English coinage was driven by the economic history of the country. Both need and greed made this coinage at once one of the more desirable of the European currencies during the middle ages, but also one subject to wide fluctuations in fineness and refinement in design. The changing economic need of the country in converting from an agricultural society to one of industrialization, led to a coinage which was stable and highly accepted throughout Europe, eventually influencing the early coinage of Scandinavia and the Hanseatic and Baltic states. But the greed of the crown often reduced the fineness of the coin almost to the point of non-acceptance within the land itself.

The denominations of English coinage did not arise at one time. They came into being as responses to the constantly changing picture which faced the ruling monarch of the time. In point of fact, the various denominations arose during three major periods: the hundred years between 1272 and 1377 marking the rise of mechanization and the costs of the French wars, the hundred years between 1509 and 1603, during which attempts were made to overcome the excesses of Henry VIII and the beginning of the Commonwealth, and the close of the 18th century when earlier attempts at an official but private copper coinage was formalized with a significant royal copper coinage leading to the development of modern British currency.

Unlike the conquests of Spain and Gaul by a single political entity which set up a single economic system, the conquest of England was by many tribes over a span of many years during which different governments and different economic systems were set up in each territory. In spite of such diversity, the early Anglo-Saxon period was served by the styca (or sceat) and the thrymsa. Once the penny was introduced, it supplanted these and became the dominant stable economic unit at least until the Commonwealth. Nevertheless, the silver content of the penny fluctuated widely at times toward the end of the period. Gold underwent rapid changes, once it was introduced as a medium for coinage in England. It is remarkable that most of the denominations arose when England was already unified and relatively stable, while the penny served as the sole economic unit when the future England was still fragmented into independent kingdoms, each vying for domination.



The considerable prosperity of pre-Roman Celtic Britain is illustrated by the fact that some of the chieftains, following the example of Roman provinces across the Channel, began to coin money. This suggested to the Romans that, from a financial point-of-view, conquest of Britain would be worthwhile. Other groups evidently shared this opinion in later times. The Celtic tribes formed independent kingdoms, each with its own coinage reflecting its own economic system. But, in time, these independent kingdoms diverted most of their energy to becoming the dominant or sole ruling power.

Later, following an essentially parallel path, the multiplicity of chiefdoms in Anglo-Saxon England gradually coalesced into seven major kingdoms (the Heptarchy). Each was headed by a king. Generally one or another of these kings dominated as bretwalda (chief king). As was the case in Celtic times, considerable efforts were devoted to attaining the title and sole role of bretwalda. An independent coinage was used to mark the power of the kingdom as it achieved a dominant status. Aethelstan I (825-840?) of East Anglia was probably the first to include the title REX ANG(LORUM) on his coinage.

The first indications of a native Anglo-Saxon currency supplemental to the Roman coinage came with the Lydney Hoard of 1929 which contained tiny copper coins, some as small as pin heads. These pieces, which could not have been buried before 385 A.D., are barbarous imitations of the copper coins of Constantine and were struck with dies too large for the flan. There are occasional finds of non-Roman gold coinage - copies of the tremissas of Constantine, and Byzantine and Merovingian currency. The first definitive Anglo-Saxon gold coinage was the thrymsa, which circulated for a short while before being replaced by the silver sceat. Based on the laws of Aethelberht I of Kent (601-604), the sceat was rated at 1/20 of a shilling. The early sceat depicted a bust of the king. Slowly the bust became increasingly corrupt, emerging in the form of birds, which in turn converted into shapes of less identifiable character. As the silver sceat underwent inevitable debasement in its conversion to the base styca, the design was replaced on some types with the mint name LUNDONIA with a variety of moneyer names given in Runic letters.

The thrymsa was equivalent to the Merovingian tremissas of 20 grains or 1/3 of a solidus. Later, the thrymsa was raised to a rating of a 70 grain solidus. The sceat was rated at 20-22 grains of silver and formed the basis of the future penny.


The English penny had its origins in the reform Carolingian denier established by Pepin in France. It replaced the Roman coinage which still circulated in some parts of England, as well as the styca of early Anglo- Saxon times. It is generally accepted that the penny was introduced in Kent, under Offa, about 790-1, and for five centuries formed the fundamental structure of the English economic system. Except for an occasional emission of struck half pennies, and gold (under Offa), the penny remained the sole denomination until the appearance of a larger silver and gold coinage during the 13th century. Silver coins of Offa may be divided into two major groups. The earlier group consists of small thick flans with a weight of 16-20 grains. The newer group - the penny - was prepared on large thin flans of 22 1/2 grain weight. The penny coinage was completely dominated by the personality of Offa. Not only were designs and legends dictated by the crown, but the number and location of the mints too was carefully controlled by him. The use of the penny spread quickly through the areas he controlled. Thus the currency of Mercia, directly under Offa's control, as well as the currency under the kings of Kent and the archbishop of Canterbury are all of similar style, suggesting that they were produced in a single mint, probably Canterbury.

Invasion by the Danes in the 860 s led to generally poor economic conditions in the Kingdom. Some debasement of the coinage took place and coins by Burgred prior to 866 are not known. That the economic decline continued after Alfred is shown by the many coins buried during his reign. In spite of some instances of debasement, the penny generally was maintained at the Anglo-Saxon standard of 92.5 percent fineness (sterling silver) of 1/240th of a pound of 5400 grains (an average of 22 1/2 grains per coin). There is no significant change in the standard after the Norman conquest; the only visible change was in the name of the king. In addition to normal variation, the actual weight of single coins depended on the length of time the coin was in circulation (due to wear and clipping) and on the integrity of its moneyer.

