Great Britain Coins
Coins of Great Britain
Celtic and Roman Coins from Great Britain
From c.150 BC onwards, coins began to enter the British Isles as part of a trade route between the southern British tribes and Gaul (modern-day Belgium). After the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD under Emperor Claudius, these primitive types gradually began to disappear from circulation and were replaced by Roman coins. These remained Britain’s exclusive coinage for over three-and-a-half centuries, until increased pressure on the Roman Empire from aggressive Germanic tribes caused the Romans to abandon Britain in c.410 leaving a complete societal collapse in their wake. This resulted in more than two centuries in which coins were hardly produced or used.
Anglo-Saxon and Viking Coins in Britain
As Anglo-Saxon groups began to migrate to Britain after the decline of Rome, Merovingian gold coins were brought over and began to slowly enter circulation, leading to the production of British gold Thrymsas in 620-30 modelled on the Merovingian coinage. These were replaced c.50 years later by silver Sceattas, replaced in turn by silver pennies based on the Carolingian Frankish denier. When the Vikings first invaded in the late 8th century, they brought with them their own Scandinavian pennies which circulated alongside the Anglo-Saxon series.
Medieval Great Britain Coinage
The defeat of Harold II by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 marked the end of Anglo-Saxon England and the beginning of the Norman administration. Silver Pennies were essentially the only coin produced for the following two centuries, besides a Groat of four pence struck in Edward I’s reign in 1272. His Grandson Edward III’s reign began in 1327 and during this period, English currency underwent enormous reform with the introduction of the first multiple-denomination gold coinage. After an initial attempt of the ‘Leopard’ coinage of 1344 which proved unsuccessful, the gold Noble, half Noble and quarter Noble were brought in and were instantly highly popular.
The Tudor period began in 1485 and saw English coinage experience turmoil at the hands of the ruling monarchs. King Henry VIII began to debase coins in 1544 to help fund his wars, and it fell to his short-reigned son Edward VI to restore trust in circulating coinage. By 1551, a new high-silver content ‘Fine’ issue had been produced which quickly set the standard for purity. It was from 1558, during the final Tudor monarch Elizabeth I’s long reign, that the production of a wide range of denominations and a period of numismatic experimentation began. In 1561, the first ‘milled’ coins were created by the French moneyer Eloye Mestrelle, far superior to the contemporary hammered types. Due to their inefficiency of production, however, they were not adopted as a replacement and quickly ceased to be made. Elizabeth died in 1603 and was succeeded by her cousin James VI of Scotland, who became James I and the first of the Stuart monarchs of England.
Stuart and Commonwealth Coins
On James’s crowning, the titles and arms of the coins changed to reflect his ties to both England and Scotland, and whilst the silver coinage remained similar to that produced during the Tudor era, a variety of new gold types were produced including Laurels, Spur Ryals and Unites. Notably, the first copper coinage was struck during James’s reign, a series of farthings to answer public demand for low-value coins.
James’s son, Charles I, refused to convene Parliament whilst simultaneously implementing unapproved taxes, quickly escalating into civil war. Coins were produced in emergency situations, sieges or at small provincial mints; meanwhile, Charles oversaw the production of high-denomination propaganda types such as the gold Triple Unite and silver Pound. The war ended and Charles was executed in 1649, leading England to become a Commonwealth republic overseen by Oliver Cromwell. The coins produced at this time featured shields in place of a monarch, and English legends instead of Latin; however, in 1656-1658 a series of milled coins were produced bearing Cromwell’s portrait and a crowned shield. Cromwell died in 1658, and in 1660 the monarchy was restored with the return of Charles II, Charles I’s son.
Shortly after Charles II retook the throne, English coins finally ceased to be produced through the now-antiquated hammering method and from 1662 onwards were produced in screw-presses giving far sharper detail and edge lettering. Several standardized denominations were produced and remained fairly consistent up until 1707, when England’s union with Scotland led to coins featuring conjoined English and Scottish shields.
Great Britain Coins from the Industrial Revolution and Victorian
The Stuart line ended in 1714 with the death of Queen Anne, succeeded by her second cousin George I of the German House of Hanover. The 18th century saw dramatic economic effects transforming British coinage; by far the most significant change was the cessation of silver coins being produced due to their being undervalued in Britain and exported for profit. This was further exacerbated by numerous conflicts in George III’s reign, including the French Revolution, American Wars of Independence and Napoleonic Wars. As such, several desperate measures were introduced to alleviate this imbalance, including the countermarking of Spanish Dollars and production of Bank token coinages.
Eventually, new Industrial Revolution-spawned steam-milling technology led the Great Recoinage of 1816, after which time the new precisely-made coins never encountered such hardships again. Queen Victoria’s reign from 1837-1901 generated some of the most popular types amongst collectors, their engraving exceptionally fine and production quality similarly impressive. Notable favorites amongst numismatists are the 1839 Una and the Lion five pounds, the 1847 Gothic Crown and the 1887 Proof set. After Victoria’s death, British coins remained reasonably consistent besides a reduction in silver content in 1920 and 1947 and the leaving of the gold standard in 1931, all reflecting contemporary economic struggles.
Modern Great Britain Coin Issues
British coins were decimalized in 1971, finally simplifying the convoluted system of interlocking denominations into simply pounds and pence. However, commemorative crowns are still produced on special occasions for collectors, and the Sovereign, its multiples and its fractions are produced every year by the Royal Mint and remain one of the world’s most popular bullion series.
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