Coins and the Importance of Where to Look

by Andreas Kolle

Have you ever wondered why the head of the monarchs appear to look either to the left or the right – and if there is a system with it? Short answer, it’s both complicated and fun.

Long traditions for facing right

Faces on coins first appeared in the 6th century BC, but it was during the following century that profiles of gods and goddesses appeared frequently. The most famous is probably the Owl tetradrachm of Athens. The much-copied tetradrachm and stater of Alexander the Great also looked right. There were exceptions to this rule, for example the Corinth Pegasus stater, but the dominating coins looked right.

Roman emperors almost always looked to the right. Given the significance of these coins, this made right-facing coins dominant both in Rome and in many countries copying them. The outwards-looking solidus coins of the Byzantine Empire did not catch on, and right was the direction to look. 

There might be an easy explanation: We write from left to right. This means that this is the “preferred” way of looking. We also know that the devil is associated with the left, and the word “sinister” comes from the Latin word for “left”.

The English Switch

Another interesting development is that queens like Elizabeth I of England and Christina of Sweden often looked to the left. And this might have been the reason for a typical English tradition. 

Henry VII and Henry VIII both looked right and straight ahead in some cases. Mary I and Elizabeth I both looked left. James I faced both left and right depending on the coin. Charles I looked left, but Charles II looked both ways. Finally, his younger brother, James II, looked only to the left – and the monarchs that followed him have alternated between looking left and right, all the way down to our current monarch…

Of course, there is one interesting exception to the rule, and it is our old friend, Edward VIII. He was supposed to look to the right, but preferred the left side of his face, and insisted on looking the “wrong” way. The tradition from 1685 onwards did not seem to bother him. The coin was prepared, but no coins made it into circulation. When he abdicated, the Royal Mint pretended that his coin was made with him looking to the right. Therefore, the George VI coin was made with him looking to the right again to keep in tradition.

What could be more British than insisting that a coin never circulated was made with the opposite design to the one it had so that tradition was upheld? 

The Emperor and the King

When it comes to portraits, Scandinavia did a bit of everything. Denmark insisted on always looking to the right, whereas Sweden from 1907 onwards always looked to the left. With all due respect to the Anglo-French enmity, this is the real long-standing feud in Europe. Norway, on their part, did exactly like Britain and switched sides.

France, however, is where things get very confusing. It seemed as they alternated every other turn, because Louis XIII and XIV looked to the right, and Louis XV and XVI predominately looked to the left. Then you have the cat among the pigeons: Napoleon. He decided to look to the right, probably to symbolize a new time in opposition to Louis XVI. When he was deposed and Louis XVIII took over, the new king was quick to look to the left again. This is hardly surprising. Louis XVIII was the brother of the deposed and executed Louis XVI. Making a break with Napoleon made sense. When he died, his brother Charles X took over, also looking to the left. When he was deposed in the 1830 revolution, the once-radical Louis Philippe was made king, and perhaps to make a stand against the two conservative kings who preceded him, he faced right.

And now we end up with the wisest fool in Christendom, Napoleon III. In 1851 he was crowned emperor. This made him the second emperor in traditional counting, however the Bonaparte family claimed that Napoleon Bonaparte’s son was emperor for a couple of weeks. This meant that either Napoleon I looked right, and an imaginary coin of Napoleon II would look to the left and Napoleon III should look to the right again or that all emperors, like in Ancient Rome, should look to the right.

Napoleon III looked to the left. Because of course he did.

This might have meant that he considered himself a continuation of the kings of France rather than an abomination with his own rules. It could have had another explanation. After all, Napoleon III was the man who Karl Marx had in mind when he coined the phrase “History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, then as a farce“. Napoleon III was in either case the last monarch of the French. 

Andreas Kolle is a Norwegian historian cum laude and the resident historian for Samlerhuset Norway. A professional copywriter with 10 years of experience, Andreas also keeps the Samlerhuset blog active by covering a range of numismatic and historical topics. He has a contagious love for all things numismatic and historical and adheres to the QI adage that there is no such thing as an uninteresting item.