For amounts less than a penny, moneyers, or perhaps the penny owner, divided the penny into halves and even quarters (farthing = fourth of a thing). The cross design of the penny prevalent at the time particularly lent itself to such actions since bending back and forth, or cutting, could be accomplished quite easily along the cross lines. Although cutting of pennies was prohibited in 1279, coincident with the appearance again of round half pennies and the first regular use of round silver farthings, there is evidence that this practice continued for many years.


In an agricultural economic system, barter met most of the economic needs of the population. As the economic structure of England changed into a community consisting largely of manufacturers, merchants and shopkeepers, a need for a denomination other than the penny became significant. Struck silver farthings appeared in August, 1279. These heavy pieces weighed 6.85 grains consisting of 5.55 grains of sterling silver with 1.3 grains of alloy added to make them more convenient to handle.

This farthing was replaced in 16 months by silver pieces weighing 5.51 grains, about one-quarter of the new lighter 22¬ grain penny. The difference from the true weight of 5.55 grains covered the extra cost of minting the small coin. These were rarely available in sufficient quantities to meet demand because they were uneconomic to make. Farthings required at least four times the time and labor necessary to make one penny. In addition, they were so small that they were lost almost as fast as they were issued. The silver half penny experiment (1280) was somewhat more successful, continuing in an almost unbroken stream for about 400 years. At the same time that saw the appearance of 'small change', a larger denomination, the four penny piece called the 'groat' (from the French gros, "large") attempted its first appearance (under Edward I).

A new feature distinguishing the coinage of 1279-1280 was the creation of the office of Master of the Mint which united in that office the responsibility formerly divided among the many independent moneyers. As a result, moneyer's names disappeared from the coins to be replaced by the addition of privy marks to identify origin and authority for each new issue. In some cases, privy marks were changed as often as every three months.

The new coinage was marked by increased production and by the opening of new mints to handle the increase. However, between Edward I and Edward III, there had been a steady drain of coins from England in exchange for foreign imitations. To curb this drain, first, the output of coinage was greatly reduced, but with failure of this approach, between 1335-1343, what coinage was produced was of base metal. Traditionally, the English currency had been undervalued compared with its continental counterparts. Failure of these attempts at producing a currency on par with Flanders contributed to the economic crisis facing Edward III. A new approach toward stabilizing the economic picture was to introduce in January 1344, a gold coin, a florin of six shillngs weighing 108 grains, together with a half and quarter unit. Later in the year, however, this coin was replaced by a larger coin of 6s 8d weighing 136.7 grains called a noble, but a gradual reduction in the weight and fineness of gold (to 120 grains) and silver (to 18 grains) over the next few years again reduced the integrity of the coinage. Thus the ratio of gold to silver went from 14.8 to 1, down to 12 to 1. For the second time, a groat of four pence and a half-groat were added (1351) as restoration of the abortive groat of Edward I of some 70 years earlier.

After the death of Richard, the economic state of the country went from bad to worse. As long as English currency remained undervalued in relation to foreign coins, the land was rapidly drained of its coins and the bullion supply remained inadequate. In 1412, new coins of gold and silver were issued with reduced weight but retaining the old currency values. A noble of 108 grains of gold and a penny of 15 grains of silver were put into circulation and for the next 20 years the effect was positive, there being a large output of coinage of both metals. Thereafter, the use of gold diminished until very little gold coinage appeared after 1433 and almost nothing by 1464 (Edward IV). To increase the supply of silver, the weight of the penny was reduced to 12 grains but the currency value of the noble was raised to 8s 4d (ratio of 11.1 to 1). Interestingly, during the reign of Henry VI, at the height of wool export, the supply of money was at its lowest state of production. In March, 1465, the gold coinage was cornpletely reformed with the appearance of the ryal or rose noble weighing 120 grains with a value of 10 shillings, with a half and quarter in proportion. To replace the existing noble, a new gold coin called the angel was issued with a value of 6s 8d weighing 80grains. The half unit was called the angelet. The silver penny continued at 12 grains. By 1472, the angel had replaced the ryal.

The coinage of Henry VII represents the first step in the transition from medieval to modern currency. New denominations in both gold and silver were introduced, an artistic portrait was adopted for the obverse of the silver coinage and a new reverse was introduced featuring the royal shield. Thus, in 1489, there appeared a new gold coin weighing 240 grains called the sovereign with a currency value of 20s.

Henry VII accumulated an enormous wealth and it took Henry VIII many years to squander it. Only when his resources were nearly depleted did Henry VIII seek easy solutions to guarding English coinage against competitive foreign currencies - the debasement of his coinage. Gold was reduced to 0.83 fineness and silver eventually to 0.33 fineness. One major design change was the introduction of the portcullis/rose farthing as a means of differentiating between the farthing and the diminitive half-penny. In 1526, another attempt was made to equate the standard of the English coinage with that of the continent. The sovereign was reduced to 22 shillings and a new coin, the crown of the rose, was released with a value of 4s 6d, at the weight and standard of the French ‚cu au soleil. This issue lasted no longer than 3-4 months and, in the following reign, this denomination was converted to a silver coin. Now new denominations, representing attempts at stabilizing the value of the currency, poured forth with regularity. The sovereign was valued at 22s 6d, the angel at 7s 6d and another new coin, the george noble (71 1/9 grains) was valued at 6s 8d. Each of these was of standard gold (23 ct 3 1/2 grains). Another new issue, the crown of the double rose (and its half) was valued at 5s but was of crown gold (22 ct). The penny was reduced to its lowest weight ever of 10 2/3 grains. Between 1545 and 1553, constant adjustments in all denominations were the rule. The testoon, which appeared in 1544, was renamed the shilling, in 1548, at a reduced fineness. Throughout Edward VI's reign, the desire to restore the coinage yielded to the needs of the Exchequer to retain base coinage and, in fact, at times, a silver coinage was issued even more base than in Henry's reign. Not infrequently, coins of the same denomination were released with a different fineness and weight from various mints at the same time; occasionally this occurred even within the same mint.

