Justin Robinson BA (Hons), MA is a historian and author working within the coin industry. A fellow of the Royal Numismatic Society and a member of the British Numismatic Society, Justin is also a regular contributor to Coin News, the UK’s biggest selling coin magazine. He loves working in the numismatics industry where he gets to share his passion for history to tell the stories that bring the past to life. "A coin without a story is just a piece of metal. But a coin with a story becomes history in your hands" says Justin.
Amidst the long and illustrious history of British gold coinage, few coins have had such a troubled origin as the 1823 double sovereign. The year marked the first time that the double sovereign had been struck as a circulating coin, and it was destined to bear a one-off portrait of the monarch that would never appear on a coin again.
The Great Recoinage of silver and gold coins, which began in 1816, was still underway when King George III died on January 29 1820. His eldest son George IV (1762-1830), was fifty-seven years old when he became King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Ireland, and Hanover. He had already served as Prince Regent for nine years due to his father’s incapacitating mental illness.
George III had attempted to instil in his son his own high moral values, frugal lifestyle and sense of duty but without success. The new King’s extravagant lifestyle, multiple mistresses and wasteful spending won him few friends amongst ministers and taxpayers, who condemned his behaviour as selfish, indulgent and irresponsible. However, he influenced the fashion of the time in what became known as the ‘Regency’ style and was nicknamed the ‘First Gentleman of England’ for his refined tastes.
George amassed vast debts from spending on horses, palaces, paintings, and numerous mistresses to achieve this cultured status. He left a legacy of many fine Regency buildings, including the Brighton Pavilion. However, his notorious vanity would ultimately result in the removal of one of the most exceptional engravers ever to work on the nation’s coinage.
The task of sculpting the new King’s official coin portrait fell to Benedetto Pistrucci, the brilliant engraver who the Master of the Mint, William Wellesley-Pole, had recruited to create the designs for the Great Recoinage in 1816. As an Italian, Pistrucci was not permitted to hold the official title of the mint’s Chief Engraver as the position was open only to British subjects. However, Wellesley-Pole gave his friend the salary and the workload and left the position vacant.
However, the new King was unhappy with the way Pistrucci depicted him on coins as an overweight, middle-aged Nero in the neo-classical style with short curly hair and crowned with a laurel wreath in the Roman Imperial tradition. The portrait was, arguably, at odds with the reputation he tried to cultivate as a fashionably modern and debonair man about town – a man, who as The Times famously put it, would always prefer “a girl and a bottle to politics and a sermon”.
As soon as the first coins of his reign were in circulation, George IV requested that his coin portrait be changed. He proposed that the new portrait be modelled on a flattering marble bust of himself by the sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey.
Pistrucci was outraged, claiming that copying the work of another artist would violate his artistic integrity. When the King helpfully sent an equally flattering painting of himself by Sir Thomas Lawrence to inspire the artist, it is said that the volatile Italian, after being ordered by mint officials to hang it in his studio, stubbornly turned it to face the wall. Eventually, the King agreed to sit for Pistrucci, but it soon became clear that the artist would not pander to his vanity. As the official record of Mint business was to note;
“To copy the work of another artist appeared to Mr. Pistrucci a degrading act. He declined obeying the order, and the Master was under the necessity of procuring an inferior artist to engrave the Dies from the Model.”
Unwilling to fire his celebrity engraver, Wellesley-Pole attempted to diffuse the situation by persuading Pistrucci’s French assistant Jean Baptiste Merlen to engrave the King’s portrait for the new gold double sovereign in 1823. Merlen did as he was instructed and modelled his design on the Chnatrey bust to comply with the King’s wishes.
Merlen’s design marked a radical departure from traditional coin portraiture. It was the first time that a British monarch had appeared on a circulating coin without a laurel wreath or a crown, something which would have appealed to the King’s elegant style and reputation as a modern trendsetter.
Despite doing an admirable job, Merlen’s elegant ‘bare head’ portrait was destined to appear only on the 1823 double sovereign, making the coin particularly sought after today. His initials (JBM) appear under the truncated neck, and Pistrucci’s Saint George and the dragon masterwork appears on the reverse.
Unfortunately for Pistrucci, his friend and supporter Wellesley-Pole stepped down as Master later that year. His successor, Baron Thomas Wallace, was not prepared to tolerate the artist’s stubbornness in refusing to follow the King’s instructions. In a terse letter to his superiors, he reported that;
“The conduct of Mr Pistrucci in refusing to execute the order of the Master, in fulfilment of the King’s command, render him no longer of use to the Mint as Chief Engraver, whose peculiar duty it is to prepare the Head Dies for the Coin.”
Baron Wallace, Master of the Mint
Pistrucci’s unwillingness to create a new portrait that flattered the King would see him replaced at the Royal Mint by an artist who would. With Pistrucci out of royal favour, the designs he had created for Britain’s coinage were replaced, and he would not live to see his work appear on coins again.
The task of creating a new portrait for the nation’s circulating coinage was given to the mint’s Second Engraver, William Wyon. He also modelled his design on the Chantrey bust, as the King requested. Wyon’s ‘bare head’ portrait was much acclaimed and appeared on the nation’s coinage from 1825 until the King’s death in 1830.
Just seven years after Pistrucci’s Saint George and the dragon had made a triumphant appearance on the first modern sovereign 1817, his masterwork was unceremoniously dropped from the sovereign. The unenviable task of creating a replacement design fell to Pistrucci’s French assistant. Merlen submitted a heraldic design incorporating the Ensigns Armorial (Royal Arms) of the United Kingdom on a crowned shield, with a smaller crowned shield in the centre featuring the Arms of Hanover. Today, his heraldic coin designs are recognised as some of the finest ever produced on British coins.
The rivalry in the royal mint engraving rooms only intensified when Wyon was made Chief Engraver in 1828. Pistrucci was appointed Chief Medallist so that he could complete his design for the long-awaited Waterloo Medal. It had been commissioned in 1819 and was to have been presented to the victorious powers. Knowing that he would be fired as soon as it was ready, Pistrucci did not complete the work until 1849.
One of the reasons I love old coins is that they are a witness to the past. To hold one in your hands is to make a physical connection to the hands that once held it before yours. Coins have been present at the most pivotal events in human history and have been carried in the pockets and purses of kings and beggars ever since they made their appearance about 2,600 years ago.
A coin doesn’t have to be struck in silver or gold to be valuable. Indeed, two of the lowest value coins in circulation two thousand years ago provided the inspiration for one of Jesus’ most famous teachings in the New Testament.
The grand temple in Jerusalem was a hive of activity. Crowds of pilgrims passed through the temple gates and paused to throw their offerings into the large ceremonial collection bowls that stood ready to receive them. The high temple walls would have echoed with the noise of coins as they landed in the bowls. Many wealthy people were throwing in large sums of money, much to the delight of the religious leaders.
Amidst the noise and the people, one donation went virtually unnoticed. A poor widow briefly emerged from the crowd to drop in two small copper coins. Compared to the many wealthy donations, her offering was an insignificant amount. Her coins were so light that they would have barely made a sound as they landed in the bowl.
But her gift had been observed by a young man sitting quietly opposite the collection bowls. He had been watching the people as they made their donations, large and small, to the temple treasury. Quickly, Jesus called over his followers and shared an astonishing insight with them.
“Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth, but she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on.”
Mark 12:43-44 (New International Version)
Jesus used these two little coins to explain one of his most radical teachings. God measures the true value of a gift, not by its financial worth but on how much it costs the giver to give it.
This teaching put him at odds with the powerful religious leaders in Jerusalem who enjoyed fine clothes and banquets while demanding offerings that pushed God’s people into poverty. They hated Jesus for calling them out for their hypocrisy and speaking with the authority of God, and so they conspired to have him put to death.
