The first coins used in Britain were imported from the Belgica, a Celtic tribe from Northern France. These were copies of the gold stater coin of Philip II, king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia. This is such a lovely coin and was so influential that it has to be reproduced here.
When the first Celtic coins were minted in Britain around 80 B.C., they were Potins made of cast bronze and based on coins of Massilia (Marseilles) which had a head of Apollo on one side and a bull on the other with the letters MA. The French word potin was an alloy of copper, zinc and lead with more than 25% tin content. Examples have been found at various sites in Kent but are known as ‘Thurrock type’. Judging by these the quality of workmanship is poor with the bull and MA hardly visible.
By about 55 B.C. various tribes of Britons were producing gold and silver Staters and the king's head and the horse motifs had developed into beautiful abstract art.
Atrebates gold stater. Courtesy of Numismatica Ars Classica Auctions, 2009.
Durotriges gold stater. Courtesy of the Sygun Museum of Wales.
This gold stater was minted by the Iceni who had a major fort at Thetford in Norfolk. It known as ‘British J’ coin and came about when the more usual horse motif was replaced by a wolf by the Iceni moneyers.
The Roman’s arrival in 43 A.D. brought Roman coinage to Britain which took over from the Celtic staters but when they left England around 450 A.D. the widespread use of money ended and transactions returned to the ancient barter system. During their occupation of Britain the Romans used their own coins amongst themselves including the gold Aureus/Solidus and the silver Denarius. However the Sestertius (=4 asses), Dupondius (=2 asses), both made from orichalcum (an alloy possibly a type of brass made from copper, zinc and tin), and the copper As were probably used for low-value purchases with and among the resident population.
Roman Copper As of Trajan V
This is a copper as from the time of the famous emperor, Trajan from around 100 AD. The obverse shows the bust of Trajan and his titles IMP[ERATOR] CAES[AR] NERVA TRAIAN AVG[USTUS] GERM[ANICUS] P[ONTIFEX] M[AXIMUS]. The important part is Caesar Nerva, “Heir to Emperor Nerva”. On the reverse legend reads TR[IBUNICIA] POT[ESTATE] CO[N]S[UL] III P[ATER] P[ATRIAE] =“Father of his Country”. The letters SC stand for ‘Senatus Consulto’ meaning “[struck] by order of the Senate” and winged Victory has a shield inscribed SPQR.
The arrival of the Anglo-Saxons didn’t change things at first but gradually, from around the year 600, coins began to re-appear. The Viking colonisation of the north-east of England introduced coins minted in York.
King Cnut silver penny. Courtesy of York Coins.
This is a Viking silver penny probably from the Cuerdale Hoard and dating around 900. The obverse shows the legend CVNNETTI and the reverse legend has the letters C N V T making the sign of the cross and R E X around.
The Anglo-Saxons struck a gold Thrymsa, copied from Roman bronze coins, up to around 675, later the silver Sceatta weighing around 16 grains and later still the copper Styca.
Gold Thrymsa. Courtesy of Gloucester City Museum.
The thrymsa is very rare. Only seven have been found with the inscription W TON known as Wunetton type. This one was discovered near Newent in Gloucestershire. It dates to around 650 and is now in the Gloucester City Museum.
The most long-lived coin that was invented was the silver
Penny which replaced the sceatta. A Denier had been struck by Charlemagne in
the kingdom of the Franks about 755 AD, and the King of Kent at the Canterbury mint and King Offa of Mercia at the London mint
based their new coins on this but it was only when Eadgar became King of all England in 959, reigning until 975, that the silver
penny was used throughout England. The old abbreviation d for penny comes from the denier, which in turn derives from the Roman
Ref. Spink 1148. Sold at auction by Lockdales, Ipswitch on Sept 23rd 2007
This is a silver penny from the reign of the Saxon King of England, Æthelred II (978-1016). It is known as a CRVX type, the obverse reads + ÆÐELRÆÐREXANGLOX and the reverse + þVLFNOÐCOLNES that is, the name of the moneyer being Wulfnoth and the mint, Colchester.
This beautiful English coin now held in the British Museum is a Mancus (of Danish roots) and is equivalent in value to 30 silver pennies, very valuable in its time. It depicts Coenwulf, successor to Offa as King of Mercia from 796 to 821. Weighing 4.25 grams with 0.85 pure gold, it has the inscription DE VICO LVNDONIAE (“from the trading place of London”) on the reverse.
The Mark - not a coin?
