Surprising stories

Surprising stories

Image: The Royal Mint Museum

The Mint usually ran like a well-oiled machine, but occasionally things went wrong. Workers took ill, monarchs meddled, and the temptations of gold and silver became too great…

John II: A King's ransom

A King's ransomIn 1356 the French King John II, was captured in the battle of Poitiers, France, by the English King Edward III.  His ransom was set at a whopping 3 million ecus (£500,000) but the French government had trouble raising the money, so much so, that a new coin, the franc, was introduced to help the stabilise the French economy. 

Eventually, in 1360, a third of the ransom was raised, and this first instalment of £166,666 was brought to the Mint with much fanfare and excitement from the public.  None of the other instalments ever arrived, and John died four years later in France.

Joan Molakyn: The jewel thief

Joan the jewel thiefJoan Molakyn was the wife of Nanfre Molakyn, the deputy Master of the Mint in the 1390s. In 1393 she ran off to East Anglia with another man, John of Ipswich, apparently taking jewels and other goods belonging to the Mint with her. 

Joan was arrested in Maldon, Essex, probably on the way to John’s home town, and some of the goods were recovered.  Suspicion was thrown on her husband Nanfre, because security must have been lax if his wife had access to bullion and jewels stored in the Tower. However Nanfre seems to have been cleared and was eventually made Master of the Mint in 1395.

William Foxley: The sleeping beauty

William Foxley - sleeping beautyWilliam Foxley was a potter at the Mint in the 1540s, earning £10 a year.  In April 1547 Foxley inexplicably fell asleep for 14 days and 15 nights.  King Henry VIII‘s doctors could neither diagnose nor rouse him, and Henry himself even had a look at the Mint’s curious sleeping beauty.  The episode had no apparent lasting effects as Foxley continued to live and work happily for another 40 years in the Tower until 1587. 

We still don’t know for certain why Foxley fell asleep, but recent work on Tudor pottery excavated at the Tower showed high levels of lead in the metals inside the pots and the presence of other heavy metals such as arsenic. Perhaps Foxley suffered from heavy metal poisoning.

Isaac Newton: Catching counterfeiters

William Chaloner was a resourceful criminal and serial coin counterfeiter. His skill at engraving counterfeits and his reckless money-making scams made him a rich man, although he was imprisoned in Newgate several times. He met his match in Isaac Newton, Warden of the Mint, after Chaloner accused Mint employees of selling dies to counterfeiters.

The enraged Newton devoted himself to building the case against Chaloner, who was finally executed on 16 March 1699. 

James Turnbull: Theft before breakfast

Wanted: James TurnbullJames Turnbull was a soldier who was recruited to work at the Mint. By 9am on the 20th December 1798 Turnbull and his fellow workers had struck several thousand guineas and were ready to go for breakfast. However, Turnbull and an accomplice lagged behind, attacked two of the supervisors and threatened them with a pistol to give up the key to the chest containing the freshly-minted coins.

The supervisors were locked inside a large cupboard whilst Turnbull stuffed four bags of guineas, containing 2,308 coins and weighing about 19 kilograms, into his coat pockets. He escaped from the Tower and was not heard of again until the 5th January when he attempted to buy passage to France from Dover on a fishing boat.

Unfortunately for Turnbull, he was recognised from a ‘Wanted’ poster, arrested, and sentenced to death. He was hanged on 15th May 1799.

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