Of course, we have no way of knowing precisely which coins the poor widow dropped into the collection plate that day. They were most likely tiny copper lepta, or similarly sized prutah. In Jesus’ day, these would have been the lowest value coins in the region. Often poorly struck and badly worn, they would circulate for many decades until they no longer resembled coins.
When the Bible was translated into English, the Greek word lepta (meaning thin and small) became mite, which was the name of the smallest coin circulating in Europe at the time. The word was used by the Bible translators so that readers could understand that it was a coin with the lowest possible numerical value.
The coins could have been struck a century or more before Jesus saw them in the temple. The Maccabee ruler Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BC) struck huge quantities of prutah and lepta, and archaeological evidence suggests that they continued to circulate well into the second century. These coins depict an anchor on the obverse and an eight-pointed star on the reverse.
The lepton and prutah were in circulation for so long that surviving examples are almost always extremely worn. But that is part of their charm. Just imagine the number of people who carried this coin with them, the places they went, the things they saw. Who knows, maybe one of its previous owners was a poor widow who dropped it into the collection box in the temple.
It has been said that all of the armies that have ever marched, all the Parliaments that have ever sat and all the monarchs that have ever reigned, put together, have not impacted the world as powerfully as the man who taught us the true value of a gift.
The Industrial Revolution, which began in the middle of the eighteenth century transformed the nation’s need for money. People living off the land in rural Britain had been largely self-sufficient. They grew their own food, made their own clothes and bartered with their neighbours for everything else. However, as more and more people streamed into the new urban areas looking for work in the factories, so the need for good quality money to pay their wages became acute.
For most of King George III’s reign, British coinage was in a desperately poor state, with very few coins being produced and the market flooded with badly worn coins, tokens, foreign currencies and counterfeits. A population explosion between 1750 and 1800 did not help matters, putting additional pressure on the already inadequate coinage.
Fortunately, the King’s final years would witness a transformation in the nation’s coinage that would not be seen again until decimalisation in 1971.
The Northumberland Shilling
The production of silver coins slowed to a trickle during the eighteenth century and they rarely appeared in day to day transactions. A shortage of silver led to the metal price becoming more costly than the face value of coins made from it. Consequently, there was no incentive for the Treasury to strike silver coins despite urgent appeals from the public to do so. Any coins that did appear were unlikely to spend long in circulation, being either hoarded or quickly melted down for their higher bullion value.
In 1763 a batch of silver shillings were struck for Hugh Percy, 1st Duke of Northumberland, who had been appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He wanted to make an impression when he arrived in Dublin with his family in October 1763. To do this he had 2,000 new shillings struck, which he threw into the crowds that lined the streets to welcome him. The extravagant gesture cost him £100 but guaranteed him an enthusiastic reception, and the 1763 shilling would forever be known as the Northumberland Shilling.
From records kept at the time, we know the Royal Mint struck more silver in 1763 than the 2,000 shillings required by the Duke to ingratiate himself with the people of Ireland. Any coins that were produced were a drop in the ocean compared to what was actually needed. Shillings would not be struck again until 1787.
During the first decade of the new King’s reign, the number of counterfeit copper coins in circulation increased dramatically. To combat this, in 1770 the Treasury ordered the Royal Mint to produce copper coins in huge quantities, and over the next six years, millions of farthings and halfpennies were struck and issued into circulation.
However, far from dissuading the counterfeiters the huge influx of quality copper into the market only facilitated the production of more fakes. A skilled fraudster could melt down one genuine coin and make two or three underweight coins with the metal. In 1775 the Treasury admitted defeat and the official Government coin presses fell silent again.
Counterfeiting was a serious offence punishable by death. On 18th March 1789, Catherine and Hugh Murphy were executed at Newgate Prison in London for coining. The term covered several offences, such as clipping bits off silver and gold coins to melt down, colouring coins to make them look more valuable, producing counterfeits and possessing the equipment to do so.
Coining was an act of high treason in that it was considered to be a crime committed against the King. Therefore, Catherine was not hanged alongside her husband. Instead, she became the last woman in Britain to be executed by burning at the stake, the penalty for female coin counterfeiters until 1790.
The counterfeiting law only applied to criminals making visually exact replicas. Many criminals took advantage of this legal loophole by making coins with deliberate errors in their inscriptions, trusting that people would be unlikely to spot the difference!
An official examination of coins in circulation in 1786 confirmed that the nation’s coinage was in a shocking state; badly worn, barely legible, underweight and mostly fake. Only about eight per cent of ‘halfpennies’ in circulation were genuine. Genuine coins were often hoarded, and the fakes spent first, thereby proving Gresham’s Law that “bad money drives out good”.
Wear and tear over decades meant that smaller denominations were often so worn that it was impossible to discern the image that had once appeared on it. Some dated back to the reign of William III (1650 –1702) and had been allowed to circulate for a century.
The Royal Mint responded to the crisis by effectively shutting down. It produced no copper coins at all between 1775 and 1821. A small batch of silver shillings and sixpences were struck in 1787, but only because the Bank of England wanted to sell them to collectors looking for Christmas and birthday gifts. It was left to others to propose a solution to the problem.
There are not many coins that can legitimately claim to have changed the world, but the Spanish escudo is one. Struck using the abundance of gold found in the New World, the escudo (which means “shield”) quickly became a trusted international trading coin, transforming the fortunes of Spain and delivering economic prosperity to Europe. By doing so, the iconic Spanish coin can be said to have financed the Renaissance and ignited the Industrial Revolution. The world would never be the same again.
At all costs, get gold!
When Spain agreed to finance Christopher Columbus’ dangerous voyage into unchartered waters, they could hardly have imagined what a sound investment this would prove to be. Columbus (1451–1506) mentions gold at least 65 times in the diary that he kept during his historic journey of discovery.
Upon his arrival in the Caribbean in 1492, the Italian explorer’s first question was apparently to ask where he could find it! When it became clear that the New World had gold in plentiful supply, Spain quickly dispatched more expeditions. In 1511, King Ferdinand of Spain instructed his conquistadors to “get gold, humanely if you can, but at all costs, get gold”.
When Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) arrived in Mexico, he was amazed to find that the Aztecs had so much gold that they used it to decorate childrens’ toys, walls, ornaments and plates. They prized brightly coloured feathers, cacao beans and cloth far above the yellow metal, and Cortés excitedly reported that half a kilo of gold could be purchased for just 250 cacao beans!
A document to history
In 1537 the Holy Roman Emperor, King Charles I of Spain (r. 1516–58), constructed the first mint in the New World at Mexico City and ordered them to strike escudos with gold mined from the region. The new coin was inspired by the Venetian Ducat, a popular trading coin due to its identifiable design, constant weight and consistent purity.
As Spain grew to become one of the world’s first major superpowers, the importance of the escudo as the chief gold coin of Spanish-America grew with it. Escudos were produced throughout the New World, in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Peru.
The Spanish escudo remained the most widely used currency in the Americas for over three centuries. Its popularity only waned after 1857 when it ceased to be accepted as legal tender in the United States. In 1864 Spain relaunched the escudo in silver as the official currency of Spain, but just four years later, they joined the Latin Monetary Union and introduced the Peseta. This brought over three hundred years of escudo production to an end.
Reborn as a commemorative
In 2018, 150 years after the last circulating escudo was issued, the Royal Mint of Spain struck their most iconic gold coin again, this time as a 24-carat gold commemorative. All four original escudo denominations were struck in their original sizes, each with a reworked design that charts the unique history of this remarkable coin.
The Spanish King of England
Gold from the New World began to arrive in Spain after 1503, and it is estimated that twenty-five tons went to the Seville Mint during the 16th Century alone. Built during the reign of King Philip II (r. 1556–98), the first Escudos struck by the Mint bore his shield, and this design appears on the 2018 Four Escudos.
