Friday, 20 July 2018

Little discs of beaten silver by Carolyn Hughes

All of my posts so far for The History Girls have been about some aspect of the history of the Meon Valley in Hampshire, the setting for my series of historical novels. I undoubtedly have more to share about the Meon Valley, but I thought that, today, I would offer something a little different.

At home, I have a small collection of mediaeval coins – fourteenth century coins, to be precise, the time period of my novels. Although I have had them for a while, I have never really taken the time to examine them, to understand their markings or even to discover much about fourteenth century coinage. So, I thought I would take that time, and then share what I discovered.

I have just nine coins, although I hope to increase my collection in time. What I have is:

- Edward I: a penny and a farthing (a quarter of a penny)
- Edward II: a penny and a halfpenny
- Edward III: a penny, a halfpenny, a half groat (= two pennies) and a groat (= four pennies)
- Richard II: a halfpenny

All the coins are “hammered”, that is, struck by hand between two dies. “Milled” coins, where the coins were struck by dies in a coining press, were only fully introduced at the start of the reign of Charles II. 

First a bit of background…

Coins have an “obverse”, the side with the ruler’s image and name, and a “reverse”, which usually identifies the mint that produced the coin.

On most coins of this period the obverse wording starts at 12 o’clock after an initial mark, typically a cross, and has the ruler’s name and their titles, for example:

+EDW R ANGL DNS hYB | Edward Rex Anglorum Dominus Hyberniae | Edward King of England Lord of Ireland

Before Edward I (1272-1307), the only coin was the penny, which, on its reverse, showed the name of both the mint and the “moneyer”, the person in charge of producing coins at that mint. So, IOHN ON LUND would translate to JOHN OF LONDON. Identifying the moneyer was a way for the king to obtain accountability for the quality of his coinage. However, in 1279, Edward issued new coinage and at the same time stopped using the moneyers’ names and just identified the name of the mint, for example, CIVITAS LONDON is the City of London and VILL SCI EDMUNDI is the Town of Bury St Edmunds. (If you are actually interested in reading coin inscriptions, a full list of legends and their meanings on medieval coins can be found at

Edward III penny. In this case, the legend on the obverse reads
+EDWARDUS REX ANGLIE, Edward King of England and,
on the reverse, it is CIVI | TAS | EBO | RACI, the City of York. (c) Author

Of my coins, six were made in the City of London mint, one was made in York mint, and the last in the mint of Bury St Edmunds.

It seems that, after the Romans left, no coins were minted in Britain until about 650AD. But, after the consolidation of the English Kingdoms, a London mint was in operation again from soon after 650. At first its existence was somewhat precarious but, from about the time of Alfred the Great (871-899), its operation became continuous and increasingly important. However, at that time, London was only one of many mints, perhaps about 30 at that time and, by the reign of Ethelred II (978-1016), more than 70. These were mostly in the southern half of the country and there can have been few market towns of any consequence where coins were not struck. Although the number had declined by the Norman Conquest and, from the early 13th century, most minting was done in either London or Canterbury, it was not until 1279, and Edward’s reforms, that the country’s mints were finally unified. Control of coin production was centralised to the mint within the Tower of London and only a few mints outside London continued to operate.

The standard unit was the penny and the only denomination produced between 1066 and 1279. To create a halfpenny or farthing prior to 1279, the penny was cut in half or quartered. There is some debate as to whether this process was carried out at the mint or as and when it was needed.

Prior to the reign of Henry II, the quality of coin production was pretty poor and, in 1180, Henry introduced the “short-cross” penny, a style that remained more or less unchanged until 1247.

Short cross silver penny of King John, 1205-1207.
The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum
[CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

However, during Henry III’s reign (1216–1272), it became clear that many coins in circulation were underweight, caused by the illegal practice of clipping silver off the edge of the coin, in theory made easier by the cross on the reverse not extending to the rim, so people had no clear indication of exactly how big the coin was supposed to be. I find this slightly curious, as the wording around the rim of the coin surely gave an idea of the coin’s extent? Nonetheless, in 1247, a new “long-cross” penny was introduced, which made it more obvious when a coin had been clipped. The long cross also made it easier to cut the coin into halves or quarters.

Edward I succeeded his father while away on Crusade in the Holy Land. Coin production had to continue while the new king made his long journey home, and long-cross pennies – still inscribed with his father’s name – continued to be produced. But Edward began to realise that English coinage needed to be improved to assure public confidence, and he also needed larger and smaller denominations.

A completely new coinage was struck in 1279 with a different design that made clipping much easier to detect. The strong, good-quality coins strengthened the economy and helped bring prosperity to the country.

Edward’s 1279 penny had a slightly different style from earlier pennies. On the reverse, the “voided” long cross (a cross with a channel along its arms) was replaced by a solid cross, a design that continued until the Tudor period.