Mary restored the use of standard gold for gold coinage but was content to continue silver coinage at a base level of 0.25 fineness. In December, 1554, after her marriage to Philip of Spain, new shilling and half- shilling pieces were released on which appeared facing portraits reminiscent of the Spanish coinage of Ferdinand and Isabella. Mary's portrait alone appears on her other issues.

When Elizabeth acceded to the throne, much of the base coinage of Edward VI still remained in circulation. Initially it was permitted to remain current at reduced values, but the two worst classes of testoons were countermarked to circulate at values of 4 1/2d and 2 1/4d. Other silver pieces were derated and finally demonetized in 1561. Elizabeth's first coinage continued the use of standard gold and 0.81 fineness silver but introduced pieces of 20s, 10s, 5s and 2s 6d of gold of 0.833 fineness. Later the shilling was suspended but silver pieces of 6d, 3d, 1 1/2d and 4d were issued. These were differentiated from the groat, 2d and penny by incorporation of a rose behind the queen's head. This marked the first use of a three half-penny and three farthing denomination which facilitated making change for common farthing and half-penny purchases. Elizabeth authorized six distinct issues of coinage in response to economic pressures and general lack of confidence in the currency. Scarcity of small change led to local attempts at tokens of lead or tin by shopkeepers. Patterns for copper half pence and farthings were struck but such issues did not become definitive. One further innovation was the attempted introduction of the screw press, but this was vigorously opposed by mint personnel.

Under James I, inclusion of the Scottish and Irish arms in the reverse design marked the union of Scotland and Ireland with England. New gold coins appeared, a unite of 20s together with its half and quarter, a thistle crown of 4s and the crown of 5s called the British crown. James authorized copper farthings in 1613 which continued through several series until 1636 in order to discourage the use of merchant tokens. Acceptance of copper farthings was not forced but they were sold with a 10 percent onus in twenty shilling lots and were similarly redeemed.

Unlike his predecessors, Charles I did not avail himself of base coinage to resolve his financial difficulties in a reign already replete with even more serious problems. The numismatic cord of Charles' reign reflects the depth of civil unrest which tore apart the government. After February, 1642, Parliament controlled the Tower mint while the king was forced to establish mints in provincial towns and produce emergency coinage in towns that, on and off, were besieged by Parliamentary forces. Numismatically, this is one of the most interesting reigns for the variety of mints and mint marks used, for the high level of artistic design incorporated into the currency, for the successful introduction of machine-made coins and for the originality in obtaining metal for emergency coinage. The denominations, for the most part remained the same as they had been. In addition to extending the use of copper and brass farthings for economic reasons, the artistic taste of Charles supported Nicholas Briot in overturning mint hostility to introducing the screw mill. Under Briot's control of mint operations, the question of debasing the coinage was strongly opposed and the use of privy marks extensively employed. Mints were created in York, Aberystwyth (to utilize Welsh silver), Shrewsbury, Oxford and Bristol; these opened and closed as a function of which forces (Royal or Parliamentary) controlled the region. At least between 1638 and 1642, Welsh silver appeared in pieces of 2s, 1s, 6d, 4d, 3d, 2d, 1d and 1/2d. Obverses with the equestrian and profile portrait types were most common. The introduction at Schrewsbury of the famous Declaration reverse which displays the abbreviated form of the declaration (made at Wellington in Shropshire on September, 1642) RELIGIO PROTESTANTIUM, LEGES ANGLIAE, LIBERTAS PARLIAMENTI "(to defend) the Protestant religion, the laws of England, the rights of Parliament" soon spread to other mints. During its short life, the mint at Shrewsbury produced pound and half-pound silver pieces to supplement the shortage of gold coins. At least one gold coin, however, also was struck before removal of its mint to Oxford: a triple unite (1642). The unite was struck only at Oxford. College plate provided the bulk of the bullion available for coins at Oxford while plate supplied by the king's supporters provided the bullion at York and plate supplied by Lord Robartes served at Truro mint. In 1645, antique plate of the city of Chester, to the value of œ 100, was converted into coin for the defense of the city and payment of debts. During the Civil War, an emergency coinage was struck in the towns of Carlisle, Colchester, Newark, Pontefract and Scarborough while they were under siege by the forces of Parliament. These siege pieces were cut out of plate and either marked with a value according to their weight or were cut to a certain size for the required value.


The need for obtaining general acceptance of their currency caused Parliament to retain the portrait and legends of the king on the coins until his death. In 1649, coins were struck in the name of the Commonwealth and, for the first time, with inscriptions in English. The coins, except for the half-penny, were of uniform style with a shield containing the cross of St. George on the obverse and two shields with the crosses of St. George and St. Andrew on the reverse. With the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II, the coins of the Commonwealth were demonetized.