The Mark was a monetary weight unit in the 9th century. It was worth 100 pennies @ 22½ grains = 2250 grains (of wheat, each now determined to weigh 48.6mg, barley was heavier at 64.8mg per grain). The Pound had been a weight unit since the time of the Romans (libra hence the abbreviation L.) and the pound weight was 240 pennies or 5400 grains. The mark was replaced with the Carolingian pound, created by Charlemagne around 800 A.D., and the mark was revalued at two-thirds of a pound equalling 160 pence or 13s-4d. The Carolingian pound weighed 12 ounces so a mark was 8 ounces of silver equivalent to the weight of twenty silver pennies. He also divided the silver pound into 20 solidi, or sous, or shillings, which was a throwback to the Gallic or Celtic method of counting in 20’s, each worth 12 denare, which in turn was a throwback to the Graeco-Roman method of counting in 12’s. This £1=20s.=240d. relationship was the well-known 1:20:240 which characterised the majority of silver-based monetary systems until the Napoleonic reforms of 1795. One mark of 24 carat gold equalled nine silver marks and was worth £6.
However no shilling, pound or mark coins were struck. All debts were paid in silver pennies.
William I (William the Conqueror) reigning from 1066 to 1087, continued to mint silver pennies to the same standard and fineness as his Anglo-Saxon predecessors, around 1.3 gm (22-24 grains).
Ref. Ex Carlyon-Britton Collection. From York Coins Inc, New York Catalogue ref. H1419 Oct 19th 2007
This William I penny dates from around 1083 to 1086 minted by Æstan at the Winchester mint. The obverse is a crowned bust of the king holding a sceptre in his right hand with the words + þILLELM REX. The reverse has a cross pattée, with in each angle a letter of the word PAXS and around the rim the letters +IESTAN ON þINC.
Following William II (William Rufus), Henry I, Stephen and Matilda, Henry
II came to the throne in 1154 and found that the quality and fineness of the coins had deteriorated. In order to restore
confidence, a new coin type was introduced in 1180 known as the Short Cross penny (from its reverse
design) which was of a good weight and fineness of silver, and a better style.
The Short Cross penny design was continued for nearly 70 years by Richard I and John with unchanged obverse legend, still reading HENRICUS REX (“King Henry”), and for the first 30 years of Henry III’s reign. It was discontinued in 1247 and the reverse design changed to the Long Cross type with the cross extending to the edge of the coin to duscourage clipping. Henry’s title was extended to include III or the word TERCI (Third).
Only the silver penny and a very few half-pennies were in use and sometimes, to make a smaller denomination, penny coins were cut in half (‘hæflings’) or into quarters (‘feorthings’) which became farthings). The double lines of the reverse cross on the Long Cross penny made it easier and more accurate to make these divisions. In 1266 Henry III decreed that the Tower Pound = 12 ounces = 5400 grains was to be the monetary unit in England and it lasted until 1527 (named after the Tower Hill mint in London). The monetary pound was the value of one pound Tower weight of sterling silver, hence the name ‘pound sterling’.
By Edward I’s accession in 1272, there was a need for other denominations and in 1279 Edward commenced a major recoinage. The basis of this was a redesigned penny minted in millions, and three new coins, the Groat (valued at four pence), Half-penny and Farthing. The old pennies could be taken to the mint and exchanged for the new coins. The groat was unsuccessful because it was underweight but the others were all of a more acceptable standard and the design made clipping easier to detect.
Edward I silver farthing minted in London. Its actual size is about 9mm diameter
It was not until 1351, in the reign of Edward III, that the groat reappeared, together with a half-groat of two pence value. This time the weights were correctly proportioned and the new denominations were accepted.
The year 1279 is also significant because prior to this the coins usually had abbreviations of the name of the moneyer and the mint on the reverse. After the recoinage, an abbreviation for the city or town where the coin was produced was given.
Shining Silver, Glorious Gold
Until now all English coinage had been in silver. Several European countries were already minting gold coinage and it was decided that England should follow. The first gold coins minted were by two Florentine engravers in 1343 and were called the Florin or Double-Leopard, Leopard (half-florin) and Helm, with values of six shillings, three shillings and one shilling and sixpence respectively (one shilling = 12 pence). The coins were issued by a royal proclamation in January 1344 which described two leopards, one on each side of the king’s throne, presumably based on the biblical story of King Solomon seated in the Temple accompanied by two lions. This allusion would not be lost on the king’s deeply religious subjects. However the gold in the double-leopard was overvalued and the coin was not a success. It appears that only three specimens have survived of which two are in the British Museum and the third is on show at present (2009) in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
The following year Edward tried again, this time successfully, with the gold Noble which was the first popular and successful English gold coin, valued at half a mark or six shillings and eight pence (80 pence). It replaced the double-leopard which was demonetised in August of that year.
Gold noble also in the British Museum Collection. Photographed by Greg Gulik.
