A Brief History of English Coins

    The earliest coins found in this country were those struck by the Gaulish tribes and brought to these islands by traders and settlers from the continent. About the same time a number of tin coins were struck in Britain. These were very poor imitations of the coins struck by the Greek settlers at Marseilles. A crude representation of Apollo is shown on the obverse whilst the reverse depicts a charging bull. Following the Belgic invasions in about 75 and 56 B.C., many types of coins were struck by the various tribes who had crossed to Britain.

    A number of these coins were barbarous imitations of the gold stater of Philip of Macedon and in some instances has to be exercised to relate the very crude design to what was originally a most attractive coin. With the invasion of Britain by the Roman emperor Claudius in a.d. 43, the hotchpotch of native coinage began to be superseded by the supply of Roman issues. As in other countries conquered by them, the Romans imported supplies of their coinage until mints could be established.

    In Britain this event did not occur until the reign of Carausius (a.d. 286-293); mints were then set up in London and Colchester. Even this supply was not adequate, however, and a number of imitations began to appear, particularly of the copper coins of Claudius. Eventually, the supply of official coinage became adequate and was current throughout the island.


    Early in the fifth century, the legions were withdrawn from Britain to defend the empire nearer home. The period which follows is generally known as the Dark Ages and very little is known either of the history or the coinage. By the middle of the seventh century, silver sceats made in imitation of Roman coin types had appeared. These continued to circulate until well into the latter half of the eighth century, when they were superseded by the coinage of deniers or pennies.

    In the kingdom of Northumbria, the sceat coinage was almost exclusively copper. Some examples struck in silver occur of various kings during the eighth century but these are rare. King Eanred (810-41) struck his sceats mainly in copper and they are the commonest issues of the period. Contemporary with the Royal issues, the Archbishops of York struck coins of a similar type. Those of Archbishop Wigmund (837-54) are the most plentiful. By the time the sceat coinage of Northumbria had come to an end in the latter half of the eighth century, the silver penny was more common.

    The kings of Kent introduced the penny to Britain. It was probably Heaberht, circa 765, who was responsible for this. Archbishop Jaenbehrt of Canterbury (765-92) quickly followed suit and struck coins bearing his name on one side and that of King Offa of Mercia on the other. The kingdom of Mercia was of considerable importance at that period and the Archbishops of Canterbury acknowledged their allegiance to their Mercian overlords, this fact being recorded by Offa’s name on the coinage.

    Offa himself issued pennies of several varieties. Some of them simply have his name on one side whilst others, rarer specimens, bear his portrait. The word “portrait” is used deservedly here, for some genuine attempt at a portrait appears to have been made (see Plate VI, 3). It is certainly a delightful coin. The coinage of the kings of Mercia pre¬sents a wide variety of types. In many cases they are quite rare, but those of Burgred (852-74) are comparatively common and probably fall within the price range of most collectors.

    By the ninth century the power of Mercia had begun to decline and was eventually subdued by the Danish invaders. The coinage of the Danish settlers is of considerable variety, some of the designs clearly showing their Norse origins. Some bear a Danish standard, others a raven.

    The reconquest of that part of Eastern England known as the Danelaw was begun by Edward the Elder (901-24), son of Alfred the Great. Silver pennies of King Alfred are eagerly sought after and are therefore usually expensive. Those types without a portrait are more reasonable than specimens with one. The most interesting of all is the so- called offering penny on which Alfred styles himself REX SAXORVM—King of the Saxons. Coins of this type are larger and heavier than usual and were probably not in¬tended for circulation but their exact purpose is not entirely clear. They are very rare. With the final conquest of the Danelaw by Wessex during the reign of Eadgar (959-75) its kings could rightly call themselves “Kings of England”.

    It is interesting to note that by this time several mints were in operation in various parts of the country and at some of them round halfpence were being struck. During Edgar’s reign, the name of the mint responsible for the issue of the coin regularly appears on the reverse. Edward the Martyr, who succeeded to the throne on the death of Eadgar, reigned for only three years and in consequence, only one type of penny occurs.

    In contrast, his successor, Aethelred II, reigned for thirty-eight years; his coins are therefore quite common, particularly so since they were minted in large quantities to pay the “Danegeld”—the ransom demanded by the Danes to buy off their piratical raids on the east coast. The amount of effort required to produce coins in such quantities is reflected in the fact that over seventy-five mints were operating during the reign of Aethelred. By the time of the Norman conquest, fifty years later, the mints had decreased to about half that number. The coinage of William the Conqueror consists of eight types, the commonest of which is placed last in the sequence.

