Saturday 31 March 2018

An eleventh-century Chinese coin in Britain and the evidence for East Asian contacts in the medieval period

This post is concerned with a rather curious and unique find of an eleventh-century Northern Song dynasty coin from China in Cheshire, looking first at its archaeological context before going on to explore the evidence for a degree of contact between people from East Asia and Britain in the medieval era, a topic that is of interest whatever the origins of this particular coin may be.

A Northern Song dynasty coin from China, minted during the Xining reign between 1068 and 1077, found in Cheshire; Click here for a larger version of this picture (image: PAS).

The coin in question was found in the Vale Royal area of Cheshire and has been identified by the British Museum as a cast copper alloy Chinese coin from the Northern Song dynasty (AD 960–1127), minted during the Xining reign period of Emperor Shenzong of Song between 1068 and 1077. Curiously, it appears to be a unique find from Britain—40 individual Chinese coins and one hoard are recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme, but only this eleventh-century example is of medieval date, with all of the other 146 Chinese coins being minted between the mid-seventeenth and early twentieth centuries. Needless to say, this coin has consequently been the subject of an understandable degree of scepticism, with the PAS record suggesting that it is 'doubtful that this is a genuine medieval find... more likely a more recent loss from an curated collection'. The aim of the following post is simply to ask whether it is at all possible that such a coin might have arrived in Britain during the medieval era, and, in doing so, review the evidence for contacts between East Asia and Britain in that period whatever our conclusion on this coin may be.

Looking first at the coin itself, recent losses or deliberate modern depositions of exotic finds are certainly encountered in Britain, including a group of 107 Chinese coins dated 1659 to 1850 found buried together at Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria; another group of four coins from Foxhall, Suffolk; and a lovely Sasanian carnelian finger ring from East Sussex that was found with an odd collection of material of various dates including a modern replica of a Byzantine coin. Nonetheless, although the possibility of a loss from a curated collection certainly cannot be discounted, it can be perhaps overused as an explanation for 'surprising' finds—as Martin Biddle has observed, 'the proverbial absent-minded college don or cathedral canon, dropping items of his collection here, there and everywhere... has never seemed a very convincing character', and in recent years the hyper-scepticism over finds of at least some exotic coins in Britain has abated somewhat.(1) Given the above, it is worth looking at the local context of this medieval Chinese coin, to assess whether there are any positive reasons to believe it is part of such a 'suspicious' grouping of finds or deposited curated collection. The coin itself is one of a discrete group of 24 finds found in an area less than 100 metres in all directions from the findspot, and aside from the coin being considered here, none of these other finds appear especially 'suspicious' or exotic. They consist of two worn Roman coins (a common find across England, with 263,791 recorded on the PAS as of March 2018); two late medieval lead weights, two pieces of medieval copper-alloy casting waste, and two medieval or post-medieval weights; and fifteen post-medieval finds, dating from the sixteenth to early eighteenth centuries and ranging from coins of Elizabeth I to rings, trade weights and musket balls. All told, the post-Roman finds from the site suggest relatively unremarkable activity on the site from c. 1300 to c. 1750, with nothing else found that might hint at a deliberate exotic deposition or loss from a curated collection.

Looking more widely at the context of such a coin, whilst no other medieval Chinese coins are known from Britain, this find would not stand entirely alone as a medieval-era East Asian import to these islands if it is genuine, with two British sites having apparently produced such items from stratified contexts. One of these medieval imports is a sherd of Chinese blue-and-white porcelain from a small cup or bowl that was found in a late fourteenth-century context at Lower Brook Street, Winchester. The other import is a small piece of bronze with the character 藤 engraved upon it, possibly representing the name 藤原, Fujiwara, apparently found in a context of c. 1300 in the north bank of the Thames at London.(2) Of course, both finds are markedly later in date than the apparently eleventh-century coin found in Cheshire, as are the other finds from the site where the coin was discovered (c. 1300–1750) and, indeed, the other non-textile East Asian imports known from elsewhere in medieval Europe, such as the fragments of a small Chinese qingbai bowl that were recovered from a late thirteenth-century context in the medieval castle at Lucera, Italy.(3) However, this chronological difference is perhaps not such a major problem as might be assumed. Northern Song coins appear to have been minted in exceptional quantities and to have remained in circulation long after their initial minting date, so that in the fourteenth century around 88% of the coins both in circulation within China and exported outside of it seem to have been actually minted under the Northern Song dynasty (960–1126). As such, if the Northern Song coin from Cheshire is a genuine medieval import then it might quite credibly have arrived at any point up to perhaps the late fourteenth century, resolving the above issue.(4)