The problem of small change had never been resolved since the time of cut half and quarter pennies. In the sixteenth century, shopkeepers provided a temporary solution by issuing lead tokens. Despite attempts by James I and Charles I to provide farthings through private monopoly, trade tokens again appeared in the third quarter of the seventeenth century (ca. 1648-1672), in the eighteenth century (1787-1796) and in the nineteenth century (primarily 1810-1814). These tokens are the basis of another chapter in this book and further discussion will be deferred to that chapter.

One other approach saw limited use as a means of relieving the small change shortage. The earliest English jetons appeared towards the end of the thirteenth century. Their design was based on the sterling pence of Edward I. In fact, many were struck from dies using the same punches as were used to make the coin dies. In general, the jetons of Edward I and 11 are of small size; those of Edward III and Richard II are larger. They were made of silver or brass and were completely pierced or indented in the center as a precaution against their use as coins of the realm. Contemporary jetons were struck which were crude copies of the official mint issues. In spite of the prohibition against their use as trade coinage, it is probable that they, in fact, saw temporary use as small change.

Charles II issued a farthing and half-penny of copper with tender limited to payments under six pence. At the end of his reign, farthings of tin were released. These bore a copper plug at their centers to foil forgers but to no avail; James II and William III continued to strike similar pieces until 1693 when copper alone was used again. The coinage continued through the reigns of George I and II at varying weights and stopped completely with George III. For the 130 years between Charles II and George III (1670- 1800), the penny generally appeared only as part of an annual Maundy coinage. Some undated types might have been used for regular trade while the dated types generally were for presentation. In 1797 Matthew Boulton was contracted for a coinage of copper including the "cartwheel" two pence (two ounces of copper), a similar penny (41mm; one ounce) and, in 1799, a proportionate half-penny. These were considered too clumsy for ordinary use and were replaced by pieces of reduced size (31mm) and weight (including a farthing) in 1806 and 1807. Half farthings prepared for use in Ceylon were released in 1842 they never came into general use in England.

Silver continued to drain from the country since metal coined at 5s 2d an ounce was worth 5s 3 1/2d for export. The extreme shortage insured that no silver coinage was released for almost 30 years beginning at the end of the eighteenth century. Gold coinage continued with some regularity; a gold third guinea was introduced in 1797 to provide smaller coin and a quarter guinea was struck in 1718 and 1762. Spanish 8 real pieces appropriately marked were circulated in 1797 at 4s 9d and the Bank of England struck an 1804 silver token dollar and other smaller pieces in 1811-1816 to fill the gap.

In 1816, with silver at 5s 1 1/2d (below the mint price), the currency was put on the basis of the gold standard and silver and gold coinage became subsidiary money without intrinsic value (being coined at 5s 6d). This established the basis of the modern currency. An early experiment with decimalization (1849) brought the silver florin (1/10 pound) into circulation. An extensive silver coinage continued through the reign of Victoria to that of George VI's second coinage (1942-1947) when all denominations were converted to coins of nickel-brass or cupro-nickel of equivalent weight. In 1967, with the conversion to the decimal system, new coinage (including a penny of 19 mm) of 50, 25, 10, 5, 2, 1 and 1/2 pence was released into general circulation; the 1/2 pence was discontinued in 1984. The "round" pound coin appeared in 1981. Only the sovereign remains a commercial coin of gold.


Shift from Agriculture to Industry

Industrialization did not come to England in a single burst of mechanization, but when it did begin, the monetary output (coinage) did not keep pace in providing that type of coinage needed to meet the new demands.

As early as the 13th century, the economic pattern was already beginning to shift from one built on agriculture and enforced labor services to one which included light manufacturing and wage labor. Perhaps as a result of population growth, perhaps for other reasons, land was in great demand. Land which had earlier been freely rented now returned to direct management by the gentry in order to secure the greatest returns. Operating costs were high. With the shift to wage labor (in the early 13th century, half the adult population of England was working full-time or part-time for wages) and the high demand for land, the gentry raised their rental fees or sold off small parcels at high fees. The 'ripple effect' permeated other economic endeavours resulting in an inflation considered the most alarming of the whole middle ages.

Wheat was exported and wool became such an overwhelmingly important national export that half the country's wealth derived from it. Flanders had a highly developed clothmaking industry dependent upon English wool. Sheep farming in England grew rapidly to accommodate this foreign industry as did the Venetian control of wool shipments. Thus more profits left the country than remained within. To reverse this, wool was made into cloth in England rather than exported as a raw material. This led to the industrial revolution of the 13th century. Fulling mills operated by water power developed across the countryside and looming mills followed. Parallel to this intrial development, there was increased interest in newer technology in agriculture. Changes in cropping, patterns of field rotation and methods of fertilization brought increased mechanization to agriculture - and increased profits. But wool dominated the industrialization of England; by the 16th century, textiles had become one of the pillars of the commonwealth. They were the main source of livelihood in many parts of England where there was a reserve of labor and cloth could be made cheaply. The overseas demand for fabric brought a further boom that generated rapid economic growth. Invention of the knitting frame spurred the hosiery industry and new industries such as paper making, printing, and the manufacture of gun powder sparked further growth. The introduction of the blast furnace was a significant technical development and the demand for products made of iron, lead or copper was limited only by the availability of timber for charcoal making. While some of the older corporation towns like Coventry, Winchester and Lincoln declined, other unincorporated towns such as Birmingham, York and Norwich saw new building and paving of road systems.