Under King Philip II’s reign, Spain enjoyed its “Golden Age”, with an empire upon which it was said that the sun never set. For four years between 1554 and 1558, the King also ruled England jointly with his second wife, the Catholic Queen Mary I. Theirs was clearly a political union, as they married only two days after their first meeting!
When Mary I died in 1558 without producing an heir, Philip automatically lost his rights to the English throne, and he was to spend the rest of his life trying to get it back! He immediately proposed marriage to his dead wife’s Protestant sister, the new Queen Elizabeth I. When she rebuffed his advances, he supported her cousin Mary Queen of Scots in a Catholic plot to seize the English throne. When the plot was exposed, he sent an Armada to invade England. But the Spanish fleet was routed at sea before they could land, thereby sinking his dream of ever possessing England again.
The 2018 Four Escudo depicts the Royal Coat of Arms of King Philip II and the official crowned “M” privy mark of the Royal Mint of Spain together with the new face value (200 EURO). The legend reads “PHILIPPUS.DEI GRATIA.” (Philip by the Grace of God).
The obverse depicts the Cross of Jerusalem within a quatrefoil and a leaf in each corner. This symbolised the King’s official determination to carry the Christian message to the four corners of the world. Of course, a cynic might argue that this noble intention was also a useful pretext to justify the conquest and plunder of foreign lands full of exploitable natural resources. The legend “HISPANIARUMN.REX” means “King of Spain”.
The Two Escudo was known as a Doubloon (Double), and they were minted throughout the Americas as well as in Spain. Until 1732, all coins produced in the New World were crudely fashioned “cobs” struck on irregularly shaped pieces of gold. Most were shipped across the Atlantic to be melted down, and the metal used to create Escudos of a much higher standard.
In 1586, new coining machines were installed at the Segovia Mint in Spain to strike escudos with the gold received from the New World. However, the Spanish galleons transporting this vast wealth through the Caribbean and across the ocean were always vulnerable to attack from pirates seeking to relieve them of their precious cargo. No other coin in the world evokes stronger images of pirate ships and treasure maps than the Spanish Doubloon.
The 2018 Spanish Doubloon features an original design that was struck at the Segovia Mint in 1607 during the reign of King Philip III (r. 1598–1621). Like his father, Philip III’s Doubloon also depicts the distinctive Cross of Jerusalem as a symbol of his “official” intention to spread the faith.
The reverse presents his Royal Coat of Arms together with a distinctive mintmark to show that the coin was initially struck at the Segovia Mint. Built by the Romans in the First Century to carry water to the town, the impressive Segovia aqueduct was an appropriate choice for a mintmark, as the Mint used giant water wheels to power its state of the art coin press. The legend reads “PHILIPPUS.III.D.G.” (Philip III by the Grace of God).
The Golden Fleece
The largest Spanish gold coin struck in the New World was the Eight Escudo. Often referred to as the “Onza” (ounce), the coin was first produced in 1610 and became the standard for large monetary transactions in the New World.
The 2018 Eight Escudo commemorative coin uses a design that was struck at the Mint of Madrid in 1719 during the reign of Spain’s longest-reigning monarch King Philip V (r. 1700–24, 1724–46). There were several public and private mints in Spain until Philip V decided to make striking coinage a state monopoly in 1718.
The official intention of the Spanish monarchs to spread their religious faith around the world had not diminished after more than a century. The obverse still bears the distinctive Cross of Jerusalem with four leaves. The reverse depicts the King’s Royal Coat of Arms and the legend “PHILIPPUS.V.DEI.GRA” (Philip V by the Grace of God).
An interesting feature of the shield is the inclusion of the mythical Golden Fleece on a chain. Philip V was the first head of the Spanish branch of the Order of the Golden Fleece, a Roman Catholic order of chivalry founded in Bruges in 1430. Since its establishment, the order has only had 1,200 members and is often referred to as the most prestigious and exclusive order of chivalry in the world.
The Golden Fleece was a highly appropriate image to feature on the largest gold coin of the New World. In Greek mythology, Jason and his crew of Argonauts travelled the seas to unexplored lands, searching for the fabled golden treasure. Now, centuries later, the Spanish were reaping the spoils of their own explorations, and the magnificent Eight Escudo was the proof that, like Jason, they had also found a golden treasure that exceeded their wildest expectations.
The amount of gold and silver produced in the New World was phenomenal. An estimated 70 million gold coins and over 2 billion silver coins were struck during the 17th and 18th centuries. The 2018 One Escudo pays tribute to this abundance of gold by depicting the design struck at the Popayán Mint in Colombia in 1758 during the reign of King Fernando VI (r. 1746-–59).
By 1758, all of the mints in the New World were striking coinage of a very high standard. The first milled coins struck in the Americas were produced in Mexico in 1732, and the technology quickly spread to the other mints. The last rough “cob” coins were produced in 1749.
Under monetary reforms initiated by his father, King Philip V, a portrait of the monarch was introduced onto the obverse of gold coins struck after 1728, replacing the Cross of Jerusalem. As a result, the 2018 coin has a portrait of Ferdinand VI on its obverse, with the legend “FERDND.VI.D.G.HISPAN.ET IND.REX.” (Ferdinand VI by the Grace of God, King of the Spains and the Indies).
The reverse presents the King’s lesser Royal Coat of Arms and the unique mint mark of the Popayán Mint (PN) to show where the coin was initially struck. Popayán was a strategically important location as a transfer point for gold and other riches going to Spain, and it continued to produce gold escudos and silver reales until 1819. Completing the reverse is the legend “NOMINA. MAGNA. SEQUOR” (I follow the Greatest Ones).
The first coins to bear the King’s image with his long, flowing hair became known, somewhat unkindly, as peluconas, because peluca is the Spanish word for a wig!
The Currency of Conquest
The Spanish Escudo provided the wealth that enabled the transformation of European society. But it came at a high cost. The Spanish conquistadors forced many indigenous communities into dangerous mines to extract the precious metal as quickly as possible under the most atrocious conditions. In addition, they confiscated their gold ornaments, jewellery and decorations, which were almost always melted down and struck into coins or ingots before being sent across the sea to the mother country. Those fortunate enough to examine the craftsmanship of the Aztec goldsmiths reported that they were more skilled than their European counterparts. The loss of their cultural and artistic treasures from the historical record is incalculable. It will forever be a matter of great regret that the Spanish Kings preferred to receive their gold from the New World in coins and ingots.
However, without the influx of gold from the New World, it is hard to see how the intellectual, cultural and artistic Renaissance that swept through Europe after the 15th Century could have been financed. Likewise, the Industrial Revolution that began in Britain in the 18th Century required a prosperous economy to sustain it. The reliable gold coin helped to facilitate this by lifting Europe out of the grinding poverty in which it had languished for centuries.
The Spanish Escudo, with its stable weight, trusted purity, and distinctive design, can be said to have paved the way for the international trading coins, such as the Dutch Ducat (from 1586), the modern British Sovereign (from 1817) and the American Double Eagle (from 1907) that came after it.
A fascinating chapter in the history of Irish coinage occurred between 1689 and 1691 when the deposed King James II authorised the striking of token money made from melted-down guns to finance his army as he tried in vain to recover his crown. It was the largest regal issue of base metal coinage since the Roman Empire, and the impact of his actions are still felt in Ireland today.
King James II (r. 1685-1688) deeply divided his people with his determination to return the British Isles to Catholicism. Believing that he had a divine right to govern, he tried to overrule Parliament when they opposed his plans, and used increasingly violent and unconstitutional methods to arrest and imprison Protestants.
Many of his subjects prayed for the day when the King’s eldest daughter Mary would succeed him. She had been raised a Protestant to marry her first cousin, the Dutch Stadtholder William Henry of Orange and cement an alliance with the Netherlands. However, when the King’s wife gave birth to a son and heir in 1688, the baby automatically became the next in the line of succession. Fearing the prospect of a Catholic dynasty, seven English nobles then took matters into their own hands and begged William to come to Britain and restore order.