Sir Isaac Newton – Master of the Mint

Newton in 1702

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.

The ‘Fine Work’ Five Guinea

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.

The short lived Quarter Guinea, beautiful but too small for practical use

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.

Half-penny copper token depicting Newton in 1793

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.

Newton appeared on the British one pound banknote from 1978 to 1988

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.

Commemorative gold Five Guineas issued by Gibraltar in 2017

Sir Isaac Newton – Warden of the Mint

Isaac Newton, pictured in 1689

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.

The Tower of London, pictured in 1737

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”.

Counterfeiters would clip metal from coins (left) and use the clippings to make new coins (right).
Some counterfeit coins, such as those produced by William Chaloner, were of exceptionally high quality

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 went to bars and taverns gather evidence

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!

Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Montagu, who appointed Newton the Warden of the Mint

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.

Newgate Prison

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.

The Tyburn tree, where Chaloner met his grisly fate in 1699

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.”

HRH Prince Philip and his work with coin design

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.

Maundy Money

Every Maundy Thursday, Her Majesty the Queen distributes small leather purses to a selected group of men and women. Each purse contains a gift of money, which include four small legal tender silver coins, struck especially for the ceremony at the personal request of the monarch.

Maundy coins are very special. They are steeped in royal tradition and no other coins can claim to have such a direct personal connection to the monarch. She signs the order for The Royal Mint to produce them and personally distributes them to the recipients, chosen for their service to the church or community.

With so few Maundy coins struck each year, and their recipients naturally keen to treasure a gift that has been personally presented to them by their sovereign, these treasured pieces of British history rarely appear on the market, making them highly collectable. They are so rare that few people ever get to see them, much less hold them in their hands.

A Gift of Love

The ancient ceremony of Royal Maundy can be traced back to the Bible, and specifically to the last instructions given by Jesus to his disciples on the Thursday night before his crucifixion the following day.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this, all will know that you are My disciples if you have love for one another.” (John 13: 34-35)

This instruction forms the opening words of the Maundy ceremony and the word Maundy is derived from the Latin ‘mandatum’ meaning command. The Royal Maundy gifts are to fulfil Jesus’ command given to his followers to love one another.

Royal Maundy

The practice of demonstrating Christ’s love to the poor on Maundy Thursday can be traced back to the fourth century when deserving recipients had their feet washed and were presented with gifts of food and clothing. The first recorded instance of a monarch personally taking part in the ceremony was in Rochester in 1213, when King John presented 13 poor men with 13 pence and washed their feet on Maundy Thursday. By the time of the Tudor era, the monarch’s attendance at the Maundy ceremony had developed into a regular custom, and the event had become known as “Royal Maundy’.

The tradition of making the number of Maundy recipients equal to the monarch’s age appears to have started in 1363 when the then fifty-year-old King Edward III presented gifts to fifty poor men. This tradition was made an official decree by King Henry IV and has been a central part of the Maundy service ever since. It is why in 2019 the then 93-year-old Queen distributed Maundy money to 93 men and 93 women.

An Evolving Tradition

The Tudor monarchs introduced a custom in which one particularly deserving Maundy recipient was given their Maundy robe at the end of the ceremony. This practice was stopped by Queen Elizabeth I who substituted the gift of her robe for twenty silver shillings. Henceforth, it became the custom for the monarch to bestow a second monetary gift, which meant that a second purse was required. The red purse that had been used to contain the gift of pennies was now used for silver shillings and a new white purse was introduced to contain the pennies. The additional monetary allowance in place of the Maundy robe was suspended in 1731 but reinstated in 1759, where it has survived to the present day.

The presence of the monarch at the Maundy ceremony waned during the later years of the reign of King Charles I and between 1649 and 1660 there was no monarch in England to participate in the ceremony. Following the Restoration of the Monarchy, the new King, Charles II was very keen to revive the Royal Maundy tradition and personally distributed money and gifts to the poor. He even restored the practice of washing the feet of the poor in person, though this did not last. It is believed that his brother and successor King James II was the last monarch to personally wash the feet of the poor in 1685.

