of many childhoods ever since. As a publisher, it’s range has changed to suit the needs of today. Alongside its famous classics, the current portfolio includes Peppa Pig, Hello Kitty and Lego, as well as digital publishing ventures.

Ladybird, now part of Penguin Books, celebrates its centenary this year. Here at Special Collections, we’ll be celebrating too, as we hold the records of Ladybird Books. The collection comprises 700 boxes of original artwork, proofs and some documentation from the 1940s to the 1990s, including examples of the work of notable artists such as C.F. Tunnicliffe, Rowland Hilder and Allen Seaby. The collection also covers the wide range of subjects Ladybird published, ranging from What to Look for in Spring to Transformers: Laserbeak’s Fury.

Most recently, we welcomed the BBC Breakfast team into our archives to discuss Ladybird with leading design illustrator Lawrence Zeegen, author of the upcoming book Ladybird by Design. The programme aired this morning and is available on the BBC website.

We’ll be contributing to and taking part in further events throughout the spring. If you’re interested in illustration, you can view quite a few of our Allen Seaby pieces at Reading Museum’s current exhibition, Allen Seaby: Art and Nature (through 22 March). On Tuesday 10 March, we’ll be hosting a lecture by Lawrence Zeegen, who will discuss Ladybird by Design, which investigates the design history and cultural impact of these ‘well-considered, well-written and well-designed, affordable little books’. Guests will have a chance to view a special pop-up exhibition of items from the Ladybird Archive before the lecture (for more info, please see our What’s On. To book, email