The Glorious Revolution
William assembled a formidable invasion fleet larger than the Spanish Armada, but such a show of force was not required when he landed in England and received a hero’s welcome. After promising that he would maintain “the liberties of England and the Protestant religion”, English nobles, politicians and army officers joined the crowds in cheering his triumphant arrival.
William’s uncle and father-in-law found his support dissolving all around him. Realising that he had lost his grip on power, the King fled London, allegedly dumping his great seal of office into the River Thames as he did so. William permitted him to leave England and go into exile in France.
Parliament then invited William and Mary to reign together as joint sovereigns. The successful transition of power was hailed as the Glorious Revolution because it was accomplished with very little loss of life in England. Sadly, this was not to be the case in Ireland.
James was not prepared to give up the crown without a fight. His cousin, King Louis XIV of France, provided him with a substantial army, and on 24th March 1689, he arrived in Ireland, where many Catholics still considered him their lawful King and were prepared to fight to see him restored to the throne. Lacking funds to pay his soldiers (who called themselves Jacobites), he created a token coinage struck in base metal (copper, brass or pewter) which they could later redeem for silver coins after he had regained his crown.
A mint was established at 61 Capel Street, Dublin. In July 1689, the Secretary of State, Lord Melfort, ordered Lord Mountcashel, Master General of the Ordnance at Dublin Castle, to deliver to the mint old brass guns which were in the castle yard. A request was also sent to King Louis XIV asking for “forty guns to coyne money”. Cannons from Limerick, Athlone and Brest in France were melted down and turned into coins, and workers at the mint worked in shifts to ensure that production continued around the clock. Such was the demand for money that a second mint was established in Limerick to strike emergency coins between March and October 1690.
Today, the coins that were produced are referred to as gun money, but they were made with metal from other sources too. By August 1689, appeals for metal were being sent throughout Ireland, and it was said that Jacobite soldiers would knock on the doors of homes, take the pots and pans they found inside and then walk off with the door knockers too! The Archbishop of Dublin, William King, described how coins were struck from “a mixture of old guns, old broken bells, old copper, brass, pewter, old kitchen furniture (utensils) and the refuse of metals molten down”.
The coins displayed the month and the year of issue to allow a gradual and orderly replacement when James was restored to the throne. Their value was displayed in Roman numerals on their reverse; ‘VI’ on the sixpence, ‘XII’ on the shilling (12 pence) and ‘XXX’ on the half-crown (30 pence).
Despite the best efforts of the authorities to acquire metal, a proclamation was issued on 21st April 1690 to increase the value of the coins to make the metal go further. Rather than being smelted, the old coins were simply heated up and restruck with a higher value. Shillings were struck over sixpences, half-crowns on shillings and crowns on half-crowns. The crown (60 pence) bore the image of the King on horseback to distinguish it from lower value coins which bore his portrait.
It is an interesting feature of gun money that many of the 1690 dated second issue coins were restruck at incorrect temperatures. This caused them to bear traces of their original designs after being struck for a second time.
The Battle of the Boyne
Unfortunately for James, his Jacobite army was no match for William’s ‘Grand Alliance’ made up of English, Dutch, Danish, German and French Protestants. On 1st July 1690, the two armies faced each other on either side of the river Boyne, about thirty miles north of Dublin. After several hours of fierce fighting, William’s army crossed the river and drove the Jacobites back. James then gave the order to retreat, abandoned his troops and hurried back to exile in France, with all hope of regaining his throne lost forever.
As James never regained his crown, his promise to replace the gun money with silver coins never occurred. The emergency coins circulated at reduced values until the early eighteenth century, when they were finally withdrawn from circulation. Today, each surviving piece of gun money serves as a unique and valuable historical document to a turbulent period of British and Irish history.
In 1924 a special committee was set up to select the designs for the first currency of the Irish Free State. The committee was chaired by the Nobel Prize winning poet William Butler Yeats, who had been appointed to the Irish Senate two years earlier in 1922.
Born in Sandymount on 13th June 1865, Yeats was fascinated with poetry from childhood and published his first volume of verse aged just 22. He went on to found the Irish Theatre, writing plays that dealt with his favourite subjects of Irish myths, legends and spirituality. Ironically, some of his greatest poetry was written after he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923, which cemented his reputation as one of the world’s greatest twentieth-century poets.
The committee was well aware of the enormity of the task that faced them. Though a committed nationalist, Yeats deplored violence and had no wish to antagonise the predominantly Protestant north and the Catholic south.
For this reason, early suggestions that the coinage should feature patriotic symbols, politicians or Christian saints were quickly ruled out, fearing that it could inflame tensions and lead to the currency being turned into religious medals. Instead, Yeats wanted something that was “elegant, racy of the soil and utterly unpolitical”.
After lengthy discussions, the committee agreed that the Irish harp would remain the national symbol of the coinage, as it had been since the early sixteenth century. This would appear on the obverse of each coin, surrounded by the inscription, Saorstát Éireann (Irish Free State).
For the reverse designs, an agricultural theme was agreed upon, which was essential to the Irish economy. Yeats announced that they “decided upon birds and beasts … what better symbols could we find for this horse riding, salmon fishing, cattle raising country?“
Seven artists from Ireland, England, the USA, Italy and Sweden were invited to produce designs in plaster or metal. Marks that could identify the artist were removed from each of the sixty-six individual designs submitted so that the committee could not know who had submitted what. Eventually, after careful evaluation, they selected the “incomparably superior” work of a little known English artist, Percy Metcalfe.
Knowing that assigning the design of the first coins of the Irish Free State to an Englishman was going to be a controversial move, the committee took the unusual step of making all the designs that had been submitted public. This was done, they said, “because we believe any adverse criticism of the choice of Mr. Metcalfe’s designs could not survive such an inspection,”
The new designs were introduced into circulation on 12th December 1928 and comprised the woodcock (farthing),pig and piglets (halfpenny), hen and chicks (penny), hare (threepence), wolfhound (sixpence), bull (shilling), salmon (florin) and horse (half crown).
Inevitably, there was some opposition to the designs, with some critics protesting that they gave the impression that Ireland was little more than a giant farmyard. One priest even went so far as to denonce them as pagan symbols intended to “wipe out all traces of religion from our minds .. and beget a land of devil-worshippers where eveil may reign supreme.”
However, the animal designs were quickly embraced by the public at large. By celebrating the vibrancy, diversity and beauty found in Ireland, Yeats hoped that the coins would become, as he put it, “the silent ambassadors on national taste”. Having spent decades in our pockets and purses, it is little wonder that they are still remembered fondly by many people today.
The ancient Greeks produced many beautiful coins that are highly sought after by collectors today. The Greek historian Herodotus recorded that the world’s first coins were struck in the Kingdom of Lydia around the Seventh Century BC. The Lydians struck their coins in electrum, an alloy of gold and silver, and they depicted the head of a lion.
Within a century, the island of Aegina, who traded with Lydia, had become the first Greek city-state to see the potential of currency. They struck an astonishingly beautiful coin featuring a sea turtle in high relief. Other regions eagerly followed their example and created distinctive coins depicting the emblems of their society.
But while Athens coinage depicted a wide-eyed owl, and Corinth used the flying horse Pegasus, one Greek city-state stubbornly refused to embrace the concept of coinage. The legendary warrior city of Sparta was so resistant to currency that they actually forbade its use for several centuries.
Given Sparta’s staunch opposition to coins, it is an amusing irony that their only colony, Taras, situated hundreds of miles away in southern Italy, not only fully embraced the concept but produced what is arguably one of the most intriguing and iconic coins of the ancient world.
The story of how and why the children of Sparta travelled to Italy and then chose the image of a boy on a dolphin as the emblem of their city to depict on their coins is a fascinating one.