Until the joint reign of William and Mary in 1689, the sovereign had participated in annual Maundy ceremonies for four centuries. However, there is no record of any participation by a monarch at a Royal Maundy ceremony after 1698 until the Twentieth Century. Queen Anne was too infirm to attend and the Hanoverian monarchs were content to send a representative from the Royal household. While George III and a young Queen Victoria both attended the Maundy ceremony on at least one occasion as spectators, neither took an active part in the service.

At the start of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1838, the decision was made to replace the gift of food with money. Clothing was still distributed as part of the ceremony until 1882 when this was replaced by an additional monetary gift. From then on, only coins have been presented to recipients during the ceremony.

To avoid the Royal Maundy becoming an ‘empty’ ceremony, it was deemed essential to restore royal connections with the service. In 1932 King George V became the first monarch since the 17th Century to personally present Maundy purses to their recipients. In 1936 King Edward VIII distributed Maundy money at Westminster Abbey, one of the very few public commitments undertaken during his short one year reign. The coins used in the ceremony bore the image of his late father; he abdicated before any coins could be issued bearing his likeness.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, the Maundy ceremony has been firmly re-established. Before 2020, there had only been four years when the Queen had not presented the Maundy money in person: twice when she was about to go into labour, and twice when she was away visiting countries in the Commonwealth. When the global Covid pandemic forced the 2020 and 2021 Royal Maundy services to be cancelled, the chosen recipients received their Maundy purses in the post with a letter from the Queen instead.

Today, following centuries of evolving tradition, the monarch will present each recipient with one red and one white purse. The red purse contains a total of £5.50 in circulating currency representing the robe, food and clothing allowances. The white purse contains the Maundy money minted especially for the ceremony. A set of four coins has a total face value of ten pence, and each purse contains a set for every decade of the monarch’s reign to date, with any remaining years represented in single coins.

Maundy Design

As the gift of money was always intended to be spent by the recipients, coins used before 1670 were no different from those struck for circulation. In medieval times only the penny and the groat (fourpence) were presented to the deserving poor. In 1551, the threepence was added, and in 1662 King Charles II issued an undated set of hammered coins comprising the fourpence, threepence, twopence and penny. However, it was not until 1670 that a dated set of all four especially struck coins appeared together for the first time.

The design of Maundy coins varied under the first eight monarchs to strike them. Charles II’s Maundy coinage displayed an interlinked letter ‘C’ on the reverse of the four silver Maundy coins, with the number of initials corresponding to the face value of the coin. For example, the fourpence featured four initials, the penny just one. This style continued under James II until 1688, replacing the letter ‘C’ with the letter ‘I’.

During the reign of William & Mary in 1689, an unnamed artist changed the reverse design to depict a crowned numeral. After the 59 year reign of King George III which saw four different designs used, coin engraver Jean Baptiste Merlen placed the crowned numeral within an oak wreath for the 1822 Maundy coinage. The crown was slightly altered in 1888 but since then the reverse design and size of the Maundy coins have remained unchanged making it the longest continuous coin series in British history.

Maundy coins were the only four British coins that did not change shape, size or design when the nation adopted the decimal currency. On Decimal Day, 15th February 1971, the old system of 20 shillings and 12 pence to the pound was replaced with 100 new pence in the pound. A new set of decimal coins were introduced, but the Maundy coins remained unaffected by the change. Each coin simply retained its numerical value as ‘new’ pence.

During her long reign, Queen Elizabeth II’s portrait has undergone five changes on ordinary circulating coins. However, every Maundy coin issued during her reign has used the original circulating portrait by artist Mary Gillick first issued in 1953, the year of the Queen’s coronation. Gillick’s iconic depiction of the young monarch wearing a laurel wreath is now the longest-serving Royal portrait in British coinage history.

A Legacy in Silver

Maundy money provides an important connection with the very first coins struck in Britain over 1,300 years ago. Silver began to be used in English coinage in the Seventh Century and, for almost five centuries the silver penny was practically the only coin issued in England. The fourpence was added in 1279, the twopence in 1351 and the threepence in 1551. All were struck in sterling silver, with only a brief interruption when Henry VIII debased the coinage. When the nation’s circulating coinage moved from silver to copper in 1797 the four Maundy coins continued to be struck in sterling silver.