This Edward III gold noble shows the central figure of the king standing in a boat with a flag at its helm. He brandishes a sword in his right hand and has a shield decorated with the royal arms on his left arm. The surrounding inscription is EDWARD DEI GRA REX ANGL DRS HIB Z ACQ that is “Edward by the Grace of God King of England, Lord of Ireland and Aquitaine”. The reverse has a cross with an E at its centre surrounded by crowns and fleurs-de-lys and the legend IHC AVTUM TRAN[S]IENS PER MEDIU[M] ILLORUM IBAT (“But Jesus passing through their midst went His way”).
The half-noble (three shillings and four pence = 40 pence) and, two years later, the quarter-noble of one shilling
and eight pence (20 pence) were also issued. These new coins were of the correct weight for the values assigned to them.
The new system of gold and silver coinage continued virtually unchanged during the reign of Richard II until 1412, in the reign of Henry IV. A shortage of bullion forced an approximately 10 per cent reduction in the weight of the gold coinage and a 16 per cent decrease in the silver, bringing the English coinage into line with prevailing Continental standards.
These remained the standards until 1464 when the cost of the interminable wars coupled with another shortage of bullion caused Edward IV to make further reductions. All the gold coins in circulation were revalued upwards, the noble to eight shillings and four pence, the half-noble to four shillings and two pence and so on. Three new coins were introduced, the Ryal or rose noble (because of a rose on the ship on the obverse) with a value of ten shillings and the Angel (so-called because of its obverse design depicting archangel St Michael spearing a dragon, which represented Satan) given the former value of the noble, six shillings and eight pence and the rose half-noble or half-ryal, five shillings. The rose noble was unpopular and was discontinued after a few years but the angel was very popular.
The upward valuation of the gold coinage was exactly matched by a corresponding reduction in the weight of the silver coins, for example the groat changed from a weight of 60 grains to one of 48 grains.
Henry VI on his accession in 1422 took the title King of France and had this gold Salut struck in Rouen. The legend reads HENRICUS DEI GRA[TIA] FRA[N]CORU[M] Z A[N]GLIE REX, the persons are the Madonna receiving a scroll with the word AVE (Hail!) from the archangel Gabriel and the arms are those of France and England. The reverse displays a cross with the Fleur-de-lis of France and the Leopard of England. Unfortunately England lost Paris in 1436, Normandy in 1450, Aquitaine in 1453, and lastly Calais in 1558.
When Edward IV returned to the throne in 1471 following the brief second reign of Henry VI, the older gold coins were phased out and only the angel and a half-angel (angelet) were minted, together with a small number of silver groats, half-groats, pennies, half-pennies and farthings.
Following Edward V and Richard III, the Tudor monarch Henry VII in 1485 continued with the groat, half-groat, penny and half-penny in silver. In gold, there was the ryal of ten shillings, the angel valued at six shillings and eight pence and a half-angel of three shillings and fourpence. In 1489 he replaced the ryal with the Sovereign, valued at 20 shillings, a large gold coin based on the real d'or of the Netherlands and he introduced a new silver coin the shilling or Testoon, probably in 1505.
Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509 and in 1526 the rising value of gold led him to revalue the gold coins so that the sovereign became worth twenty-two shillings. In order to preserve the standard 6 shillings and 8 pence unit of accountancy a new gold coin with that value, the George noble which showed St George spearing a dragon, was introduced to replace the angel, now worth 7s-6d. This coin and the half-George of 3s-4d and the rose crown of 4s-6d were unpopular and were quickly discontinued. They were replaced by a gold crown of five shillings and half-crown of 2s-6d.
Henry VIII Silver Groat. Courtesy of Wildwinds
The legend reads: obverse (portcullis) hENRIC[US]xVIII:DIxGRA[TIA]xREXxA[N]GL[IAE]'ZxHIB[ERNIAE]
On the reverse (portcullis) POSVI DEV[M]':ADIVTORE[M]':MEV[m]' (“I have made God my Helper”)
In 1497 a statute issued by Henry VIII created the Troy Pound and from
1538 it replaced the Tower Pound. It equalled twelve Troy ounces, each ounce = 20 pence and each penny = 24 grains so in total
it was equal to 5760 grains. Curiously these are barley grains weighing 64.8mg and not wheat grains as used before. It
was named after the town of Troyes in France, where English merchants traded, and it is still used in England for weighing
precious metals. The penny was also used as the ‘pennyweight’ - one twentieth of an ounce (24 grains - heavier
than the silver penny coin at 22½ grains) and a shilling was one twentieth of a pound weight.
