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Category: Gold - according to Dominic Frisby

Gold – according to Dominic Frisby: Big heads, crowns and bobs

Today, as we continue to trace our way through the history of money, we look at English money in the early modern period and beyond. I'm not sure how...

16 June 2021

Dominic Frisby

Today, as we continue to trace our way through the history of money, we look at English money in the early modern period and beyond. I’m not sure how the early modern period got its name, as, while it is early, it is not modern.

I’m reluctant to put precise dates on it as some historical pedant will no doubt start trolling me on Twitter if I do, but, when we say early modern, we are talking , roughly, about the 300 years from the mid-15th century through to the mid-18th when the far more dramatically named Age of Revolutions began.

We start with one of my favourite kings, Henry VII. His successors, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, tend to get most of the publicity, but Henry VII was one heck of a king and a shrewd businessman at that.

Henry ruled for 22 years from 1485-1509, and, going against the tendencies of the English kings of the previous 350 years, his reign saw just one overseas conflict. Instead of war, he pursued overseas marriages and alliances. His taxation and legislation (he banned private armies) of the barons effectively ended their power, and with it feudalism; without private armies the barons struggled to enforce the collection of tithes. His policies established the supremacy of the crown and the freedom of the mercantile classes. It laid the foundations for the extraordinary expansion that took place in Tudor England. He was the first English king for centuries, if ever, to run a surplus.

He embraced economic change and new technology. The wool trade exploded. England got its first blast furnace (to manufacture cannon balls) and so began its iron industry. Weights were standardised and, of relevance here, new coins were issued to standardise money.

The penny was the basic monetary unit of the period. It had been for centuries and its symbol – d – goes all the way back to the denarius of Britain’s Roman rulers over 1,000 years earlier. 240 silver pennies made a pound – a pound of sterling silver. There was not a pound coin, as such – it would not have been practical; it was a measure of weight and a unit of account. Its symbol – £ – the letter L with a bar through it, was an abbreviation of the Latin word “libra” meaning pound – hence lb. Like pounds, shillings had not previously been minted, though their value had been used for accountancy purposes for many centuries – 20 shillings equalled one pound.

Henry began minting 12d coins known as testoons. These were basically copies of the Italian coin, the testone, which means “big head”, and the testoon was the first English coin to bear a real, rather than representative portrait of the monarch.

Testoons quickly became known as shillings, carrying the symbol s – an abbreviation of sestertius. 12 pennies equalled a shilling and 20 shillings equalled a pound – thus 240 pennies also equalled a pound.

The shilling had a weight of about 1/5th of an ounce and legend has it that one shilling bought you a sheep.

Despite numerous debasements, it was an extraordinarily successful coin that was minted in the reign of every monarch since, including Elizabeth II. The shilling lasted until decimalisation in 1971, but even today we refer to the 5p (of which there are twenty in a pound) as a shilling. The shilling had the nickname a “bob” – as in “it cost me ten bob”.

The minting of shillings was part of a wider trend in Europe towards larger silver coins, which would eventually lead to one ounce Spanish dollars, English crowns, pesos, tholars, daalders and dalers, and eventually the US dollar itself.

It was Henry VII’s successor Henry VIII who gave England its first crown coin in 1526 – but this was made of gold. The first silver crown came in 1551, during the reign of Edward VI. It was roughly an ounce of 92.5% silver, and 7.5% copper (for added hardness to discourage clipping). Soon coins came with milled edges too in order to discourage such nefarious activity. The crown had a value of five shillings.

When the United Kingdom united in 1707 the English crown became the British crown, still with a value of five shillings and still sterling, i.e. 92.5% silver. As it was the same size, the crown was often nicknamed the dollar. Its circulation as a currency began to fall into decline in the 19th century.
The silver content in the crown fell from 92.5% to 50% in 1920, and then altogether after 1947. After decimalisation in 1971 its nominal value was 25p – still five shillings, although from 1990, the face value of new crown coins was upgraded from five shillings to five pounds. There’s debasement for you. The value of a pound has fallen to a shilling.

Henry VII also gave England its first gold sovereign, half an ounce of 23-carat gold, which had a value of one pound and one shilling. Henry VIII reduced the carat to 22 (92% purity), which became the standard. Even today sovereigns are 22 carat.

The sovereign lasted over a hundred years until King James I issued a new coin in 1604 called the ‘unite’ – to symbolise that he had merged the Scottish and English crowns. It never really took off. It was replaced by the laurel, then the broad and eventually the guinea in 1663.

The guinea, so called after the West African region where most of the gold to mint it was mined, was one quarter of an ounce of gold and started with a value of a pound. This fluctuated, depending on the price of silver, but Sir Isaac Newton’s Great Recoinage of 1716 fixed the value at 21 shillings, until the next great recoinage in 1816, when it ceased circulation.

Even after the guinea was replaced by the sovereign in the Great Recoinage of 1816, and the pound became the major unit of currency, the guinea was long used as a unit of account, retaining its value of 21 shillings (£1.05). With its aristocratic connotations professional fees, land, horses, art, bespoke tailoring, furniture, and other ‘luxury’ items were often quoted in guineas even until decimalisation in 1971.

The other great evolution in English money, which began in the early modern period, was the use of paper – and we’ll cover that next time.

*Dominic Frisby is the author of Daylight Robbery – How Tax Shaped The Past And Will Change The Future, out now at Amazon and all good bookstores with the audiobook, read by Dominic, on Audible and elsewhere.

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