By Ron Drzewucki - Modern Coin Wholesale .....
Last time I gave a brief history of The Royal Mint in London, England, hitting most of the highlights concerning technological improvements, important figures, new facilities and the like.
This time, it’s all about the coins. Or, more precisely, the denominations of British coinage produced at the Royal Mint.
February 15, 1971 was the official changeover from pre-decimal to decimal coinage in the United Kingdom. Decimal coinage is denominated using the decimal system; while the United States employs a hybrid system (using 25-cent quarters, for example), you can still understand decimal coinage by thinking of one dollar being divisible by 100 cents or 10 dimes. A basic unit divided into smaller denominations related to the primary unit by powers of 10.
British pre-decimal coinage is everything that came before - basically, the traditional denominations of English money.
And that’s what I’m covering today.
The farthing was a minuscule silver coin made by cutting a penny in quarters, or “fourth-ing” it. First introduced in the High Middle Ages, it actually shrank over time. It was eventually replaced by a copper version due to popular demand. Bronze followed by the time of Queen Victoria. The denomination was last issued in the mid-1950s.
Much like the farthing, the halfpenny was originally produced in the way you’d probably expect. And also like the farthing, halfpennies started out silver but were eventually made out of copper and bronze. Last made for circulation in 1969.
King Offa and the London Mint first made pennies in the eighth century CE. When King Alfred the Great took control of the city in 886 and the London Mint “became” the Royal Mint, the penny was still the predominant coin in England. It would remain so for hundreds of years.
The monarch was featured on the obverse, while a small cross (referred to as a “short cross”) was featured on the reverse. Unfortunately, these pennies were easily clipped of valuable silver so by the time of Henry III (ruled 1216-1272), a long cross variety had been introduced.
Pre-decimal pennies weren’t made of copper until the reign of George III (ruled 1760-1820). Some variety of penny (of which there are MANY) was issued until decimalization in 1971.
The groat is an interesting coin. The name is related to words in any number of European languages that mean “great” or “fat”. This is because a groat was originally a thicker kind of silver coin than the penny.
The first English groats appear in the late 13th century, around the time of the great recoinage of King Edward I in 1279.
Incidentally, Elizabeth I would have to undertake another great recoinage in 1560-1 to repair the horrendous damage done by her father Henry VIII’s wholesale debasement of pre-decimal English money. And in 1696, the Royal Mint under Sir Isaac Newton would conduct another great recoinage under William III (of William and Mary fame).
There were other recoinages but these are the ones that stand out to me.
Anyway, a number of groats equal to the age of Queen Elizabeth II are still issued to incredibly lucky elderly British citizens as alms on Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday in the Church of England). The Queen will be 90 next year.
No, it’s not a lost early-1980s masterpiece by Stephen King...
The shilling comes down to us from the UK’s Anglo-Saxon period though it wasn’t issued as a coin at the time. Henry VII was the first to issue shillings (originally called testoons) in the beginning of the 16th century. One testoon--one shilling--was equal to 12 pennies (12 pence), and it stayed that way until decimalization.
It was a predominantly silver coin throughout its various issues, though Britain went clad in 1947.
Regular shillings were manufactured through 1966.
Skipping around a bit in time, we come to the florin.
Decimalization is not a new idea. Both the Age of Enlightenment and the practical needs of a newly-industrial economy encouraged such standardization and reform. So in 1849, the florin was introduced as equal to one-tenth of a pound.
The name itself, however, comes from the City of Florence, Italy, and refers to the influential Medieval gold trade coin minted there. Edward III very briefly issued a gold British florin in the 14th century but the proto-decimal florins of Queen Victoria and beyond were made of silver, then clad.
The Sovereign, the Pound and the Guinea
We as Americans are sort of used to the pound. Not necessarily how much it’s worth or how to use it, but at least we’ve heard of it. Similar coins like the sovereign and the guinea, however, sound like exotic throwbacks to the Age of Pirates.
Though why a country that uses the dollar and other vestiges of the old Spanish colonial monetary system should think the Age of Pirates is exotic is at least slightly ironic.
At any rate, they aren’t exactly the same coin. Sovereigns and pounds have circulated side by side and had different values. The first sovereign, a silver coin, was issued by King Henry VII in the late 15th century, right before Columbus landed in the Americas. It got its name because of the king’s portrait on the obverse.
A gold pound was issued by Elizabeth I. Being gold, it was worth slightly more than the contemporaneous version of the sovereign.
Different varieties of sovereign were released through the early 20th century, when their production became sporadic or Proof-only. Branch mints throughout the Empire and then Commonwealth minted sovereigns for another 40 years or so, and the Royal Mint minted bullion sovereigns between the late 1950s and early ‘80s (when Stephen King wrote The Shilling).
Guineas were first introduced in the 1660s. It was the first British gold coin struck by machine and was originally worth the same as a sovereign or pound (20 shillings, by the way). It got its name from the Guinea Coast in West Africa where the gold was procured.
But here’s a fascinating tidbit about the guinea:
Maybe because it was made of gold but the pre-decimal guinea became associated with a certain British refinement and was seen as the classy, proper way to pay a gentleman for his services. Giving a “gentleman” a silver pound, for whatever reason, was somehow less dignified and therefore entirely undignified. Perhaps because silver was--and still is--the “money of the people”?
It wasn’t long before snobbery (I’m guessing) required - nay, demanded - that the guinea be worth MORE than the pound. So the guinea acquired an additional five pence in value.
Imagine that! I can’t think of an equivalent event in American monetary or numismatic history, can you?
The last guineas were minted in the early 19th century.
And on that note, I take leave of this extremely brief overview of the pre-decimal coinage of the Royal Mint and prepare for my figurative journey back across the pond.