In 1544-1547, the nation’s financial state deteriorated and the gold coinage reverted to the original values but was reduced in weight to compensate. Sovereigns of twenty shillings, half-sovereigns, angels (though of the same value as the George noble at 6s 8d the design went back to the former standing figure of St Michael killing a dragon), crown, half-angel and half-crown. The Testoon or Shilling made a reappearance, now with a bearded facing portrait of the king, which was also used on the groat and half-groat. These silver issues were heavily debased, and as a result the king was referred to as ‘Old Copper Nose’, because the king’s nose turned copper-coloured when the coin began to wear.
Edward VI succeeded to the throne in 1547 and issued base silver coins, shillings which were the first English coins to bear a date, shown in Roman numerals, MDXLIX for 1549, MDL for 1550 and MDLI for 1551. During 1551, as part of a reform of the coinage, these were replaced by good quality silver coins, which included two new denominations, the Sixpence and the Threepence. All three coins bore value marks in Latin numerals, XII, VI and III pence, the first ever used on English coins. In gold, there was a sovereign valued at thirty shillings with obverse of a seated facing figure of the king enthroned, but this was soon replaced with a lighter coin of twenty shillings depicting a three-quarter length bust of the king. Other gold denominations included the half-sovereign, initially fifteen shillings then a ten shilling coin similar to the sovereign, the crown and half-crown, both with proportionate values. The fine silver issues from 1551 onwards included crowns and half-crowns with an obverse showing the king on horseback, a design that continued until the Commonwealth.
Edward VI silver crown - the first coin with the date in English. Spink 2478. Courtesy of London Coins Ltd.
Reigning from 1553-1558, Mary re-issued a fine gold sovereign with a high degree of workmanship valued at thirty shillings together with a ryal(180d), angel(120d) and half-angel. In silver there were no crowns, half-crowns or shillings but plentiful quantities of groats, rare half-groats and a few pennies. The shilling and sixpence were reintroduced after 1554 for the coinage bearing facing portraits of Philip and Mary.
Mary Sovereign, 1553.
Courtesy of Wildwinds
The legend reads: obverse MARIA D[EI]:G[RATIA]:ANG[LIAE]:FRA[NCIA]:Z:hIB[ERNIAE]:REGINA:M:D:LIII
On the reverse A:D[OMI]nO FACTV[M]:EST:ISTV[D]:Z:EST MIRAB[ILE]:In:OCVLI[S] :n[OST]RIS (“This is the Lord's doing and it is marvellous in our eyes”)
After her succession in 1558, Elizabeth recalled all the base silver coins which were still in circulation and replaced them with coins of a high silver content. The beginnings of the change to a milled coinage occurred from 1561 to 1571. The term ‘milled’ is used because the first machines were powered by water mills and the mills were used to turn out strips of metal to a consistent thickness, from which the blanks were cut. The coins were then struck on a manual screw press. In gold, the milled coinage consisted of a limited number of half-pounds, value ten shillings, crowns of five shillings, and extremely rare half-crowns of two shillings and sixpence, all beautifully styled and well-struck and circular. The gold milled coinage is found with two mintmarks, a star or a lis.
Elizabeth I Half Pound, 1561.
British Museum. Courtesy of Arwel Parry, Wikimedia, Creative Commons Licence
Milled coins were unpopular with the hammermen (mint workers) because the machinery was seen as a threat to their jobs. Also against it was the slowness of the early machines. The term ‘milled’ is also applied to the lines on the edge of the machine-made coins which were introduced to prevent the practice of clipping silver or gold from round the edge although the correct term is ‘grained’. Hammered coinage continued with gold denominations consisting of the fine sovereign (99.4% gold content) of thirty shillings, the pound (240d), ryal (180d) and half-pound (120d). Curiously the series of angels, half-angels and quarter-angels were still in circulation, all with the same values as the half-pound, crown and half-crown. The initial series of silver coins included the crown, half-crown (neither now minted in gold) shilling (now firmly established as a major denomination), groat, half-groat and penny.
Elizabeth I Milled Sixpence, 1562.
Courtesy of Freeman and Sear 2005
From 1561 onwards, additional coins were added - a reintroduced sixpence, threepence and two new and short-lived denominations, the three half-pence and three farthings.
A half-pence was struck towards the end of the reign. During the last two years two beautiful coins, silver crowns and half-crowns, were issued bearing a half-length bust of the queen holding an orb and sceptre. These bear the dates in the form of a 1 or a 2, which stood for 1601 and 1602.