The Mongol Empire at its greatest extent in the late thirteenth century (image: Wikimedia Commons).

Such a potential thirteenth or fourteenth-century context for the arrival of an eleventh-century Chinese coin in Britain is not only supported by the archaeological evidence, but also by documentary sources. These texts make reference to both the presence of people from Britain and Ireland in East Asia and the presence of people who have, or may have, travelled from these regions in Britain during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. For example, the Flemish Franciscan missionary and explorer William of Rubruck (d. c. 1293) encountered a man of English origin whilst visiting Mongolia in 1254 AD. The man in question, named Basil, was living at Karakorum (near Kharkhorin, Mongolia), the capital of the Mongol Empire between 1235 and 1260, and is described as 'the son of an Englishman'; he is also probably the 'nephew of a bishop' that William later mentions that he met at Karakorum and who he states was captured by the Mongols at Belgrade.(5) Moreover, Basil is not the only Englishman known to have been living among the Mongols during the mid-thirteenth century. Ivo of Narbonne, for example, reported in a letter copied by Matthew Paris in his Chronica Majora that the 'prince of Dalmatia' captured eight fugitives in 1242 during the surprise withdrawal of the Mongols from Central Europe, just as they were at the gates of Vienna, and that these captives included 'an Englishman' who
had twice come as an envoy and interpreter from the king of Tattars to the king of Hungary, and plainly threatened and warned them of the evils which afterwards happened, unless he should give up himself and his kingdom to be subject to the Tattars.(6)
This English envoy of the Mongols (Tatars/'Tartars') was apparently an exile from England who had lost all he owned to gambling at Acre, Israel, and then wandered 'in a shameful state of want' further east into modern Iraq and beyond before the Mongols persuaded him to join them due to his apparent skill with languages, at which point he then travelled with them until he returned to Europe and was finally captured in Austria. Given that he had clearly travelled huge distances with the Mongols and, most especially, his role as envoy and interpreter for the Mongol khan, it seems possible that he was an earlier English visitor than Basil to the Mongol capital of Karakorum, Mongolia.

A detail from Andrea di Bonaiuto's fresco 'The Way of Salvation/The Church Militant and the Church Triumphant', c. 1365–8, with the figures at the centre identified by Jacques Paviot as an English knight of the Garter talking to a Mongol (Paviot, 2000, p. 318; Delvin, 1929); the fresco is located in the Spanish Chapel at Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Click here for a larger version of this image (image: Wikimedia Commons).