City of Warriors
The Spartans were arguably the most fearsome, ruthless and accomplished warriors in the ancient world. Located on the Peloponnese peninsula next to the mighty Eurotas River, Spartan citizens were bred for war. Their society was dedicated to producing physically fit, fiercely loyal and highly disciplined warriors who considered death on the battlefield the highest possible honour.
Training began at birth. Newborn Spartan babies were carefully examined for defects or illnesses, and if any were found, they would be taken outside the city and left to die on a hillside. Those fortunate to survive the selection procedure were sent to a state-run military school at the age of seven. They were taught to fight and endure pain through discipline, physical exercise, combat skills and weapons training.
The Sons of Virgins
During the Messenian War, circa 743-724 BC, the Spartan army pledged not to return home until they had secured victory. Having so many warriors away from home led to a dramatic drop in the birthrate, which threatened Sparta’s long term future. It is reported that a delegation of Spartan women travelled to Messenia to demand that their husbands procreate with them. However, as the war dragged on, it became clear that a different approach to solving the low birthrate problem was required.
To honour their pledge not to return home until the war was won, it was decided that young soldiers who had not yet sworn the oath to Sparta would be sent back with a special mission. In what must be one of the most unusual military orders ever issued, the soldiers were commanded to reproduce with as many young Spartan women as possible.
The children that resulted from these unorthodox unions were called Parthenians. The name means ‘sons of virgins’ because their mothers were considered to have done their patriotic duty for the state and so maintained their legal status as virgins.
Partheniae, however, had no legal status within Spartan society and were deprived of civil rights. Spartan warriors returning home at the end of the war refused to accept children conceived by their wives and daughters during their absence, particularly as it was rumoured that some babies had been fathered by slaves who had taken advantage of the situation to have illicit relationships with women outside of their social class.
After growing into adulthood, the Parthenians refused to accept their inferior status and organised a revolt. Anticipating the situation, the Spartan government proposed a peaceful alternative to bloody conflict. Perhaps due to their unique status as the children of Spartan women, there does not appear to have been the usual Spartan desire to crush their opponents by force. Instead, they asked their leader, a man called Phalantus, to lead the Partheniae out of the Peloponnese region and establish the only Spartan colony somewhere else.
Rain from a Clear Sky
To decide where they should go, Phalantus travelled to the temple of Delphi, located on Mount Parnassus in Central Greece. The Greeks believed Delphi to be the centre of the known world, and it became a place of great spiritual pilgrimage for those in search of divine guidance. At Delphi, it was believed that the gods could speak directly to humans.
Delphi was built to honour the god Apollo who the Greeks believed could transform into a dolphin. According to the legend, it was as a dolphin that he appeared to a group of terrified Cretan sailors. After taking on human form, he instructed them to build his temple in the mountains and name it after the aquatic mammal. They dutifully built a temple in his honour and named it Delphinios (Delphi) even though it is located several miles inland, far from a dolphin’s usual habitat.
Within the temple, the ancient Greeks believed that the gods would communicate through the Oracle, an older woman of good reputation who lived among the peasants in Delphi. She was kept alone in an inner sanctum built over a fissure in the rock. Fumes rising from this chasm had intoxicating properties that produced a trance-like effect. At pre-arranged times during the year, the Oracle would go into a trance, and according to legend, Apollo would speak directly through her. The priests in the temple would be on hand to transcribe and interpret any ‘divine’ instructions received.
Phalantus asked the Oracle to tell him where he should build the new colony, but he received an answer that puzzled him. She informed him that he should go to a place where rain fell from a clear sky. After all of his attempts to identify a place that fitted the description failed, a despondent Phalantus became convinced that the Oracle was telling him that there was nowhere on Earth for them to go.
After returning home in despair, his wife Aethra consoled him as he lay sobbing with his head in her lap until she also became upset. As her tears trickled down and splashed onto her husband’s face, Phalantus suddenly realised the meaning of the Oracle’s vision. His wife’s name, Aethra, meant ‘clear sky’. She had been born in the Apulia region, which is today in Southern Italy. He knew immediately that this was where the new colony had to be built.
The Partheniae arrived in the Apulia region in 706 BC and built Sparta’s only colony there. They chose a perfect geographical location for trade, as it provided a naturally safe harbour for sea-going vessels on the Mediterranean. They named their city Taras (later, Tarentum) after the son of the Greek sea god Poseidon and a local nymph Satyrion. The colony was initially modelled on Sparta’s constitution and grew quickly to become one of the most important commercial centres in the region. Today, the city is called Taranto.
Little is known of what happened to Phalantus after he established the colony. There is no history that he was buried in the city, which was the traditional way to honour a founder. One legend has him leaving Taras and returning to Sparta, where he met an untimely death at the hands of jealous government officials threatened by his popularity.
Sparta had no need for coinage which they considered the product of an inferior society. With a huge underclass of slaves, known as Helots, and a separate class of merchant craftsman called the Perocei, Spartan citizens were allocated food, clothing, housing and possessions according to their rank and status within society. All of their day-to-day needs were provided by the state, so money was redundant as a medium of exchange. In fact, Spartan citizens were forbidden to embark upon profit-making ventures, as this was considered a distraction from their training as warriors.
Taras did not have the same structured society as Sparta. Without an abundance of slaves, and skilled craftsmen to provide for their needs, they had no alternative but to engage in widespread commerce with their neighbours. In a significant departure from the Spartan model, they decided to strike their own coinage to facilitate the trade that fueled their economic prosperity. Production of Taras coinage was prolific and began about 500 BC, making them the first coins to have a direct connection with Sparta.
Boy on a Dolphin
Like most cities, Taras chose to place an emblem that symbolised their city on the face of its coinage. They selected the image of a boy riding on the back of a dolphin which appears on most of their coins. The popular theory is that he is Phalantus, the founder of the city. The dolphin appears on the coin because Phalantus chose the colony’s location after consulting the Oracle at Delphi.
However, the Greek philosopher Aristotle claimed that the Taras coins depicted the mythical figure of Taras himself. According to the murky world of Greek mythology, Taras was rescued from a shipwreck by his father, the sea-god Poseidon, who dispatched a dolphin to save his son from drowning. The creature dutifully carried Taras to shore at the spot on which the city that bears his name was built.
While it is always dangerous to base even tentative historical conclusions on ancient mythology, this theory does, on balance, appear to be the more plausible of the two, as it explains why the male character is actually riding on the dolphin than simply asking it for directions. In addition, the story of a parent protecting a child from danger may have appealed to the children of Sparta, separated as they were from their strong parent city by hundreds of miles of sea.
What is clear is that the people of Taras revered both Phalantus and Taras as heroes. In the Second Century AD, a Greek travel writer called Pausanias described visiting Delphi and seeing a votive offering to the gods that depicted both men side by side.
The coins of Taras have always boasted a wide variety of reverse designs. The earliest included a four-spoked wheel, representing either a war chariot or a racing chariot. Others featured a head, possibly Taras or a cockle shell, which would have been abundant on the shoreline. One of the most popular and enduring designs appears to have been a man on horseback, which appeared on coinage from around 450 BC. These are generally considered to depict equestrian games at the hippodrome, where athletes competed in contests of skill and strength.
Why the reverse designs appear to have been changed so frequently is not immediately apparent. Certainly, the city’s economic prosperity was offset by less successful military campaigns against the native inhabitants of Apulia, the Iapyges. This instability might be reflected in the changing designs and help to explain why depictions of charging warriors, chariot wheels and trident wielding deities rub alongside images of young people, equestrian sports, musical instruments and fruits.
Conquest and Commerce
Initially, Taras sought to imitate the military glories of their parent city and secured important military victories over the Iapygian tribes of the Messapians and the Peucetians, two of the indigenous tribes within Apulia who objected to the expansion of Greek settlers on their land.