The Stuart dynasty began with James I in 1603. None of the coins from this reign are dated. The gold sovereign with the reverse EXURGAT DEUS DISSIPENTUR INIMICI (“Let God arise and His enemies be scattered”) with a value of 20s was replaced by the Unite, named from the reverse legend FACIAM EOS IN GENTEM UNAM (“I will make them one nation”) referring to the union of England and Scotland. Due to a rise in the price of gold, these coins were revalued in 1612 at 22 shillings. In 1619 the unite was replaced with a coin known as the Laurel (from the laureate bust of the king on the obverse), which was lighter and valued at 20 shillings. Other gold coins reflecting similar value and weight revisions were the half-sovereign (later called the double-crown and then half-laurel), the crown (later the quarter-laurel) and the half-crown. In parallel with the gold issues, both the crown and halfcrown were also produced in silver, depicting the king on horseback.
Occupying what was, by now, an anachronistic position, were the gold rose ryal of 30 shillings (value mark XXX) and the half or spur ryal of 15 shillings (marked XV), together with the gold angel and half-angel. Except for the angel, which survived until 1643, these were the final issues of these denominations.
James I Silver Shilling, Tower mintmark (Fleur de)Lis next to REX, 1604-1605.
Courtesy of Anglo Antiquities
James I also produced shillings, sixpences, half-groats, pennies and half-pennies in silver. An important step was the introduction of the copper farthing. Hitherto English monarchs had refused to countenance the idea of a base metal coinage but James, with his experience of such coins in Scotland, licensed Lord Harrington to produce them. The first Harrington issues were given a surface coating of tin, possibly to continue the fiction of a silver coinage but this was soon abandoned.
This licensing practice continued into the reign of Charles I in 1625 From 1634 farthings were minted under a licence sold to Lord Maltravers. At one point a small brass plug was added to make forgery more difficult. These plugged coins are known as the Rose farthings from their reverse design showing a Tudor rose.
The reign of Charles I included changes in design and a new gold denomination (the triple unite). A series of gold coins was minted in 1631-2 and silver coins in 1637-9. The gold denominations consisted of the unite of 20 shillings (marked XX), double-crown (X) and crown (V), with the angel and half-angel. Silver coins consisted of the crown and halfcrown, both showing the king on horseback, shilling (value mark XII), sixpence (VI), halfgroat (II), penny and half-penny, all produced at the Tower Mint in London. When a new mint was opened in Aberystwyth, Wales in 1638 to exploit the output from Welsh silver mines, it produced shillings, sixpences, threepences, half-groats, pennies and half-pennies, plus groats, all bearing the three ostrich plumes emblem of the Prince of Wales as a mintmark.
When the Civil War began in 1642, the Tower mint fell into the hands of Parliament who continued to issue coins in the name of Charles I bearing his portrait and using the same reverse designs. Charles was forced to open a mints in Shrewsbury and Oxford from which he issued the gold triple-unite (value mark III) with the reverse design consisting of what is known as the Declaration - RELIG PROT LEG ANG LIBER PAR (“The religion of the Protestants the laws of England and the liberty of Parliament”). Other denominations from these two mints included the large silver pound, half-pound, crown and half-crown, with similar reverse and value marks of XX, X, V and 2.6 respectively. Production at Oxford continued until 1646 and included other denominations. Other Royalist mints were opened briefly at York, Bristol, Exeter, Truro, Worcester, Chester and the Aberystwyth silver mills.
This gold unite from 1651 shows the standard design which was used on all coins from 1649 to 1660, consisting of an obverse showing the shield of St George within a wreath and the legend THE COMMONWEALTH OF ENGLAND and reverse with date, value mark (here XX for 20s.) and the legend GOD WITH VS with two shields, that of St George and that of Ireland. The joined shields on the reverse led to these coins being called “Breeches money”.
In gold there was the unite, double-crown and crown; in silver, the crown, half-crown, shilling, sixpence, half-groat, penny and half-penny. The smaller denominations, two pence, penny and half-penny omitted the date and legends on the reverse.
A silver shilling minted in Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire. Courtesy of A Collector.
A lozenge or diamond shape unique to English coins is found in shillings minted in Newark in 1645/6 and Pontefract in 1648 when those towns were under siege by the Parliamentarians. The Royalists cut up gold and silver plate into small pieces and stamped them with a crown and CR for King Charles. The letters OBS stand for ‘obsessum’ the Latin for ‘besieged’ and the legend DUM SPIRO SPERO (“While I live I hope”).
In 1656 Oliver Cromwell, as Lord Protector, ordered the minting of coins bearing his portrait. Two gold denominations were minted, the smaller and most common being the broad, a forerunner of the guinea.
