Elizabeth I: The restoration of currency

Elizabeth I: The restoration of currency

Elizabeth I. Image: National Portrait Gallery, London

Elizabeth I restored the quality of coins after her father made cheap copper ones.

Photo © National Portrait Gallery

Good and bad money

Queen Elizabeth I's father, King Henry VIII, had reduced the purity of English silver and gold coins to fund foreign wars and an extravagant lifestyle. Henry VIII. Image: National Portrait Gallery, LondonMany of Henry VIII's 'debased' silver coins actually contained more cheap metal such as copper than silver. As the coins wore down the copper shone through his image, earning him the nickname 'Old Coppernose'.

To put things right, Elizabeth I ordered all old coins to be re-made into new, purer coins. Elizabeth's new coins were made of 'fine' silver and gold once more.

Photo © National Portrait Gallery, London

A question of honesty

Trial plate c. 1560. Photo: The Royal Mint MuseumTo test the honesty of Mint officials, 'trial plates’ made of gold or silver were divided up and distributed to the Mint, Treasury and Goldsmiths’ Company. Samples of metal from the plates were regularly compared to coins made at the Mint. If they were not identical, the Master of the Mint was in trouble!

Testing times

Before the Mint could produce Elizabeth I's new coins, metal workers needed to calculate the amount of silver or gold in Henry VIII’s coins. In a process called assaying, a sample was weighed and melted in a furnace, and the precious and non-precious metals separated out by a series of chemical reactions.

Assaying could be hazardous work. In 1560 a group of German metal workers fell ill at the Mint. They eventually died, probably of arsenic poisoning from the melting process.

A royal visit

On 10 July 1561 Elizabeth I visited the Mint at the Tower to check the progress of her new coins. In preparation, the Mint bought in bags of gravel to cover the muddy street so she did not get her dress and shoes dirty. Rumour has it she even struck some gold coins herself.

The Mint story continues

Discover the next dramatic changes to The Mint with Charles II and the mechanisation of The Mint


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