However, the colony’s victory celebrations were premature. In 475 BC, they were soundly defeated by the Messapians in a battle described by Herodotus as the greatest slaughter of Greeks in his knowledge. In 466 BC, they suffered another major defeat. So many of the ruling class were killed in the fighting that a democratic party was able to assume control of the government and introduce democracy to the city.
Afterwards, Taras restricted its future expansion to coastal regions and became one of the most successful Greek colonies that spread out across Italy, the Mediterranean islands, Syria, Egypt and the Middle East. She continued to grow throughout the Fifth Century BC, assisted no doubt by the decline of her long term coastal rival Croton.
The value of coins would change from city to city. Merchants would usually only accept coins from their own city, which meant that visitors would have to seek out a moneychanger to exchange their coins before they could make purchases. The Athenian monetary system, adopted by most Greek city-states (except Sparta), ruled that the Drachma was worth six Obols and a Didrachm worth two Drachma. A Tetradrachm was worth four Drachma, and a Dekadrachm worth ten Drachma.
In the Fifth Century BC, it is believed that a Drachma would have been about a day’s wage for a manual worker. Soldiers in the Greek armoured infantry could expect to receive up to two Drachma, while sculptors and physicians could be paid up to six Drachma a day for their services.
Meat in ancient Greece was expensive, and only the wealthy could afford to eat at home. Lamb would cost eight Drachma, a gallon of olive oil about five Drachma and a loaf of bread, typically an Obol. A pair of shoes in Ancient Greece would typically cost between eight and twelve Drachma. For those wealthy enough to own slaves, one could be purchased from between twenty to thirty Dekadrachm.
Interestingly, travel costs between cities in ancient Greece appears to have been relatively inexpensive. According to the Greek philosopher Gorgias writing in the Fifth Century BC, a ferry crossing from the island of Aegina to Athens would cost just two Obols. In contrast, a long voyage across the Mediterranean Sea from Egypt to Athens would cost about two Drachma.
In 433 BC, the Spartan colony even founded a colony of her own in the west. Named Heraclea after the Greek god Heracles, she became the seat of the Italiote League just thirty years later. Taras controlled this association of Greek-speaking inhabitants in southern Italy, and coins were struck portraying the mythical hero fighting a lion, an allusion to the strength of the Greeks against the native population.
It was not until Sparta was in terminal decline as a military and political power that it became necessary for them to produce their own coinage to trade with their neighbours. The strict laws prohibiting the use of coinage were relaxed, and the first Spartan coins, comprising silver Tetradrachms and Obols, were struck, albeit in very low quantities from the Third Century BC.
Taras flourished as a major centre of commerce for nearly five hundred years before she was captured by the Romans and renamed Tarentum after 213 BC. The Romans named the coastal areas of Southern Italy ‘Magna Graecia’ (Great Greece) due to the number of Greek colonies established throughout the region. The minting operation at Taras, which had struck the coins that circulated widely throughout Magna Graecia fell silent, and her reign as a significant economic and political power came to an end. However, the large number of iconic coins found throughout the region provide evidence of the prosperity, power and influence that the children of Sparta achieved.
In 1699, Isaac Newton was ready for a new challenge. It had taken months for the Warden of the Mint to build a watertight case to prosecute the most notorious counterfeiter in the land. His forensic analysis of the evidence and dogged determination to get his man had paid off. In March, Newton’s nemesis, William Chaloner, made a one way trip to the gallows at Tyburn to suffer the ultimate penalty for his crimes.
Pursuing and prosecuting criminals wasn’t a task that Newton particularly relished. Still, when he was told that it was part of his job description, he applied the same scientific rigour to his criminal investigations that he had applied to his theorems. In doing so, he became arguably London’s first undercover detective.
On 17th December 1699, the Master of the Mint Thomas Neale died, and Newton was offered the role. He accepted it on Christmas Day 1699, his 57th birthday. Though technically less senior than the Warden, it was a more lucrative post because the Master acted as a contractor to the Crown and profited from the rates at which work was put out to sub-contractors. Newton was to remain Master for the Mint until his death twenty-seven years later.
Once again, Newton threw himself into his new role, working diligently and with great integrity to improve the reputation of the Mint, which had been dogged for decades by accusations of corruption and incompetence. At a time when corruption was widespread, he set himself up as a role model for his employees to follow, as evidenced when he refused a bribe of over £6000 to award contracts for the procurement of copper.
Newton was determined to use the new minting technology available to him to create the best possible visual appearance of coins. He hired a skilled German jeweller from Dresden named John Croker to engrave designs onto the dies at a greater depth. The resulting die would then be used to strike coins in high relief, which would make the monarch’s portrait look more lifelike. The deeply engraved Two Guinea and Five Guinea pieces that were struck in 1701 are known today as the “fine work” Guineas. They are a testimony to Newton’s determination to produce the best possible coinage and have rightly become numismatic classics.
In April 1705, Queen Anne knighted Newton during a royal visit to Trinity College, Cambridge. The knighthood is likely to have been motivated by political considerations rather than recognition of his scientific discoveries or services as Master of the Mint. Nonetheless, Newton became only the second scientist to be knighted after Sir Francis Bacon.
Sir Isaac took his responsibilities as Master of the Mint very seriously and maintained an active involvement in its day-to-day affairs even into old age. The administrative skill he brought to the role is demonstrated in the hundreds of surviving reports and letters he wrote as Master. One of his most famous reports, issued in September 1717 to the Lords Commissioners of His Majesty’s Treasury, established a new mint ratio between silver and gold that had the effect of moving Britain onto the gold standard.
With silver coinage in such short supply, there was an urgent need to issue a lower denomination gold coin. In 1718 it was decided to strike a gold quarter guinea worth approximately the same as the five-shilling silver Crown. The new coin weighed 2.1 grams and was just 16 millimetres in diameter. Newton did not appreciate that such a small coin would be impractical to use, which made them unpopular. Of the 37,380 coins minted, many were put aside as keepsakes due to their beautifully intricate design. Production of the quarter guinea ceased within a year, and an increased number of guineas and half guineas were made instead.
Newton was particularly concerned with the accuracy of the currency. He was determined to ensure that all coins were made to the correct weight and fineness, varying as little as possible. This level of accuracy was unprecedented. It is arguably one of his most outstanding achievements as Master of The Mint that he brought the coinage, in his own words, to a “much greater degree of exactness than was ever known before”.
Given his undisputed commitment to accuracy in every aspect of his work, it is hardly a surprise that Newton reacted furiously in 1710 at the judgement of the Trial of the Pyx, who ruled that his gold coins were below standard. Trials have been held in London on an annual basis from the Twelfth Century to the present day and are presided over by a judge with an expert jury of assayers. Their purpose is to test randomly selected newly minted coins to ensure that they are within the statutory limits for metallic composition, weight and size.
On this particular occasion, Newton was so adamant that his coins had been manufactured to the correct weight and finesse that the gold trial plate used by the assayers to evaluate the coins was itself evaluated and found to be below the legal standard. The coins themselves were perfect.
Knowing the penalty for failing the Trial of the Pyx makes Newton’s unwillingness to admit error quite understandable. It was more than professional pride. As Master of the Mint, he could be held directly accountable for any coins that failed the trial. Punishment ranged from imprisonment to hanging and quartering!
Despite his great ability with numbers and mathematical calculations, Newton still lost a fortune on the stock market. In 1720 he invested heavily in the South Sea Company, established in the early Eighteenth Century, which had a monopoly on trade in the South Seas. Newton initially purchased and sold a small number of shares and made an impressive profit. As he watched stock in the company continue to climb, Newton bought more shares, eventually pouring almost his entire life savings into the company. Then, he watched in horror as the bubble burst. According to his niece, he lost around £20,000 and is said to have remarked ruefully at the time, “I can calculate the movement of stars, but not the madness of men.”