The other was a 50 shilling coin. Neither coin seems to have entered circulation and are regarded as patterns. Similarly the silver coins are also patterns. These consist of crowns, halfcrowns, shillings and extremely rare sixpences and utilise similar designs to the gold
After the restoration hammered coins were only produced for the first years of Charles II reign from 1660 to 1662 but remained legal tender until 1696. The denominations were the same as those of the Commonwealth with the addition of a groat and a threepence. Thereafter only machine-made milled coins were minted. In 1663 the gold Guinea worth 20s was introduced (named as it was minted from gold imported from Guinea in West Africa). A half-guinea,two-guinea and five-guinea coin were also produced. From 1685 James II continued these denominations.
James II gold guinea 1688. Courtesy of Spink
A curious coin that was introduced by James II was the tin farthing and later the tin halfpenny following the accession of William and Mary in February 1689. This was to encourage the Cornish tin-mining industry. These were the first bi-metallic English coins as each had a small copper plug to discourage forgery. Another unique feature of these coins is that there is an edge inscription including the date. It reads NVMMORVM FAMVLVS (“The Servant of the Coinage”) plus the date.
James II tin farthing 1684. Courtesy of St James Auctions
William and Mary tin halfpenny 1690. Courtesy of St James Auctions
The tin coins were never a success, they corroded and were counterfeited, so copper farthings and halfpennies came back in 1694.
So-called ‘Gun Money’ was the last coinage produced by the deposed James II. It was made from brass metal particularly church bells and cannon and was minted in Dublin from June 1689 until he lost the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690 and fled to France. It was intended to be redeemed for silver following James’ victory and the month was shown so that coins could be replaced in stages. Sadley for the coin holders, this never happened. The half-crown was marked as XXX (thirty pence).
James II half-crown, October 1689. Courtesy of Ye Olde Coin Co
A key date was 27th July 1694 when William Paterson, a Scottish merchant, obtained a Royal Charter from William III, to form the the Bank of England and started to issue English banknotes.
In 1696, under William III, there was a recoinage of the silver denominations which coincided with the withdrawal of the old hammered coins. Silver coins had been disappearing to the continent where the metal was worth more than the coin itself. Tax collectors were instructed to buy back hammered coinage by weight as so many had pieces clipped off them. Provincial mints were set up at Bristol, Chester, Exeter, Norwich and York until 1698 to produce the large quantities required. After the Union of England and Scotland, the mint at Edinburgh operated briefly in conjunction with the mint in London.
Under George I in 1717, the guinea was revalued to 21s and in 1797 in the reign of George III, the issue of guineas was stopped during the Napoleonic Wars and overstruck Spanish 8 real pieces (Pieces of Eight) were issued as an emergency measure and valued at 57 pence. The Bank of England then produced gold Dollars (5s or 60p). One-third (84p) and one-half (126p) guineas continued to be issued until 1815. The silver coinage was also still being lost as it was melted down for bullion which was worth more.
During the reign of George III production of silver coins became spasmodic and mostly confined to the smaller denominations. Likewise the copper coins, in almost continuous production until 1754, virtually ceased until 1797 after a brief issue 1770-1775 and this led over the years to widespread forgery to make up the shortfall and then the introduction of a provincial token coinage. In 1797 Matthew Boulton produced the famous copper ‘cartwheel’ penny at his mint in Soho, Birmingham using steam power for the coining press, and two years later a half-penny and farthing. The penny weighed 1oz. but the weight was reduced from 1799. In 1806 the portrait and Britannia reverse were redesigned (with a lighthouse and ship) and from now the familiar bead edging was standard. In 1894 the reverse Britannia design was modified and the lighthouse and ship were quietly removed.
George III farthing, Soho Mint - the first coin with the value written on the coin. Courtesy of B & D World Coins
In 1816 the ‘Great Recoinage’ saw the basis of English money change from the silver to the gold standard. From now on the actual value of silver in a silver coin was less than its face value. It had become ‘token’ coinage. The London mint moved from the Tower of London to new premises at nearby Tower Hill and installed coining presses. The coins in circulation now included the gold sovereign (20s), half-sovereign, two pounds and five pounds, the silver crown, half-crown, shilling and sixpence and the copper penny, half-penny and farthing. The sovereign, as issued in 1817, made first use of the famous ‘St. George and the dragon’ design by Benedetto Pistrucci, still employed today. Pistrucci proposed it would remind the world of Britain’s victory over Napoleon in the battle of Waterloo in 1815. The introduction of the half-sovereign came at the same time. The standard, 8 grammes of 22 carat gold for the sovereign, 4 grammes for the half, has been maintained ever since.
Gold Sovereign with Pistrucci’s portrait as used until 1825. Courtesy of Cruzis Coins
St. George underwent the first of many alterations in 1818 when his broken lance was replaced by a sword. In 1821 the encircling Garter was removed and replaced by a reeded border. The date also changed sides and was moved from the obverse to the exergue of the reverse (see 1914 half-sovereign below).