In addition to individual English people who were living amongst the Mongols on their own account or as slaves in the thirteenth century, there were also direct diplomatic contacts between Mongol rulers and the English then. Of particular note is the evidence for unidentified Mongol envoys ('Tartars') actually crossing the Channel to visit England in 1264, much to the apparent disgruntlement of the papal legate Guy Foulques—the future Pope Clement IV—who waiting in Boulogne for his own authorisation to cross!(7) Likewise, in 1287–8 the Turkic/Chinese Christian monk and diplomat Rabban Bar Sauma, originally from Beijing, China, visited Europe as an emissary of the Mongol Ilkhanate that stretched from Iraq to northern Afghanistan and met with King Edward I of England in Gascony:
And they went forth from that place, that is to say, from Paris, to go to the king of England, to Kasonia [Gascony]. And having arrived in twenty days at their city [Saint-Sever], the inhabitants of the city went forth to meet them, and they asked them, "Who are you?"And Rabban Sauma and his companions replied, "We are ambassadors, and we have come from beyond the eastern seas, and we are envoys of the King, and of the Patriarch, and the Kings of the Mongols."And the people made haste and went to the king and informed him [of their arrival], and the king welcomed them gladly, and the people introduced them into his presence. And those who were with Rabban Sauma straightway gave to the king the Pukdana [i.e. letter of authorisation] of King Arghun, and the gifts which he had sent to him, and the Letter of Mar Catholicus. And [King Edward] rejoiced greatly, and he was especially glad when Rabban Sauma talked about the matter of Jerusalem. And he said, "We the kings of these cities bear upon our bodies the sign of the Cross, and we have no subject of thought except this matter. And my mind is relieved on the subject about which I have been thinking, when I hear that King Arghun thinks as I think."And the king commanded Rabban Sauma to celebrate the Eucharist, and he performed the Glorious Mysteries; and the king and his officers of state stood up, and the king partook of the Sacrament, and made a great feast that day. 
Then Rabban Sauma said to the king, "We beseech you, O king, to give [your servants] in order to show us whatever churches and shrines there are in this country, so that when we go back to the Children of the East we may give them descriptions of them."And the king replied, "Thus shall you say to King Arghun and to all the Orientals: We have seen a thing than which there is nothing more wonderful, that is to say, that in the countries of the Franks there are not two Confessions of Faith, but only one Confession of Faith, namely, that which confesses Jesus Christ; and all the Christians confess it."And King Edward gave us many gifts and money for the expenses of the road.(8)
The route taken by Rabban Bar Sauma during his journey from Beijing to Gascony in the 1280s (image: Wikimedia Commons).

Yet another Mongol envoy named Buscarello de Ghizolfi, a Genoese adventurer who had settled in Persia, visited London in January 1290, accompanied by three squires who were probably themselves Mongols. Further envoys were sent from the Mongol Ilkhanate later that year, including a Mongol named Zagan and his nephew Gorgi, who were baptized by the Pope before being sent on to England on 2 December 1290 (accompanied again by Buscarello de Ghizolfi), and a certain Saabedin Archaon—a Nestorian cleric who had previously travelled to the west with Rabban Bar Sauma—who arrived after Zagan had left for England and who was, in turn, sent on with letters of credence in his favour addressed to Edward I by Pope Nicholas IV on 31 December.(9) Envoys were also dispatched in the opposite direction, with the regime at Acre sending the English Dominican friar David of Ashby eastwards in 1260 (he returned in 1274, accompanying the Mongol embassy that attended the Second Council of Lyon in that year) and King Edward I sending Geoffrey of Langley with Buscarello de Ghizolfi to the Mongol Ilkhanate capital of Tabriz, Iran, on a diplomatic mission in 1291.

In the early fourteenth century there is further evidence for direct diplomatic contact with both the Mongols and potentially China, which had been partly under Mongol control in the north since the first half of the thirteenth century and was ruled from 1271 by the Yuan Dynasty of China, founded by the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan. For example, in 1313 the royal household records for Edward II record a visit to England by an ambassador of 'the emperor of the Tartars', who Jacques Paviot suggests may have been representing the Great Khan in China, something perhaps supported by the fact that he was one William of Villeneuve.(10) This Franciscan missionary was one of seven suffragan bishops consecrated by Pope Clement V in 1307 to serve in the newly created archdiocese of Beijing, China (Khanbaliq), at the request of John of Montecorvino, the founder of the Chinese mission in the late thirteenth century. William is usually believed to have made it to India but to have then given up and not carried on to China with the others, instead returning to Italy, being next recorded at Avignon, France, in 1318.(11) However, this seems not to take account of the English record of his activities, which suggests that he returned to Europe as a Mongol envoy of 'the emperor of the Tartars' in 1313. Moreover, it is worth noting that Edward II sent a letter to the Emperor of China on 22 May 1313 in which he asks him to him to aid and protect the bishop William of Villeneuve, something that suggests that not only did William returned to Europe in 1313 as an envoy of the Great Khan in China, but also that he then aimed to return there.(12)

A fifteenth-century image of James of Ireland and Odoric of Pordenone in Sumatra, from BnF Français 2810, f.104r; click here for a larger version of this illustration (image: BnF).