Coins originally were minted in the major centers of the heptarchic kings from closely supervised dies bearing the moneyer's name. Later with the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms into the commercial kingdom of England, mints were established in more remote parts of the country, away from the central authority. This was the direct result of the rising importance of the shire and its local court representing the king and the increased participation of the burghers in the function of the government. William the conqueror and William II Rufus left the system much as it had been before the conquest. Henry I's reign (1100- 1135) marked the coming of age of royal administration and, with this, a growing demand for funds. Henry seized the royal treasury on the death of William II. He claimed the crown quickly as a brother of Rufus, frustrating any attempts of Rufus' eldest son to succession. Succession as a right of primogeniture was not yet the rule, but this action did set the pattern for the internecine conflicts to come. Under these conditions, moneyers were provided with the opportunity for enriching themselves by coining below the prescribed standards of fineness. Decrees dictating a single coinage over all the king's dominion, minted only from marketing towns and threats of mutilation did little to alleviated the regular need for coinage reform and rapid turnover of emissions.

At Henry's death, the treasury was full and the governmental machinery was in good working order. However, within two years after assuming the crown, Stephan squandered Henry's treasury on lavish bribes and wages for mercenaries needed for his wars with the barons and for the dispute over succession with his cousin, Matilda. When Henry II succeeded Stephan, he found the currency again to be in a confusing and degenerate state. There was an increase in the amount of money in circulation because of the growth of commerce. Farms began to produce a profit rather than only provide subsistence. England was tightly administered under Henry and, for the first time, an annual income tax was put into effect. The treasury was guaranteed, but Ireland and France commanded a large part of these funds.

On returning from his crusade, Richard I was captured by the duke of Austria and was turned over to Henry VI of the Holy Roman Empire. A ransom of £ 100 000 (24 million pence) was paid for his release in 1194, largely taken from the Jews of England. As a result, the 'short cross' issue became popular outside of England, particularly in the low countries and the lower Rhine. This might have been the result of the active trade-domination England came to exert but more likely it was because of the number of pence which poured into the area as part of the ransom.

John's reign (1199-1216) was marked by three great conflicts: with the French monarchy, with the papacy and with the English barons. He inherited from Richard an effective but expensive and demanding military policy in France which led him to establish a British navy. With an exhausted treasury, he increased taxes ruthlessly. The commercial climate was such that much of the tax increase was absorbed but much of the revenue was dependent on loans from the barons.

Tin mining became an important industry in England during Henry III's reign (1216-1272). This contributed to the fact that the penny again fell from its prescribed standard. Henry's incessant need for funds beyond the customary royal revenues led to constant appeals for loans from the barons - generally given, but with more and more demands for a voice in the control of the government. Basically, the financial position of the monarchy was sound, but no instrument existed for raising funds to meet extraordinary expenses corresponding to the national debt today. Instead, the king was forced to borrow at short term and at high interest rates from groups or individuals - or to seek baronal permission to levy special taxes. At times, Henry pawned his jewels and, occasionally, even sold them. He granted special rights to guilds in exchange for loans. He frequently borrowed from the Jews and then threatened them with imprisonment unless they 'donated' into the royal treasury and forgave the interest payments.

Henry maintained a great household swelled with foreign guests. He held big ceremonial feasts and was lavish in his suport of the arts. His differences with the papacy led to frequent and expensive suits in Rome. In 1254, Henry attempted to secure the Sicilian crown for his son, Edmund. In so doing, he had to assume the enormous debt the papacy had incurred and he found himself committed to a ruinously expensive and fruitless venture. Eventually he lost the crown to a higher bidder.

Until Edward I ascended the throne of England, the royal prerogative as to sources of revenue and reasons for expenditures remained solely with the king. He levied whatever taxes he wanted, confiscated properties and then charged whatever rents he wished on these same properties. Aside from the expense of running a 'household', royal expenditures for the most part went to support wars of nationalism, wars for foreign conquest and later, civil wars.

The struggles of Henry III's reign and the far-flung wars of Edward I (1272-1307) contributed to the evolution of the supreme achievement of the thirteenth century in England, a parliament. The rise of parliament as a response to the demands of the baron magnates and of the peasants for a voice in the government, removed these prerogatives from the king and forced him to turn more and more to the barons for loans and to parliament for the right to levy taxes. Eventually even the right to declare war was removed from the king and it became a function of parliament. Thus economic considerations were at least ne major reason for the rise of the institution of parliament and for the decline in independence and power of the king. The constant demand of the royalty for money to finance war against the Irish, the Scots, and the French, led the national expense base to rise rapidly. Where Richard's average income had been £ 100 000, Henry's expenses exceeded £ 140 000 per annum. A king could not longer live solely on the royal income.

Edward's desperate need for money was an important motive for summoning numerous parliaments which had not yet assumed their present status. He asked for and got the right to an annual percentage of the value of his subject's properties and rents; he taxed the clergy; he collected heavy duties from the Italian merchants who dominated the English wool trade. But in the long run, where other kings had depended on the English Jewry for loans, in 1290, Edward expelled the Jews from England in order to gain whatever property they had. Yet for all this ingenuity, he failed to meet his overall needs and left the government again in debt. As an example, between 1294-1298, Edward's military expenses ran to ϣ 730 000 while the crown's ordinary income was only ϣ 150 000.