These denominations continued alongside the new banknotes which were made legal tender in 1833 for £5 and above. The silver groat (4d) reappeared briefly from 1836 to 1856 and the threepence was back in 1848.
This £5 gold coin from 1839 is known as ‘Una and the Lion’ after the poem, ‘The Fairie Queen’ by Edmund Spenser. It shows a young Queen Victoria, with orb and sceptre, leading the British Lion. It was designed by Royal Mint engraver, William Wyon to mark the beginning of Victoria’s reign. The inscription reads DIRIGE DEUS GRESSUS MEOS ‘May the Lord protect my steps’. It is a proof coin and only a small number were produced.
A silver florin, worth 24d or one tenth of a pound, was introduced in 1849; the unheralded start of decimalisation. From 1860 the metal used for the farthing, half-penny and penny changed from copper to bronze (an alloy of 95% copper, 4% tin and 1% zinc). The Coinage Act in 1870 defined coin weights and tolerances but not size or alloy proportions. In 1894 the reverse Britannia design of the bronze coins was modified and the lighthouse and ship which had been added were quietly removed.
In 1878 the Troy pound was replaced by the Avoirdupois pound by the Weights and Measures Act of that year. The Avoirdupois pound had been around since around 1300 and was used by the international wool trade which was extremely important in Europe. It weighs 7000 grains (barley) and there are sixteen avoirdupois ounces to the pound. The name comes from ‘aveir de peis’ in Norman French, by 1600, ‘haver du pois’ meaning ‘goods of weight’. The Troy pound was officially abolished in January 1879 and the link between coinage and weight ended.
In 1902 a new Britannia appeared on the silver florin (two-shilling coin) of Edward VII. It was designed and engraved by George William de Saulles who had revised the design for the bronze penny in 1895. With Britannia standing, it has similarities to the 1895 British Trade Dollar design. Here a helmeted Britannia, with trident and shield, stands like a Roman goddess on the prow of a ancient galley. This was the forerunner of the Britannia gold commemorative design. From 1920, silver coins had the silver content drastically reduced from fine ‘sterling silver’ quality .925 (or 92.5%) down to .5 (50%). From 1947, English ‘silver’ coins are in fact cupro-nickel with no silver content at all although, in the United States, 90% silver content was used for silver coins right up to 1965.
Edward VIIth 1904 Florin
The crown disappeared in 1915 and the gold sovereign and half-sovereign were withdrawn from circulation in 1914 but production at the Royal Mint only stopped in 1917. Commonwealth mints around the world continued minting them for several years.
George Vth 1914 Half-Sovereign
From now on no gold coins would be in circulation and ten shilling and various values of pound notes took over.
When George VI came to the throne in 1937 the Mint introduced new designs for the farthing (wren), Halfpenny (Golden Hind), silver threepence (rose), brass threepence (thrift plant).sixpence (just initials) and the florin (rose, thistle and shamrock). From 1945 the silver threepence was no longer minted and the brass twelve-sided coin took over.
From 1953, Elizabeth II oversaw further changes. In 1956, farthing production ended and they were withdrawn in 1960. By 1967 there were just seven coins in circulation - half-crown, florin(= 2 shillings), shilling, sixpence, threepence, penny and half-penny. Of these the half-penny was withdrawn in 1969 and the half-crown in 1970.
The last chapter?
Elizabeth II’s reign saw the last great change on February 15th 1971, named Decimalisation Day. On that day the United Kingdom changed from the centuries old tradition of using 12 pence to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound to a new decimal 100 new pence to the pound. In this it finally came into line with the rest of the world. However at the same time the quality of the coin materials from now on was a shadow of their former glory. The increasing value of gold and silver had made these metals too expensive to use for coins. Six new pence coins were issued - cupro-nickel (75% copper:25% nickel) 50np (1969), 10np (1968), 5np (1968), and bronze 2np, 1np and half-np (all in 1971). The old 6d, last minted in 1967, was kept as it was especially useful for parking meters but it was finally withdrawn in 1980 and the word ‘new’ was dropped from penny coins in 1982. A 20p in a slightly different cupro-nickel (84% Cu: 16% Ni) and a gold-coloured pound coin made in nickel-brass (70% Cu, 24.5% Zn and 5.5% Ni) were added to the set in 1982 but the half-penny fell by the wayside in December 1984 beaten by inflation. In June 1998 an unimpressive first, a bi-metallic coin valued at £2 was introduced made from cupro-nickel and nickel-brass. The 5p was made smaller and lighter in 1990, the same fate befell the 10p in 1992 and the 50p in 1997. The material used for the 2p and 1p was changed to copper-plated mild steel (which is magnetic) from 1992 but in just one year, 1998, they were produced in bronze as a final farewell. The designs are excellent but the finish of the base metal can never match earlier coins and from the rich selection of crowns, nobles, angels and florins, we now have just pennies and pounds. Here is the first decimal set -
For anyone interested, the 50p is the world’s first coin to be struck in the shape of an equilateral curve heptagon. The shape, with its constant rolling diameter, means that it is readily acceptable in vending machines. Priorities change!