In 1920 the price of silver had risen dramatically and the silver content of all British silver coins, including Maundy money, was reduced from sterling silver (92.5%) to 50% silver to ease the financial burdens caused by the First World War. In 1947, the decision was made to replace all silver circulating coins with silver-coloured cupro-nickel coins. However, the original silver content of the Maundy money was reinstated, as it was felt that a gift from a monarch should be in sterling silver. This indicates the significance of the Maundy coinage and its unique place in British history.

Today’s silver Maundy money is an enduring legacy of a coinage standard maintained, with one brief interlude, from Saxon times. Given their unique royal connection and place within British coin history, it is easy to see why Maundy coins are considered so special.

Saint George and the dragon. A classically inspired composition?

The iconic image of Saint George fighting the dragon on the British gold sovereign is arguably the most famous battle scene depicted in modern numismatic history. It was created by the Italian sculptor and engraver Benedetto Pistrucci (1783-1855) for the first modern sovereign in 1817. 

Pistrucci arrived in London in 1816 and quickly found himself embroiled in a minor scandal after he was introduced to Richard Payne Knight MP, a wealthy scholar, author and numismatist. Pistrucci described him in his unfinished autobiography as “a great connoisseur in gems, cameos, and intaglios, bronzes, statues, medals, and antique vases”.

Knight was eager to show the Italian artist his “cabinet full of precious things”, but the meeting did not go well.  When the collector proudly showed the artist one of his most prized possessions, which he described as “the finest Greek cameo in existence”. Pistrucci replied that it was actually his own work and that he had created it just six years earlier!

Unwilling to believe that an unscrupulous art dealer had duped him, a furious Knight refused to believe Pistrucci until the artist happily prepared a superior version in just a few days to demonstrate his mastery of the craft. Despite the accusations of fraud hurled at him, Pistrucci had not intended to deceive. Before arriving in Britain, he had innocently sold his work through a business partner, who had, without his knowledge, fraudulently passed them off to collectors as ancient artworks.

In his eagerness to set the record straight, Pistrucci quickly attracted the attention of many wealthy admirers who came to examine his work for themselves. Lucrative work soon followed.  One request came from Sir Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society, who ordered a cameo of King George III cut in red jasper in return for a fee of 50 guineas. It was to prove a fateful commission.

William Wellesley-Pole, Master of the Mint

When Sir Joseph later showed his friend William Wellesley-Pole the finished cameo that Pistrucci produced, the Master of the Mint knew that he had found the right man to design Britain’s new coinage. He wrote to his superiors at the Treasury to advise them that he had employed, “Mr. Pistrucci, an artist of the greatest celebrity and whose works place him above all competition as a gem engraver, to make models for the dyes of the new coinage.”

Because Pistrucci was Italian, Wellesley Pole could not appoint him as the Mint’s Chief Engraver as only a British subject could hold the position. However, when the role fell vacant following the death of Thomas Wyon in 1817, Pistrucci assumed the responsibilities of Chief Engraver without the title.  When Wellesley-Pole asked him to propose a suitably majestic reverse design for the new gold sovereign, the artist suggested a dramatic image of England’s patron Saint fighting the dragon in the Greek style. 

He was already familiar with the design, having recently been introduced to Lord and Lady Spencer by his friend Joseph Banks.  Lord Spencer was a Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, a British order of chivalry with Saint George as its patron saint. Pistrucci later recalled that;

“her ladyship … showed me a large model in wax of a St. George, done by Marchant, and said to me: ” My husband would like you to make a model in wax, of the same size and subject: but I should like it in the Greek style” as that was the style in which naked figures were done; and the mantle in this beautiful white, would have a superb effect.”

Pistrucci had been delighted to accept the commission and produced his model of Saint George and the dragon in the Greek style as requested. To capture the naked horseman’s muscle tone, legend has it that he invited an Italian waiter at Brunet’s Hotel in Leicester Square, where he was lodging to model for him.