Edward II (1307-1327) inherited an over-ambitious national policy, a restive nobility and, what had become almost the standard, a debt-ridden treasury. Between his Scottish campaigns, his attentions were devoted to borrowing money. In 1311, as a concession to another bid for special taxes, parliament demanded the right of consultation on matters of war. Edward III (1327-1377) managed to avoid civil conflict with the barons and peasants. Though his participation in the Hundred Years War (1338-1453) against France imposed a considerable strain on English resources, he managed to create an artificial demand for wool and benefitted from the heavy duties he imposed on the wool merchants. A temporary treaty with France, after the capture of the French king, led to a ϣ 500 000 ransom which eased the financial crisis for Edward. Ultimately, his staggering war expenses made him even more dependent upon parliament. This led to the appearance of gold coins (other than the 20d gold 'penny' experiment) for the first time. Richard II (1377-1399) attempted to reverse the decline of royal power. The Black Death created a shortage of labor, a declining market, but rising wages. Land revenues also declined and parliament (the Barons) tried to shift their own tax burden to the burghers. The Peasant Revolt of 1381 led to a ceiling on rents - not to exceed four pence per acre. Richard's marriage to Isabella, daughter of the French king, brought a dowry of 800 000 francs and an improvement in his financial condition, reducing his dependence on parliament. Coins of this period make reference to his French possessions. The temporary alliance with France provided freedom from war expenses and further reduced his dependence on parliament. As with Edward II, Richard was deposed as king by parliament - Edward because he was too weak, Richard because he was too strong.

The Plague had a great impact on prices. Between 1300 and 1350, revenues of the lord of the manor at Steeple Barton dropped from 54s to 6s 9p. In the same period, however, the barons had the real power and an income of ϣ 300-5000 with an average of ϣ 865. Following the Grey Death of 1361 (=100), food prices in 1410 were 84 and wages 119; by 1490, these indices were 94 and 105, respectively.

For a short time under Edward IV (1471-1483), with little interest in expanding English claims in France, England prospered. Edward V ruled barely long enough to have produced his own coinage and coinage of his successor, Richard III (1483-1485) is almost as rare. Between 1500-1540 (Henry VII), prices of food doubled and between 1540 and 1560, they doubled again. In the 15th century, Europe's scarcity of precious metals began to abate. New silver mines were found in central Europe (leading to the appearance of a new great coinage - the Joachimsthaler), new sources of gold appeared in west Africa and, in 1545, the Spanish stumbled onto the silver mines of Bolivia and the mountain of silver at Potosi. In 1572, silver production was six times that of 1500. This drove down the value of money, reduced the purchasing power of the traditional coinage (the penny and groat) and forced up the cost of services and supplies. Land in Yorkshire valued at 4p an acre in the 15th century, rose to 9p in 1548, 2s 4p in 1621 and to 22s 7p in 1930. Nevertheless, by having inherited the wealth of Edward IV and by arranging for parliamentary acts which deprived some of the wealthiest men of their property, the financial recovery of the crown began. Henry VII gave up English claims to all French territory in exchange for a monetary tribute. This provided the wherewithal for an extensive coinage including a gold pound coin called the sovereign'. When he died, he bequeathed to his son something unusual in English history, a safe throne, a full treasury and a prosperous realm.

The callous royal policy of Henry VIII coupled with personal ambitions of Thomas Wolsey led to empty coffers again in 1522 and the need to turn to parliament for loans. Wolsey (rather than Henry VIII) led England into new French and Scottish wars while his personal support for the popes in their conflicts with the Holy Roman Empire, France, Italy and England produced a latent hatred for Wolsey with a decline in support of the papacy in England. Wolsey undertook a recoinage in 1526 with coins of reduced silver content. This was the first serious debasement of coinage since the conquest. Though this debasement brought English 'good' coinage in line with the 'bad' money of the continent, it also set a precedence for the series of further debasements between 1544 and 1551, ultimately yielding a coinage containing only one-sixth of the silver of what it had been under Henry VII. This produced the so-called 'red-nose' pennies after slight wear. A rise in prices was the inevitable result of debasement. In 1551, a new coinage was planned at a restored silver content but this was not achieved until 1560 and completed under Elizabeth. Confidence of the nation was restored but prices continued to advance under the flood of a silver and gold money supply. Compared with a value of œ865 in the 1300's, a peer was now worth £20-100 000 in land and capital assets. Governmental clerks, merchants and lawyers earned £50 per year and the common person survived on an £2 10s income. By Charles I (1683), a gentleman could expect £450 per year, a tradesman £45, a laboring man £15 and a soldier £14. The average income in England was £7 18s, in Holland £8 1s 4d and in France £6, but the value of trade in England was £ 11 500 000.


As each new monarch came to power, he used the penny to pay off royal debts and obligations and to provide funding for the next war. Beginning with the reform of Edgar (978), existing silver coinage was withdrawn from circulation at irregular intervals for replacement by a new coinage, at a fee from the moneyers. This evolved into a profitable system; new issues appeared every three to seven years and continued even into the copper coinage after 1797, though the reason for replacement gradually became one more based on the changing appearance of the monarch than on economic needs. Once the penny became established over hundreds of years, it remained a sufficient coinage to cover the economic needs of those who required a monetary unit to supplement direct barter. In the 11th century, the economy based on barter gave way to a money economy in the 12th and 13th centuries.

The change of coin types brought with it an economic advantage to the king as well as to the moneyer and local officials (e.g., the shire's rief - sheriff). Since clipping of coins and wear was inevitable, replacement of old coins by new was on a weight basis.