    The bust of the king is seen facing, holding a sceptre around which his name appears. The reverse bears the name of the moneyer responsible for the issue of the coin and the mint at which he operated around a central cross in the angles of which are the letters pacx. It is known as the pacx issue because of this.
    During the reign of both William the Conqueror and his son, William II, the coinage is of quite a high standard. Unfortunately, this did not last and by the end of the reign of Henry I in 1135 difficulties had arisen. The times were troubled and control over the organisation and operating of the mints was lessened. Consequently, badly produced coins were issued and many forgeries began to circulate.

    Although attempts were made to curb these, the situation grew worse, especially after the death of Henry. Political unrest followed, caused by the rival claims for the throne of Henry’s daughter Matilda, and Stephen, a grandson of William I. The coinage of this period of civil war is mainly that of Stephen, and it is poorly executed. In addition to the coins of Stephen, there exists a very limited number of pennies bearing Matilda’s name. There are also issues made by some of the barons supporting her. Eustace Fitzjohn, Robert de Stuteville and Robert and William, the Earls of Gloucester, all issued coins in their own names.

    They are, however, very rare and expensive, even though usually in poor condition. Eventually, peace was restored and Henry II acknowledged as king. For much of his reign, the coinage showed little or no improvement. In 1180, however, a recoinage was ordered and new silver pennies were struck bearing a very crude portrait of the new ruler. The reverse has a cross extending only to an inner circle around which the moneyer’s and the mint’s names are placed. This issue, which was to last through the succeeding reigns of Richard I and John until 1247, is known as the short cross type.

    It is known thus to distinguish it from the long cross type which followed it in 1247. The cross on the reverse was here extended to the edge of the coin in an attempt to curb the practice of clipping or shearing off some of the silver on the edges. No coin was to be passed current unless all four ends of the cross were visible. These measures were found to be reasonably successful and the issue continued until Edward I ascended the throne in 1272

    During all these years no real attempt had been made to improve the very crude representation of the king’s head on the obverse. Edward, in an attempt to improve the quality of the coinage, put coin manufacture under the control of the “master worker”, a post which later became the “Master of the Mint”. Tlie moneyer’s name no longer appears on the coins since the responsibility for it rested on one man and only the name of the mint is given. The portraiture was greatly improved and the lettering is neat and orderly, resulting from its being punched in the die with a variety of puncheons.

    One of the most important changes that were made during the reign of Edward was the introduction of the fourpence or groat; it was not a popular coin and only a limited quantity was struck. Round halfpennies and farthings were also struck in fairly large quantities, but they are scarce coins at the present time, perhaps partially due to the ease with which they were lost since they are very small.

    The coinage of Edward I is of a noticeably higher stand¬ard than hitherto, not only in execution but also in the quality of the metal. Because of this, the pennies were held in high favour on the continent of Europe where they were exported and copied. Known as esterlings the copies began to circulate in this country, but since they were of poor quality they were devalued to halfpence in 1300 and in the following year they were called in and melted.

    Both Edward II and Edward III continued to strike pennies of the same general design as those of Edward I and it is only because of slight variations in the design and with experience that one is able to place them accurately.Probably the most significant event in the reign of Edward III is the introduction of a gold coinage.

    The economy of England was expanding rapidly at this time, largely due to a considerable rise in the exports of wool. Indeed, during the last half of the fourteenth century, the export of broadcloth was multiplied nine times. As a direct result of this increased trade, Edward issued three types of gold coins in 1344; the florin equal to six shillings, the half florin or leopard and the quarter florin or helm.

    Both the leopard and the helm derive their names from the principal device on the obverse. Unfortunately, these lovely coins were produced only in limited numbers and are very rare. Some little time later further gold was issued, but this time of a different weight and value. This was the noble, equal to 6s. 8d., and its fractions, the half and quarter noble. The design of the noble supposedly refers to the naval victory at Sluys that had place some four years earlier on 24th June, 1340. In addition to the new gold coins, a silver half groat was struck; the groat was also reissued.

    Edward’s claim to the throne of France is reflected in his use of the French titles on his coinage. Subsequent to his signing of the Treaty of Bretigny in 1360, this title is omitted. The compromise between England and France that was achieved at Bretigny gave Edward Calais, a fair sized area of land around Crecy and also assigned him Aquitaine. For this reason, many of the Anglo-Gallic coins that were struck at various mints in France after 1360 bear the title DOMINUS AQUTTAINE.


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