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Elizabeth's milled coinage lost out
By R.W. Julian
July 12, 2018

One of the great ironies of history is that Queen Elizabeth I of England does not get the public admiration that she deserves. She should, in the eyes of some historians, be known as Elizabeth the Great, an honor that unfortunately appears only once in British history, for the 9th century king Alfred the Great. Elizabeth’s long reign (1558-1603) was not only a brilliant one; it put England on the world stage as a power to be reckoned with.

Princess Elizabeth, as she was first known, was born in September 1533, the daughter of King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Her mother was executed on trumped-up charges in May 1536, but the real crime was not producing a male heir to succeed Henry.

Henry’s third wife was Jane Seymour and this time there was a son, Prince Edward. Jane was very kind to Elizabeth and Mary (Henry’s daughter by his first wife, Catherine of Aragon), but the queen died shortly after Edward’s birth.

In January 1547, after a painful illness, Henry VIII died and was succeeded by his son, now King Edward VI. In July 1553, however, Edward also died and was succeeded by his elder half-sister Mary.

From the early 1530s, England had been a nation in turmoil. Henry VIII had divorced his first wife, Catherine, provoking a bitter dispute with the Vatican. In retaliation, Henry broke with the pope, creating the Church of England. Monasteries were looted of their treasures and the lands seized for the king and his entourage.

At the same time as the divorce from Catherine, Henry was engaged in an expensive war in northern France. The funds raised from looting the religious orders were not enough to support the troops, so Henry debased the currency by reducing the amount of silver in the coinage. His silver coins became so base that the king acquired the nickname “Old Copper Nose” because of the copper soon showing through on his facing portrait.

Edward VI was under the control of a regency, but his advisors were competent and gradually moved the nation back towards a good coinage of full value. The religious disputes subsided under Edward but flared up again under Queen Mary (1553-1558), who was a strong Catholic and attempted to undo what her father had begun; her reign in this respect was disastrous, although she continued the path towards a stronger currency.

Mary died in November 1558 and was succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth. At first, the new ruler was content to consolidate her power. This was not an easy task, as she was a strong Protestant in a land with a history of recent religious turmoil. Elizabeth promoted the Church of England but quietly eased restrictions on Catholics.

During the 1560s and 1570s, Elizabeth gradually strengthened her army and navy to the point that England was a first-rate power. Her actions were at the expense of France and Spain, the other leading powers of the time. She secretly encouraged freebooters, such as Sir Francis Drake, to prey on Spanish fleets and their cargoes of gold and silver. In point of fact, a considerable part of the gold and silver coinage struck during her 45-year reign came from this source, a sticking point with Spain.

In 1588, Spanish anger finally boiled over, and its Armada was launched, with dozens of ships and tens of thousands of soldiers and sailors. King Phillip II of Spain planned to invade England, overthrow the queen, and re-establish Catholicism. Due to bad weather and the competence of English naval captains, the Armada was a disaster, with an enormous loss of life. Spain never again seriously threatened English power.

It was under Elizabeth that William Shakespeare was born in 1564, and before the queen’s death in March 1603, this famous playwright had enriched the English language in a way that no one has since matched. Shakespeare was not the only person of note, however, as there were many writers and artists who made her era one of great accomplishment.

When Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558, the coinage was in a state of confusion. The old coinage of Henry VIII was still being used, although the values had been lowered to reflect intrinsic worth. Alongside these older coins were those of Edward VI and Mary, both of whom had produced quality coins but not in great quantity. All of this would change under Elizabeth.

Prior to Elizabeth’s time, coins had rarely been dated, although some of Edward’s and Mary’s coins were so treated. Under Elizabeth, much of the minor silver coinage was dated but other coins, especially the gold, were not. However, there was an alternate dating method used at London, which had been in place for centuries.

At irregular intervals, the Treasury held the Trial of the Pyx, in which the accumulated coins were tested for purity. The London Mint accommodated itself to this system by changing “Pyx” marks on the coins at regular intervals.,From February to May 1567, for example, the figure of a lion was placed on coins. Sometimes the Pyx would be held yearly, but at other times it might be two or three years between tests. This combination of normal dating and the Pyx marks has enabled scholars to determine when most coins of Elizabeth were actually struck.

From 1558 to 1561, Elizabeth was content to continue the system of coinage in effect under Mary while she planned for the future, using the advice of brilliant ministers such as Sir William Cecil, her Secretary of State. Over a period of years, there were needed reforms at the London Mint.

Most of the coins carried a Latin phrase relating to the queen or the coin. In one such case, for example, we find ROSA SINE SPINA (A Rose Without a Thorn), a pleasant allusion to the queen.

Under Mary, there had been three distinct coinages, two of gold and one of silver. The least important was the so-called “Fine” gold coinage, which was essentially pure gold; coins valued at 30 shillings (the sovereign), 15 shillings (the ryal), 10 shillings (the angel), and 5 shillings (half angel) were made, but all were for special purposes, such as gifts from the monarch. The Fine gold coinage continued throughout Elizabeth’s reign but was never an important part of the monetary system.

The “sovereign” gold coin was perhaps the most impressive coin struck under Elizabeth. A full 41mm in diameter, it contained – in terms of the U.S. gold coinage of 1837–1933 – more than $10 worth of the precious metal, an enormous sum in those days. As with all gold at that time, it was a very thin coin.

“Crown” gold was struck at .917 fineness, the general European standard. For the early years of Elizabeth, there were only three values of Crown gold, however: 10 shillings (half pound), 5 shillings (crown), and 2.5 shillings (half crown). The names of the coins were different in the two systems so that they could be distinguished from each other in legal documents.