In addition to appearing on paintings and statues, Saint George’s legendary encounter with the dragon had occasionally appeared on coins before.  In the twelfth century, a crude depiction was used on a coin issued by Roger of Salerno, Regent of Antioch.  In 1526, it appeared on the George Noble during Henry VIII’s reign, although production was not extensive, and there are few surviving examples.  Later, the scene appeared again on two trial pieces, the Reddite and Petition Crowns created in 1663 by Thomas Simon, the engraver of seals at The Royal Mint.  

However, there is little evidence that Pistrucci was inspired by medieval or modern interpretations of the famous confrontation between the saint and the dragon. His passion was for the classical, and it is said that he liked to “study Greek originals day and night“.  

Detail from one of the Elgin Marbles

There was no shortage of classical Greek art in nineteenth-century London to inspire his composition. He most likely drew inspiration from admiring the collection of marble sculptures originally from the Parthenon in Athens. They were saved from almost certain destruction by Lord Elgin, the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. He purchased the pieces from the Greek Government and turned down a generous offer from Napoleon to sell them to him. Instead, he donated them to the British Museum in London, where they continue to be admired by millions of visitors every year.

It is also possible that Pistrucci was inspired to create his composition by ancient coins, made centuries before the legend of Saint George arrived in Britain.  In Ancient Greece, the King of Paeonia, Patraos (c335-315BC), depicted a horseman with a plumed helmet spearing his vanquished enemy as he falls under the hooves of his rearing horse.  Even to a casual observer, the similarities in the composition of Pistrucci’s iconic masterwork created 2,100 years later are remarkable.

Six centuries later, the Roman Emperor Magnentius (c350-353 AD) also struck a coin with an uncanny resemblance to Pistrucci’s composition.  Largely forgotten today, Magnentius seized power from his predecessor Constans in a coup and ruled over western Europe for three years. In that time, he struck coins in his own image, and one of them, named ‘Gloria Romanorum’ (Glory of Rome), depicts on its reverse a helmeted rider on horseback trampling a barbarian underfoot.

Both the Greek and Roman coins depict a rider on horseback wearing a helmet with striking plumage and a spear in his right hand. The horse is wearing a bridle and is rearing up on two legs before his adversary, who falls back whilst looking up at the victor towering over him.  On the Magnentius coin, the similarities with Pistrucci’s Saint George are further accentuated by the appearance of a long flowing cloak which billows out behind the horseman and is fastened by a piece of fabric across his chest.

A further, startling similarity can be observed on the ground, depicted in both images as a horizontal line.  On the Roman coin, a broken spear is also clearly visible sticking up out of the earth. 

These uncanny similarities provide compelling evidence that Pistrucci saw at least one of these ancient coin designs. Many fine examples have survived to the present day, and so may have appeared in one of the private collections of classical antiquities that his wealthy customers and friends showed him. Perhaps he saw one in Payne Knight’s “cabinet full of precious things”. We also know that Sir Joseph Banks’ sister Sarah Sophia was an avid collector of coins and medals. Given the circles that Pistrucci was moving in, it does not require a giant leap of the imagination to suggest that he encountered an ancient coin with a similar composition that fired his creativity. 

The similarities do not end with the design. Measuring 22 millimetres in diameter, the Roman coin of Magnentius is almost precisely the same size as the modern sovereign. This may have attracted the Italian sculptor’s eye as he considered the most effective way to compose an intricate design on such a small table.  

Frustratingly, Pistrucci’s autobiography ends at the very moment he set to work on his model in the Greek style. Therefore, we are unlikely to ever know for certain which elements inspired him to create arguably the most famous coin design in numismatic history. However, the striking similarities between coins struck in classical antiquity, and Pistrucci’s Saint George and the dragon raise an intriguing possibility.

Did ancient coin designs inspire the brilliant nineteenth-century artist to create the neo-classical masterwork which still appears on sovereigns struck today?

Magnentius’ Gloria Romanorum (circa AD 350-353) 


Coin of Patraos, King of Paeonia, Patraos (circa 335-315 BC)
(Image courtesy of Baldwins)


Pistrucci’s original design for the George III sovereign (1817-1820)