Voided long cross penny of Henry III (1216-1272)
By Numisantica (
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons]

Edward I penny, reverse, showing the new solid cross. (c) Author
In 1279, Edward also introduced a farthing and, in 1280, a halfpenny, which were successful and continued to be minted. He tried also to introduce groats (four pence) and half groats (two pence) at the same time, but they were not a success and production stopped in the early 1280s, meaning that Edward I groats are extremely rare. (I wonder if I will ever find one?)

However, in 1351, Edward III (1327-1377) again introduced the groat and half groat and, this time, they were successful. They became very popular and eventually superseded the penny in importance.

Edward III groat, obverse and reverse (c) Author
The groats (and half groats) have a couple of significant differences in design from the penny. On the obverse, for example, the portrait is surrounded by arches known as a “tressure”. Some have trefoils on the cusps of the arches (as below), some have fleur de lys, and some are blank. On the reverse, there are two legends rather than one. The inner one is the mint signature, and the outer one is an oath. This style and wording was used right up to the end of the Tudor period.

Edward III half groat (c) Author
These annotated images of the author’s Edward III half groat show the “tressure” arches on the obverse, and the trefoils, and the wording on both sides. The obverse wording is slightly obscured but presumably reads:

+EDWARD[US] REX ANGL DNS hYB | Edwardus Rex Anglorum Dominus Hyberniae | Edward King of England, Lord of Ireland

The wording on the reverse is:
+POSV | I DEVM | ADIVTO | RE MEV(M), which means “I have made God my helper”

The lettering on the obverse of Edward III coins varies slightly. In the early coinage of Edward III, Ns are shown as “n” rather than “N” – as in AnGL and DnS above, though on the reverse it is still “N”, as in LONDON. The king’s name too varies, from EDW and EDWA, right through to EDWARD or even EDWARDUS, depending on how much other text is required on the coin.

Edward III had four coinages during his reign, the first three relatively insignificant, but the fourth (1351-1377) was by far the largest and the politics of the period affected the wording on many of the coins minted. This fourth coinage is divided into three periods based around the Treaty of Brétigny, which was signed between England and France in 1361: pre-treaty (1351-61), treaty (1361-9) and post-treaty (1369-77). They are differentiated mostly by the wording of the obverse legend.

Edward claimed the throne of France so, in “pre-treaty” coinage, the wording includes his title as King of France. 

Edward III groat (c) Author
My groat, illustrated here, is a bit worn, so it is hard to make out all the lettering, but it is possibly as follows:

+E[D]WAR[D D? G?] REX ANGL [Z] F[RA]NC D hYB | Edward Dei Gratia Rex Anglorum Et Francia Dominus Hyberniae | Edward by the Grace of God King of England and France, Lord of Ireland

(Z stands for the French “et” (and).)

In 1360, the Brétigny treaty granted Edward land in France, so a “treaty period” groat does not have the French title, but includes Edward’s overlordship of Aquitaine (though only on larger denomination coins, not pennies or lower).

After the treaty was renounced by the French in 1369, Edward’s claim to France was reinstated so, on “post-treaty” coins, FRANC appears again in the wording on the coins.

When Edward’s eleven-year-old grandson Richard II (1377–1399) succeeded him (the Black Prince having died from dysentery in 1376), England was still claiming the throne of France. The wording on Richard’s pennies sometimes includes reference to France and sometimes not.

I have discovered in this brief review of the details of my coins that, in fact, there is a lot more I could learn about the differences between types and periods of coins, but it is rather arcane stuff about lettering and marks, which can help to pin down more precisely when the coin was minted. But I think I have enough here to satisfy my needs.

And, in truth, why have I got the coins at all? They are attractive to look at and usually I keep them in a display case. But what I really enjoy doing is to take them out of the case (though not out of their little protective wallets), and hold them in my hand. Some of them are in excellent condition, and so maybe weren’t all that much used, but others are quite worn and I like to imagine one of my halfpennies being passed across a market stall in return for a dozen eggs, or a penny handed to the alewife as the price of a gallon of ale, or a groat placed in the sweaty palm of a carpenter in payment for a day’s labour. That is where the pleasure lies in owning these little discs of beaten silver.


Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I had a re-enactor friend who's a coin expert make me a 'mark of silver' 12th century style. I keep it in a replica wooden box - all 160 silver pennies. It's great to have that visual of how many coins a single mark was actually composed and what it looked like. I can imagine that having the 'real deal' in your hands is a wonderful connection to the past!

Carolyn Hughes said...

160 little silver discs must look very splendid! But, yes, although I can of course never know if any of my “real deal” coins were actually used, I do like to ponder on whose hands - quite possibly rather grubby - might have handled them 650 years ago!