Silver coinage from 1558 to 1561 was less complicated than the gold. Only four denominations were struck: the shilling (12 pence), fourpence, twopence and penny. The silver was .917 fine, but this was raised to .925 in December 1560.

At the same time, the queen agreed to an experiment in coinage. From time immemorial in England, it had been the practice to strike coins in the old hammered way. One die was set in an anvil and the other was held in the hand. A planchet was laid on the lower die and the upper die then placed against the planchet. A sharp blow from a hammer then completed the process of making a coin.

On the European continent during the 1500s, various mints had experimented with the screw press, in which a column is driven downwards with great force. It was a long process of trial and error to perfect a coining press, and each step was bitterly fought by the moneyers, who had a vested interest in keeping the old methods.

In 1559, Eloy Mestrelle came to London to offer his services. He had worked with the screw press at the Paris Mint but had decided to leave. He suggested to the English Court that he be allowed to set up a screw coining press and mint silver and gold coins in the new manner.

By May 1560, Mestrelle had been hired to experiment with a screw press. During the fall of 1560, he put his machinery in order and was able to begin coining during late December. He had about a dozen men working under him at peak periods.

Hammered coins were produced from blanks cut out of sheets of silver that had been beaten to the right thickness. If the piece was too heavy, the edges were filed down until the correct weight was accomplished. Mestrelle, on the other hand, cast silver ingots that were passed through heavy rollers until the necessary thickness was achieved. The planchets were then punched out of the flattened strips.

By the spring of 1561, Mestrelle had hit his stride in silver coinage, and production was relatively heavy, especially in sixpences (half shillings). He could not match the output of the moneyers and their hammered coins, but his coins were round and well made compared to their crude results. Mestrelle also took considerable care with his dies so that the royal portrait would be as flattering as possible.

Key government officials thought that Mestrelle’s operations ought to continue despite the costs involved. His coins were far superior in execution to the hammered pieces and, for the time being, prestige was considered more important than the expense.

In 1563, the screw press was still striking silver coins, but the amount of silver arriving at the Mint was much smaller than before. The moneyers, who struck the hammered coins, saw to it that Mestrelle had serious problems in getting supplies of silver. As a result, in the spring of 1564, the screw press operations were shut down.

It was not until early in 1567 that Mestrelle was able to resume work. Gradually his fortunes improved to the point that, at the beginning of 1568, the level of coinage was approaching that of 1562. At this point, one of his close relatives was hanged for counterfeiting, and Mestrelle barely escaped punishment, but it was more than a year before he was permitted to resume coinage.

Mint officials grew increasingly unhappy with Mestrelle during 1571, finally arranging a competition with the moneyers in the spring of 1572 to see who could produce coinage with the most efficiency in terms of time and money. Mestrelle lost the contest and his position at the Mint; later he became involved again in counterfeiting and was hanged at Tyburn. The moneyers who struck the hammered coins breathed a sigh of relief at this point but also improved the quality of their work just in case the government would again experiment with the screw press.

The religious and civil disputes that had begun under Henry VIII, although diminished by 1561, still flared up on occasion. The queen’s enemies circulated a false decree that announced a devaluation of the currency, an act that would have had disastrous effects on the poor; Elizabeth retaliated in March 1562 by threatening harsh penalties against anyone spreading such rumors.

In the meantime, of course, the hammered coinage continued at the London Mint. The system was revamped in 1562, with more emphasis on Crown gold and silver. The silver denominations, for example, were changed to the following: sixpence, threepence, twopence, one and one-half pence, one penny, and three-quarters penny (three farthings).

The odd denominations were meant to aid the public in making small change. For example, if an item cost one farthing (one quarter of a penny), change could be made with a three-farthing piece. These new values were the Mint’s answer to the lack of base metal coins. (Patterns for a copper coinage were struck as early as 1574, but nothing was done.)

The system established in 1562 lasted until 1582 and served the nation well during this time. Coinage was relatively heavy, thanks in part to the actions of privateers; the Spanish victims had other names for such people, the nicest of which was “pirate.” No hammered shillings were struck during this time but perhaps the government felt that shillings struck by Mestrelle would fill in the gap.

In 1582, there were several high-level discussions between the queen and her advisors about the coinage, and it was decided to fine tune certain aspects. The coinage of Fine gold was somewhat increased, and the 30 shillings piece (sovereign) was brought back. Crown gold was now struck only in small quantities, although this idea was reversed after 1590 when Crown gold became the most important again and remained that way until the queen’s death in 1603.

It is with the silver that we see the most changes, however. The odd denominations were scrapped and the halfpenny (two  farthings) substituted. The shilling now returned and was struck in large quantities through the end of the reign, as was the sixpence.

During 1600, there were fresh discussions about the monetary system. There was a rising need for larger silver coins to be used in foreign trade and, for this reason, Elizabeth ordered that the crown (5 shillings) and halfcrown be struck. These two new coins were dated “0” and “1,” which are generally accepted as being coined in 1601 and 1602.

The new coinage of 1582 is also rather special in that the queen ordered that each silver denomination be clearly marked; the twopence, for example, has two dots behind the bust of the ruler, but this was not systematically carried out despite the order.


This article was originally printed in World Coin News. >> Subscribe today.


  More Collecting Resources

• The Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1601-1700 is your guide to images, prices and information on coins from so long ago.

• With over 25,000 listings and 15,500 illustrations, the Standard Catalog of World Paper Money, Modern Issues is your go-to guide for modern bank notes.

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