In addition to the above, notice should also be made of the journey of James of Ireland, a cleric who travelled with Odoric of Pordenone to the east in the 1320s. Odoric's own account of the journey, written in 1330 after their return to Europe, indicates that they visited India, Sumatra, Java, and Champa (southern Vietnam), before arriving at Guangzhou, China, in 1323–4 and reaching Beijing in 1325, where they stayed for 3 years before travelling back home; Odoric died in 1331 at Udine, north-eastern Italy, and a present of 2 marks was subsequently paid to his companion, James of Ireland, according to the public books of Udine, who unfortunately then disappears from the pages of history.(13) Whether other subjects of the English king undertook similar journeys eastwards to Southeast Asia and China in the later thirteenth and fourteenth centuries is unrecorded, but it is by no means implausible that they did so. Certainly, we know of a number of European merchants who travelled to China at this time, from Marco Polo and Peter of Lucalongo in the late thirteenth century onwards, and there seem to have been communities of Genoese and Venetian merchants living in Yuan China during the fourteenth century, with Latin tombstones moreover known from Yangzhou and Zaiton (Quanzhou) in China. In this light, it is interesting to note that late medieval English coins have apparently been found in Vietnam.(14)

In conclusion, it may well be that this apparently eleventh-century Chinese coin from Cheshire is a modern loss from a curated collection, for example. However, given the lack of other 'exotic' items from the site where it was found, the possibility that it was actually a genuine medieval loss can perhaps be at least considered. Certainly, coins like this seem to have continued to circulate in significant numbers in China well into the fourteenth century, and in this light it is interesting that the other, largely unremarkable, post-Roman artefacts found at the site range in date from c. 1300–1750. Likewise, it is worth noting that there is, in fact, a small quantity of archaeological evidence for East Asian imports into thirteenth-/fourteenth-century England and, perhaps more importantly, a significant quantity of documentary evidence referring to both the presence of people from Britain and Ireland in East Asia and the presence of people who had, or who may have, travelled from these regions in England during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In consequence, a potential context can be constructed for such a coin having arrived in England in c. 1300 or a little after, although this is—of course—not the same thing as saying that such an origin is by any means certain, especially whilst this coin remains a unique find in Britain.

The tombstone of Katerina Ilioni, daughter of the Genoese merchant Domenico Ilioni, dated 1342 and found at Yangzhou, China; click here for a larger version of this image (image: Wikimedia Commons).