Debasement of the metal in new issues afforded another source of regal income, while control over the number of coins struck from a pound of silver provided yet another source of revenue. The moneyer received a percentage of the newly struck coins as his fee and the rief or other local official was paid for his role as exchanger or collector of the old coinage. Trade was channelled through the borough where royal supervisors could maintain strong control. As a result, each borough probably had its own royal mint; by the Norman conquest, perhaps 100 mints blanketed the land. It should be mentioned that coin style and design was dictated by the central mint authority to the extent that die pairs were distributed to the local moneyers by that authority. Nevertheless, each reverse bore the name of the moneyer and mint site to insure conformance to the edicts of the crown.

In addition to income provided from coining, the late Anglo-Saxon monarchies developed many sources of revenue to sustain their intra- heptarchic wars and to purchase security from Viking marauders. Desmesne taxes - a tax on each farm, town or district in royal lands - were the chief source of revenue. A portion of the desmesne tax was required in coin rather than in kind. In addition, there was a kingdom-wide land tax. In 991, Ethelred (the Unready) imposed still another tax, the Danegeld, to raise money for protection against the Danes.


As has been noted earlier, clipping, debasement and counterfeiting were a bane to the royal treasury. Undoubtedly a good deal of the clipping occurred at the hands of the merchant or of the general public in an attempt to glean an edge over their constant tax burden. The products of the moneyers also caused great public and royal consternation as debasement and counterfeiting clearly fell into their realm. While pennies in circulation often were well-worn, light and/or debased or clipped, many were cut into smaller units for use as small change. With judicious chopping, the moneyer might gain a grain or two of extra profit as he prepared cut half- and quarter- pennies. Henry authorized round half-pennies but only one specimen has survived. Merchants generally refused to accept suspicious coinage or coins nicked to detect base metal cores in counterfeits. It was not unusual to go to market with a pound of pence (240) and find no more than a dozen being acceptable for trade. The Proclamation of 1108 decreed that all genuine pennies and half-pennies could not be refused and required that all newly produced pennies be nicked or notched to show that they did not contain copper cores. Many coins minted between 1108 and 1124 are cut as much as one-third way across the flan.

New laws restricted the range of operations of the individual moneyers. The moneyer no longer could legally transact money exchange outside of his own shire and, even within the shire, could only exchange new money for silver before two witnesses. Thus any moneyer issuing light or debased pennies easily could be detected within his own shire by his signature on the coin. Interestingly, however, it was not illegal to create false dies under another moneyer's name. The bungled reverse inscriptions, completely illegible pennies and products of altered official dies suggests that this possibility did not escape the moneyer's fancy. In December, 1124, the situation was so critical that Henry ordered all moneyers to stand trial in Winchester for their misdeeds. Those found guilty of issuing light or debased money had their right hand amputated. From an examination of the list of moneyers at each mint before and after the assize, it can be concluded that perhaps half the moneyers suffered mutilation. The toll of melting down the light, clipped and debased coinage was so heavy that a money scarcity existed in the year after the trial.

The plethora of penny styles of variable size and metallic purity required quick reform and Henry accomplished this by abolishing the system of frequent rotation of coin types. He fixed on a single portrait type for his first issue of 1157 and continued that type for 22 years with only variations in detail. These were badly struck and often illegible. In 1180, in conjunction with his Irish campaign, a coin of better workmanship and artistic merit appeared; that type, the 'short cross' coinage, continued for more than 60 years, through the Angevin reign of Henry and into that of his two sons, Richard and John, and his grandson, Henry III.

There was some recoinage under John in 1205 because existing coins were in poor condition and not accepted in the Dutch trade. John decreed that no one should accept clipped money less than seven-eights of its proper weight - money weighing less should be seized and taken into the king's personal treasury. Only moneyers, the king's and those of the Archbishop of Canterbury, were allowed to exchange new money for old and they were to charge no more than 6d for exchange in each pound's worth of good pence. Systematic clipping existed and many received only bullion value for the damaged pieces they turned in. Though a number of reforms were instituted, they produced no significant changes in the action and function of the moneyers. In 1279-1280, moneyers were replaced by a central mint authority and privy marks replaced the moneyer's name on the coinage.


In the change from barter to agriculturization to the industrial revolution, England was, in effect, becoming capitalistic. With the rise in importance of money, bullion itself became a commodity, as the value of precious metals became greater. Gresham's Law, which holds that bad money drives good money out of circulation, is a specific application of a more general principle first postulated by Copernicus in an essay on coinage. The question leading to these principles dealt with the ability of coins with different weights (even of different metals) but of the same nominal value to co-exist on the open market.

If the value of the coin is completely dependent on its metal content, varying coin weight is not likely. Thus, under such a system, coins of a fixed (stated) value cannot vary in weight and coins which vary in weight cannot be of the same fixed value. If, on the other hand, variations in weight are permitted to exist (though they do not have to occur), the metal content of the coin does not constitute its value as a coin. Such coinage must include a minting charge which gives it a trade value greater than its metallic value. When such money is worn and is turned in for new money, the law of diminishing returns must apply. Under such a system, the coin producer (government) must have a minting monopoly and should effectively control trade so that payment for goods is made with coins which have been declared legal.

The exchange of bullion for coins is at a certain rate of exchange but the weight of coins received is less than the weight of bullion given in payment for those coins. Thus the official price for bullion becomes established as the normal price on the open market. The difference between the real price of the bullion and the official price represents the overvaluation of the coins produced from that bullion.