Newton never married, and his chronic insecurity, bouts of depression and preoccupation with his work meant that few friends came to visit. Towards the end of his life, he lived near Winchester with his niece Catherine (Barton) Conduitt and her husband John. When asked, shortly before his death, how he would describe his achievements, he replied;
“I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself now and then in finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
Sir Isaac Newton died on 31st March 1727, at the age of 84 and is buried at Westminster Abbey.
Given his lengthy association with coinage, it was inevitable that Newton would eventually be commemorated on one. Sixty years after his death, a severe shortage of farthings, half-pennies and pennies for everyday trade led to many private businesses taking matters into their own hands and minting large numbers of copper tokens. Workers were paid in tokens and would exchange them locally for goods and services in company-owned shops. By the end of the Eighteenth Century, millions of tokens had been struck and were in everyday use throughout Great Britain.
In 1793, copper farthings and half-penny tokens featuring Newton on the obverse proved very popular. The reverse depicted a horn of plenty (cornucopia), a symbol of abundance that honours his outstanding contribution to science, astronomy and mathematics. The half-penny is larger, and in addition to the cornucopia also depicts the Caduceus, the staff carried by Hermes, the winged messenger of the Gods. This is a symbol of communication, writing, printing, eloquence, enlightenment and understanding. The inclusion of the symbols made the Newton tokens very popular, not least because they were believed to grant prosperity and eloquence to anyone who owned them
Nearly two hundred years later in 1978, the Bank of England honoured Sir Isaac Newton on the reverse of the one-pound note. The design, by Harry Eccleston, featured the Caduceus and cornucopia adjacent to Queen Elizabeth II on the front. The reverse depicted Newton holding an open book seated next to a prism and a reflecting telescope. Behind him is the heliocentric solar system, reflecting the enormous impact that his single-minded determination to uncover the secrets of the universe has had on the ongoing development of humanity.
In 2017, The Royal Mint commemorated the life of their most famous Mint Master with a fifty pence coin that borrowed the design of the solar system that had featured on the old banknote. The Government of Gibraltar also issued a commemorative Quarter Guinea and Five Guinea in the same year to honour Newton’s ‘fine work’. The new design incorporated the cornucopia and the Caduceus, together with an apple, which Newton famously credited with helping him develop the theory of gravity after watching one fall from a tree outside his home.
In 1693, fifty-one-old Isaac Newton was mentally exhausted. After firmly rejecting a career in the family farming business as a young man, he had instead written the laws of motion, explained orbital mechanics, investigated the principles of light and colour and developed the calculus. His place in history as one of the greatest thinkers of the modern age was assured.
Newton had grown bored with his sedentary life as a Professor at Cambridge University. The man who had once pushed a bodkin into his eye to test his theories about colour now found that the scientific pursuit of truth no longer held the appeal it once did. His finest achievements were, he felt, behind him, and his behaviour had become increasingly unpredictable and erratic. He would fly into furious rages and write angry, vengeful letters to former friends accusing them of betrayal and conspiracy at the slightest provocation. Plagued by depression, paranoia and insomnia, he suffered what he would later describe as his ‘black year’. It would last eighteen months.
Newton needed a change of scene and a new challenge to exercise his mind. After a while, he began to bombard his friend Charles Montagu, Chancellor of the Exchequer, with letters requesting work in London. Eventually, on 19th March 1696, he received a reply, notifying him that he had been recommended for the position of Warden of the Royal Mint. Newton eagerly accepted and had reported for duty within the month.
Based at the Tower of London where the Mint made the coins of the realm, the Warden’s job was to enforce laws against counterfeiting. The office had been viewed as a largely symbolic position that required little work. However, Newton took the role extremely seriously and relished the challenge. Whether Montague intended it that way or not, his decision to allow Newton to apply his scientific methodology and towering intellect to the currency crisis was to prove an inspired one.
Counterfeiting was a thriving industry in Britain when Newton arrived at the Tower of London to take up his new position. Around ten per cent of coins in circulation were fakes, cast or stamped from forged or stolen moulds and dies. In addition, the value of silver on the continent was greater than its face value on coins. As a result, huge numbers of silver coins were withdrawn from circulation, melted and taken abroad to be sold at a tidy profit. Genuine coins were often hoarded, thus proving Gresham’s law that “bad money drives out good”.
Newton’s solution to the problem involved a Great Recoinage. This enormous operation involved taking in millions of pounds of coins by weight and re-minting them at their correct value. He organised a production line of 500 men at the Tower of London, and over the next four years, they smelted most of England’s money supply. To assist them, branch mints were established at Bristol, Chester, Exeter, Norwich, and York. Knowing that some counterfeiters had access to stolen Royal Mint equipment, Newton told the officers at these country mints to “trust not the computations of a single Clerk nor any other eyes than your own.”
On Newton’s orders, Mint employees worked six days a week from 4 a.m. to midnight. Before he arrived, no one thought the Mint could produce 15,000 coins in a week. Newton soon had them turning out 50,000 coins every week, and between 1696 and 1699, the value of silver struck was over £5.1 million, compared to £3.3million coined in the preceding 35 years.
Newton’s position as Warden of the Mint also meant that it was his responsibility to track down and prosecute counterfeiters. Chasing crooks was not something that particularly appealed to him, and he wrote a letter to the Treasury asking if he could be excused this particular duty. They reminded him that it was part of his job description, and so he set to work with his customary zeal and single-minded determination. To assist him, Parliament passed the Coin Act in 1696, making it an act of treason to make coins, construct, sell or possess the equipment required to make coins or assist anyone making coins. The punishment for doing so was death.
Newton was now able to devote more time to his primary duty of investigating and bringing to justice the counterfeiters and clippers. He went undercover himself and visited notorious bars, taverns and other dens of iniquity in London where criminals gathered to recruit informants and purchase information.
Newton hired private “thief-takers” to locate counterfeiters and their equipment. Records show that he personally tracked criminals to their lairs and interrogated them in person. He became a regular visitor at the rat-infested Newgate Prison, where he conducted more than 58 interviews. Between June 1698 and December 1699, he conducted more than 100 cross-examinations of witnesses, informers, and suspects to build watertight cases against the accused. Newton gathered evidence to successfully prosecute 28 counterfeiters, most of whom went to the gallows and paid the ultimate penalty for their crimes
However, Newton’s biggest challenge was to prosecute the most prolific counterfeiter of the age. It took Newton many months to build a successful case against this kingpin of the criminal underworld, and soon he was working full time on this one goal. Like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, every great detective needs a worthy adversary. Newton’s was a man called William Chaloner, a resourceful and cunning counterfeiter of exceptional ability with ambitions to run The Royal Mint.
Chaloner was born in poverty, the son of a weaver in Lincolnshire. He ran away to London as a young man and started at the very bottom of the criminal ladder, hawking and scamming unwary passers-by on street corners. He possessed an enquiring mind and the gift of the gab and sometimes pretended to be a doctor to sell remedies for imaginary ailments that he would diagnose on the spot.
To provide a legitimate front for his business dealings, Chaloner set himself up as a recoverer of stolen property. Of course, he was able to do this because he had arranged for the property to be stolen in the first place. He also had a brief career informing on enemies of the state, paying Jacobites to print dissident literature and then betraying them to the authorities and pocketing the reward money. Eventually, his luck ran out, and he was named a suspect in a burglary case in 1690, which forced him to flee and go into hiding.
It was a chance meeting with a craftsman who showed him how to gild surfaces that made Chaloner’s fortune but ultimately took him to the gallows. He quickly realised the potential for counterfeiting gold and silver money, and over a lucrative eight-year career, he is believed to have counterfeited over £30,000 worth of currency.