1.     See, for example, M. Biddle, 'Ptolemaic coins from Winchester', Antiquity, 49 (1975), 213–15; S. Moorhead, 'Early Byzantine copper coins found in Britain – a review in light of new finds recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme', in O. Tekin (ed.), Ancient History, Numismatics and Epigraphy in the Mediterranean World (Istanbul, 2009), pp. 263–74; E. S. Georganteli, 'Byzantine coins', in M. Biddle (ed.), The Winchester Mint and Coins and Related Finds from the Excavations of 1961-71, Winchester Studies 8 (Oxford, 2012), pp. 669–78; and C. Morrisson, 'Byzantine coins in early medieval Britain: a Byzantinist's assessment', in R. Naismith et al (ed.), Early Medieval Monetary History: Studies in Memory of Mark Blackburn (London, 2014), pp. 207–42.
2.     D. Whitehouse, 'Chinese porcelain in medieval Europe', Medieval Archaeology, 16 (1972), 63–78 at p. 68; P. Ottaway, Winchester: Swithun’s ‘City of Happiness and Good Fortune’: An Archaeological Assessment (Oxford, 2017), online; M. Cooper, 'Cultural survey, 1991', Monumenta Nipponica, 47 (1992), 99–105 at p. 100. My thanks are due to Andrew West for drawing my attention to the London find.
3.     D. Whitehouse, 'Chinese porcelain in medieval Europe', Medieval Archaeology, 16 (1972), 63–78 at pp. 67–8.
4.     On the long life of Northern Song coins and their medieval export to Western Asia and East Africa, see J. Cribb & D. Potts, 'Chinese coin finds from Arabia and the Arabian Gulf', Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy, 7 (1996), 108–18. Note, both coins and pottery seem to have been exported westwards from China in the medieval period, see for example Bing Zhao, 'Chinese-style ceramics in East Africa from the 9th to 16th century: A case of changing values ​​and symbols in the multi-partner global trade', Afriques, 6 (2015), online at
5.     W. W. Rockhill (trans.), The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253–55 (London, 1900), pp. 211, 222–3.
6.     J. A. Giles (trans.), Matthew Paris's English History (London, 1889), vol. 1, pp. 470–1.
7.     J. Paviot, 'England and the Mongols (c. 1260–1330)', Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 10 (2000), 305–18 at p. 308.
8.     E. A. Wallis Budge (trans.), The Monks of Kublai Khan, Emperor of China; or, The History of the Life and Travels of Rabban Sawma (London, 1928), pp. 185–7, spelling slightly modernised and adjusted for consistency.
9.     J. Paviot, 'England and the Mongols (c. 1260–1330)', Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 10 (2000), 305–18 at pp. 314–5. The letters carried by Zagan and Saabedin are in the National Archives as SC 7/30/18 ('Commendation to Edward I of Andrew formerly called Zaganus, Buscarellus de Gisulfo and Moracius, envoys of Argon, king of the Tartars', 2 Dec 1290) and SC 7/31/16 ('Letters of credence to Edward I in favour of Saabedin Archaon, envoy of Argon, king of the Tartars', 31 Dec 1290); see also P. Jackson, The Mongols and the West 1221–1410 (London, 2005), p. 173, on Saabedin.
10.     J. Paviot, 'England and the Mongols (c. 1260–1330)', Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 10 (2000), 305–18 at p. 317; for the view that he was sent by the Middle Eastern Mongol il-khan, see for example J. R. S. Phillips, The Medieval Expansion of Europe, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1998), p. 129.
11.     J. B. Friedman & K. M. Figg (eds.), Trade, Travel, and Exploration in the Middle Ages: An Encyclopedia (London, 2000), pp. 22, 402, 403.
12.     T. Rymer (ed.), Foedera, Conventiones, Literæ, et Cujuscunque Generis Acta Publica, Inter Reges Angliæ et Alios Quosvis Imperatores, Reges, Pontifices, Principes, vel Communitates (London, 1739), vol. 2 pt. 1, p. 40 (22 May 1313), which is also discussed in K. Warner, Edward II: The Unconventional King (Stroud, 2014). Edward II also sent letters asking for aid to be given to William of Villeneuve to the emperor of Trebizond (Alexios II), the king of Georgia (Davit VIII), and the il-khan Oljeitu, suggesting the route that William of Villeneuve was intending on taking; a similar route was followed by Odoric of Pordenone in 1318, as related in his The Eastern Parts of the World Described (1330).
13.     Odoric of Pordenone, The Eastern Parts of the World Described, translated by H. Yule, Cathay and the Way Thither (London, 1913), vol. 2, pp. 97–267, and p. 11 for the gift to James of Ireland; J. B. Friedman & K. M. Figg (eds.), Trade, Travel, and Exploration in the Middle Ages: An Encyclopedia (London, 2000), p. 457.
14.     J. B. Friedman & K. M. Figg (eds.), Trade, Travel, and Exploration in the Middle Ages: An Encyclopedia (London, 2000), pp. 107–09, 372–4, 474, 663; L. Arnold, Princely Gifts & Papal Treasures: The Franciscan Mission to China & Its Influence on the Art of the West, 1250–1350 (San Francisco, 1999); J. Purtle, 'The Far Side: expatriate medieval art and its languages in Sino-Mongol China', in J. Caskey et al (eds.), Confronting the Borders of Medieval Art (Leiden, 2011), pp. 167–97; and J. Kermode, Medieval Merchants: York, Beverley and Hull in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1998), pp. 2–3 at fn. 10 for the claim that late medieval English coins have been found in Vietnam.

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