The fluctuations in the weight and fineness of the English penny had interesting ramifications on the overall English economic system. Within limits, light coinage was acceptable by the crown at face value. Thus individuals within the land weren't affected by the variations in weight. Continental trade, however, was tied to the weight of the coin, that is, to its bullion value. Thus the use of light or devalued coinage for payment discouraged import of goods into England, encouraged export and thereby created a favorable balance of trade and a net flow of silver into the country. This advantage became particularly obvious during the conversion of England into a great wool (later, cloth) exporter to the Continent and in the establishment of the Industrial Revolution in England centuries later. Nevertheless, a counter to this simplistic view suggests that the Anglo-Saxon penny might in fact have been overvalued, accounting for the ready acceptance of light coinage abroad. Even through the lengthy period of payment of danegeld, a reasonably healthy economy was maintained. A study of the accumulation of wealth in England during the 10th century revealed an enormous coinage under Aethelred II. Continuing the tribute payments imposed by the Danes earlier, Aethelred paid out £ 155 000 of silver in six installments. For this he needed a large coinage. Analysis suggests his coinage was of low fineness relative to the typical Anglo-Saxon standard. Yet this enormous output of coinage appears to have been acceptable to the Scandanavians whose standard of coinage was lower than that of English coins.

The concept of an overvalued English penny is further supported by the frequent need during the rise of English industry to produce a base coinage on par with the coinage of Flanders in order to prevent the drain of bullion from England to the continent. This also explains why today one finds hoards of coins buried rather than single pieces.

The question remains yet as to how far a coinage may be debased (or devalued) before a non-uniform metallic standard could no longer exist, i.e., before Gresham's Law would apply.

When a state mints coins of only a single weight standard, if the charge made by the state for minting coins remains unchanged, the uniform metallic content of these coins can be lowered by the amount of that charge without consequence. Only when the fall in metallic value of the coin exceeds the charge will it pay to melt down the original coins. Let us consider the state in a time of sudden need, e.g. excessive outpayments (Danegeld) or scarcity of bullion (industrialization). The state produces new coinage at a lower weight standard. Prior to the debasement, anyone giving bullion to the mint for conversion to coinage would receive a number of coins equivalent to the mint value of the bullion. This is less than the market value of the bullion by the charge for the minting operation. Under the new reduced weight standard, if the minting charge remains unchanged, the same quantity of bullion would be returned but each coin would weigh less; hence more coins would be received in proportion to the degree of debasement. Actually three cases exist depending upon whether the degree of debasement is greater than, less than or equal to the charge for minting. In case 1, the number of coins received is less than originally, in case 2, the number of coins is more than originally and, in case 3, the number of coins is the same as originally. If one receives the same number of coins, but each weighs less, he does not gain by handing in the bullion (or old coins). Not until the degree of debasement is less than the minting charge would he gain, because he then would get more coins than originally. The limit is reached when the degree of debasement (i.e. debasement charge) is equal to the minting charge. As long as the price relation between bullion and coined metal (open-market price: official (mint) price) remains constant, the weight of the coin can be reduced and coinage of two weight standards related by that ratio can co- exist.

Since almost every English monarch until the Commonwealth was in dire need of revenue, minting operations generally were very high relative to the cost of bullion; this resulted in a reduced value of coinage being returned to the person bringing in bullion to the mint. Thus old (good) coins were hoarded and new (bad) money was used to pay expenses, affirming the general statement of Gresham's Law.


Medieval English Jetons, Spink and Sons Ltd., London, 1974.
Anglo-Saxon Currency, Gleersips, Lund, 1967.
The Wheels of Commerce: Civilization and Capitalism in the 15th-18th Century, Volume II, Harper and Row, New York, 1982.
A Social History of England, The Viking Press, New York, 1984.
English Coins from the Seventh Century to the Present Day, Spink and Son Ltd., London, 1976.
The Coinage of England, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1931.
English Copper, Tin and Bronze Coins in the British Museum, 1558-1958, The Trustees of the British Museum, London, 1960.
Coins of England and the United Kingdom, Revised 16th Edition, Seaby, London, 1978.
NOTE: Photography courtesy of Art Needleman and Allan Davisson.


1. Silver penny without portrait (c.784-c.787). Legend OFFA REX
2. Bronze sceat of ECGFRITH, king of Northumbria. Small crosses.
3. Silver penny of BURGRED (852-874), moneyer's name on reverse.
4. Silver penny of HAROLD II (1066), PAX on reverse.
5. Silver penny with facing bust of HENRY II (1154-1189).
6. Silver groat of EDWARD IV (1471-1483).
7. Silver groat of HENRY VIII (1509-26) showing bust of Henry VII.
8. Silver groat of HENRY VIII (1526-55).
9. Silver shilling of PHILIP AND MARY (1554-58) with full titles.
10. Silver penny of CHARLES I (1625-1649) with rose obv. and rev.
11. Silver six pence of the COMMONWEALTH (1649-1660).
12. Gold angel of EDWARD IV (1471-1483) showing St. Michael on the obverse and ship on the reverse.
13. Gold quarter laurel of JAMES 1 (1603-1625).
14. Half crown of ANNE (1706).
15. Half crown of GEORGE III (1817).
16. Crown of William III (1695).
17. Undated Maundy set of CHARLES II, 4, 3, 2, and 1 pence.
18. Silver six pence of CHARLES II (1681).
19. Silver three pence of CHARLES I (1625-1649). Aberystwyth mint.
20. Silver Bank of England 5 shilling dollar (1804) under George I.
21. Silver shilling of WILLIAM IV (1834).
22. Copper half penny of GEORGE II (1757).
23. Copper farthing of VICTORIA (1860).
24. Copper farthing of GEORGE VIII (1937).
25. Copper large penny of VICTORIA (1897).
26. Copper small penny of ELIZABETH II (1982).

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