Counterfeiting made Chaloner a very wealthy man. He bought a large house in the semi-rural suburb of Knightsbridge, rode in a carriage, wore fine clothes and presented himself to high society as a gentleman. After forging “Birmingham Groats”, he moved on to more lucrative Guineas, French Pistoles, crowns and half-crowns, Banknotes and lottery tickets
Chaloner developed a sophisticated casting method that involved pouring molten metal into high-quality brass moulds and set up a factory in Egham 20 miles outside London. It was said that he was so pleased with the quality of the counterfeits he was producing that it upset him to see them used as it spoiled their perfection!
Ultimately, Chaloner’s giant ego was his undoing. A few months before Newton took up his post, Chaloner had written to the Government claiming to have evidence that men working at the Mint were selling duplicates of the casts used to make coins. Of course, he didn’t tell them that he only knew this because he had purchased one of these casts for himself! When Newton heard of the letter, he immediately launched an investigation and interviewed more than 30 suspects to determine whether there was any truth in the accusations. Meanwhile, Chaloner tried to involve himself in the investigation and revealed his real purpose for writing the letter. He wanted Parliament to let him run the Royal Mint to sort out the mess!
Chaloner wrote letters, published pamphlets and was even invited to appear before Parliamentary committees, arguing that only he could solve England’s counterfeiting problem. He even went so far as to publicly accuse Newton of incompetence and possibly even fraud in managing the Great Recoinage. Newton was furious at this slur on his reputation, and so began a game of cat-and-mouse in which Chaloner sought to persuade Parliament to give him control of the Mint while Newton secretly compiled evidence to expose him as the chief counterfeiter in England.
Newton discovered that Chaloner had been arrested repeatedly for various scams and had even served time in jail for petty offences. However, because there were no centralised criminal records at the time, it had been easy for him to move from place to place and start again each time he was released. Astonishingly, Newton discovered that in 1694, Chaloner had been caught red-handed in the act of forging banknotes. He had talked his way out of prosecution on that occasion by naming people who he claimed were the real counterfeiters behind the operation. He even ended up receiving a reward for his information!
Much to Newton’s frustration, in 1697, Parliament ordered him to provide Chaloner with the resources to make prototypes of a new currency that he had proposed to them. Newton refused, so Chaloner went ahead and made them anyway using stolen casts. When Newton found out through his informer network, he immediately had Chaloner arrested. Chaloner quickly paid a key witness to flee to Scotland, and without him, the case against him collapsed. Newton then went to Parliament to voice his suspicions about Chaloner, but these were dismissed, and Chaloner went back to offering his services to run the Royal Mint, whilst simultaneously producing forged £50 banknotes and lottery tickets!
After that, Newton dedicated himself solely to the task of building a robust case against Chaloner. He worked relentlessly and with a single-minded determination to gather evidence for the prosecution. He methodically bribed, threatened and bullied witnesses for information that would allow his spies and informants to infiltrate Chaloner’s sophisticated counterfeiting operation. Eventually, there was enough evidence to arrest him again, and this time Newton even arranged for informants to be locked up with him to report back on anything that he said in custody.
When the trial finally came, Newton assembled eight witnesses to testify against Chaloner, including the wife of the man he had paid to run away to Scotland. She was willing to speak in court because Chaloner had scammed them out of money as well. Such was the weight of evidence against him that the jury quickly reached their verdict and sentenced the counterfeiter to hang.
Chaloner appealed for mercy from his condemned cell in Newgate Prison and wrote to Newton several times, begging him to save his life. His final letter concluded with the piteous words; “Oh dear Sir nobody can save me but you. O God my God I shall be murdered unless you save me.” Newton did not respond.
On 22nd March 1699, there was nothing left for Newton’s great adversary to do but protest to the people who had come to watch him hang at Tyburn that “he was murder’d … under pretence of Law”. He suffered a miserable death choking for several minutes at the end of the rope, much to the amusement of the jeering crowd.
It is doubtful that Newton was at Tyburn that day to witness this culmination of months of hard work. In his notebook, he wrote simply that “Chaloner could have lived a long, honest life had he let the money and Government alone.”
In the last week, millions of words have been written in tribute about Prince Philip’s life and legacy as the longest royal consort in British history. However, one often overlooked fact is that, for almost half of his life, he also influenced the designs that appeared on British coinage.
When his wife became Queen following the death of her beloved father King George VI on 6th February 1952, Philip immediately gave up the naval career that he loved to take up his new royal duties as her consort. It was a role that he would perform with great distinction for the rest of his life, even though he would later joke that it made him “the world’s most experienced plaque unvelier.”
In 1952, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was keen to utilise the problem solving and leadership abilities that the young consort had acquired in the navy. His quick thinking and resourcefulness under fire had helped save the crew of the HMS Wallace in 1943 during the Allied invasion of Sicily. Coming under sustained attack, he quickly devised a plan to throw a smoking wooden raft overboard as a decoy. The ruse worked, and the Luftwaffe bombed the raft as the ship escaped.
To put his talents to good use, Philip was invited to chair the committee responsible for organising his wife’s coronation. Against the prime minister’s objections, Philip persuaded the Queen to allow television cameras into Westminster Abbey to broadcast the ceremony live to millions of people. By doing so, he created a boom in television sales throughout the country. For many people, their first experience of watching television in the home was watching the coronation.
A few months before the coronation, Churchill asked Philip to become President of the Royal Mint Advisory Committee, which exists to raise the standard of coin design in Britain. The RMAC ensures that designs meet the high technical and artistic standards required, and they recommend which should appear on coins, medals, seals and decorations. The Prince wrote later that Churchill’s invitation came out of the blue, and it took him some time to find out what the job entailed. He was immediately faced with an urgent situation, as the committee had to organise the design of an entirely new set of coins for the new reign.
Artist Mary Gillick (1881-1965) was selected to design the new Queen’s portrait, who she depicted wearing a laurel wreath and ribbons in her hair. The reverse designs agreed for the new coinage included the sixpence, which depicted interlinked plants from all corners of the United Kingdom, a rose, thistle, shamrock and leek, each with a leaf from the same stem. The half-crown depicted a heraldic crowned scrolled shield flanked on each side by the new royal monogram ‘ER’.
Philip served as President of the RMAC for the next 47 years, only stepping down in 1999. During his time in office, he chaired the meetings that approved the designs of Britain’s first decimal coins and the next three of the Queen’s official UK coinage portraits.
To help the public distinguish between old money and decimal currency, a new portrait of the Queen was introduced in 1968. Designed by Arnold Machin (1911-1999), he depicted the Queen wearing her tiara, a wedding present from her grandmother Queen Mary.
In 1985, the Queen’s coin portrait changed again. Sculptor Raphael Maklouf declared that he intended to “create a symbol, regal and ageless”. He depicted the monarch wearing a necklace, earrings and the royal diadem that she usually wears during the State Opening of Parliament.
The Queen’s fourth coin portrait, created by Ian Rank-Broadley, appeared on coins in 1997. He chose to present the monarch’s “poise and bearing” and depicted her wearing the tiara from her second portrait. The Queen was seventy when the new design was created, and her advancing years are reflected in the portrait, which was widely acclaimed for its realism.
Since Prince Philip stepped down as President of the RMAC, the Queen’s appearance has only changed once more on the nation’s coinage. In 2015, artist Jody Clark became the first employee of The Royal Mint to design the monarch’s coin portrait since 1902. In her official fifth portrait, the Queen wears the diamond diadem she wore in her third portrait.
In 2008, Prince Philip recalled that he found it a fascinating challenge to getting his team of experts to agree on which designs to recommend for use. In that time, he developed a good understanding of the complexities of designing coins, appreciating that one side of the coin influences the other when the metal is struck. Above all, he recognised that coins must achieve a practical purpose whilst reflecting contemporary tastes and attitudes.
Many of the coins that we still carry in our pockets and purses today look the way they do because of the design meetings that Prince Philip chaired during his many years of distinguished and faithful service.