How five coins changed history
Coins as works of art
The coins made at the Mint are miniature works of art, the product of the skills and care of engravers, craftsmen, moneyers and Mint officials. Each of the coins featured in the exhibition Coins and Kings reveal secrets and stories about the people who lived and worked at the Mint in the Tower and the kings and queens who ruled them.
Edward I groat, 1279
In the 1270s King Edward I’s currency was in crisis. England’s coins were old, worn and many had been deliberately damaged. This caused the prices of essentials such as bread and livestock to rise sharply.
The King acted decisively. He moved the Mint inside the secure walls of the Tower and ordered the currency to be completely re-made. He also punished anyone and everyone he thought responsible for the poor state of his coins. These included the goldsmiths, many of his own Mint officials and the Jewish community. The currency was secured but at a huge cost.
Queen Elizabeth I was celebrated for restoring the Tudor currency. Her father, King Henry VIII, had reduced the purity of English silver and gold coins to fund foreign wars and an extravagant lifestyle. His actions caused huge price rises and public unrest as people lost faith in England's coins.
To put things right, Elizabeth I ordered all old coins to be brought to the Mint, melted down and re-made into new, purer coins with her portrait. It was a difficult undertaking that Elizabeth herself described as a 'bitter medicine', but slowly trust was restored.
By the time of Charles II’s restoration to the English throne in 1660 most of Europe’s coins were machine-made. Charles was keen to introduce this new technology. Thomas Simon, who had been Chief Engraver to Oliver Cromwell during the Commonwealth, was eager to be appointed to engrave the King’s new coins. He sent the King one of these beautifully designed coins to prove his engraving skills. But despite Thomas’ efforts, Charles gave the job to Dutchman John Roettiers whose family had been loyal to him during his exile.
Poor Thomas died of the plague just three years later.
William III real and fake halfcrowns, 1690s
By the 1690s most coins were worn flat, clipped, or were even forgeries. Despite the production of new machine-struck coins in the 1660s it was not illegal to use the old hammered coins. So while people hoarded or traded the new coins abroad for their silver, they continued to spend the old. Forgery of the machined coins was also rife and by 1696 almost ten per cent of the currency was fake.
In an attempt to solve the problem, William III’s government ordered a ‘Great Recoinage’ of all the old silver coins in circulation. It took the Mint three years and over £2 million to complete.
In 1797 England narrowly averted a financial disaster. Years at war with France had left the Bank of England’s gold stocks perilously low and in late February 1797 the Bank stopped making most payments in gold. People were forced to accept banknotes or high value silver coins.
As an emergency measure, the Mint began to stamp, or ‘countermark’, George III’s portrait on foreign coins to make them legal English money. This countermarked Spanish eight reales, known as a ‘Piece of Eight’, is one of over a million foreign coins countermarked in just 17 days.