Sadly all gold and silver coins produced since 1981 by the Royal Mint are not definitives (coins for circulation) but commemoratives (coins for collectors) and bullion (sold for their weight of precious metal) The five shilling piece or crown had become a twenty five pence commemorative coin, struck in 1972, 1977, 1980, and 1981. However in 1990 it was quietly decided to make a commemorative five pound coin of the same size and format as the old crown, and that it would continue to be known as a crown.
The next great change may be the conversion of British Currency to the Euro. However with the sentimental attachment to the penny and the pound this may not happen before physical currency is superceded by electronic currency. What is more certain is that commemorative and bullion currency in gold and silver will continue for some time yet.
Gold in the form of Sovereigns has been used as bullion since 1957
and Britannias began in 1987.
In 22 carat (.917) gold, there are 1oz, 1/2oz, 1/4oz and 1/10oz Britannias (nominally £100, £50, £25 and £10)
and Sovereigns and half-sovereigns. The weight is still referred to in Troy ounces (=31.1035 grams).
Only the 1oz Britannia is usually used for bullion together with the gold sovereign which has 0.2352oz (7.315 g) of actual gold content.
Silver Britannias, working down from 1oz (nominally £2) to a tenth of an ounce (20p), were first minted in 1997 but always in sets at a premium price so are not usually used for bullion.
The material used for silver britannias is known as ‘britannia silver’ which seems sensible. It is .958 fine silver with 4.16% copper compared with 7.5% copper in ‘sterling silver’ (.925 fine).
Britannia silver was the mandatory composition for silver coins in England from 1697 to 1720 to discourage the melting (as was done with sterling coins) to create other silver objects.
With gold at £400 an ounce, a gold sovereign can be bought for £125, a proof-quality sovereign for coin collectors costs about £180 and a 1oz gold britannia is around £425.
In almost pure platinum, the Royal Mint issues 1oz down to 1/10oz nominally £100 to £10 coins but costing a lot more.
In 1997 the Royal Mint issued a silver proof Britannia coin to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the introduction of the Britannia Silver Hallmarking Standard. Sculptor Philip Nathan, who designed the gold Britannias introduced in 1987 was asked to prepare a design for the silver coin and this dynamic Britannia riding in her chariot (and reminding us of Boudicca) is the result. In 2009 the design appeared on both the silver and gold Britannias. The latter links back rather neatly to the Macedonian stater which began this history and the story of English coins.
From 1066 to 1485 over 90 different mints operated in England. The main mints throughout the period were London, York and Durham.
Bury St. Edmunds, Bristol and Canterbury were mints up to the reign of Edward III and Winchester was a famous early mint.
farthing (copper) 1/4d 1619-1860 penny (silver) 959-1662 groat (silver) 4d 1279-1602 1660-1816 1836-1856 shilling (testoon) 12d 1505-1970 half-crown (silver) 30d 1601-1751 1816-1970 noble (gold) 60d/100d 1344-1471 angel (gold) 60d 1464-1643 crown (gold) 60d 1526-1553 ryal (spur-r.)(gold) 120d/180d 1464-1470 1485-1489 1553-1624 mark 160d never issued as a coin sovereign (gold) 240/270d/240d 1489-1603 1817-1917 1857-1982 unite (gold) 240d 1604-1618 1625-1642 laurel (gold) 240d 1619-1624 fine sovereign 360d 1553-1603 rose ryal 360d 1604-1624
D Sources:English Hammered Coins by Timothy D.Cook, Glendive, Montana http://www.sortore.com/coins/home.html
English Currency by Colin Bignell http://www.bignell.uk.com/english_currency.htm
The Coinage of Britain by Ken Elks http://www.kenelks.co.uk/coins/index.htm
Coins of England and Great Britain by Tony Clayton http://www.tclayton.demon.co.uk/coins.html
Coin Yearbook 2008 by James Mackay and John W Mussell Token Publishing Ltd
Paul Shield's Metal Detecting Website www.psdetecting.com/Inscriptions.html
Richard and Sue Wellings’ Ye Olde Coin Co, Australia www.oldcoin.com.au/