Eighteenth Century Britain – Coinage in Crisis

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 landscape of Manchester was transformed by the Industrial Revolution

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. 

Hugh Percy, 1st Duke of Northumberland by Joshua Reynolds

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.

The Northumberland Shilling 1763

Counterfeiting

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. 

A counterfeit coin of George III

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.   

Catherine Murphy was burnt at the stake for coining in 1789


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! 

Shock Report

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.   

The Royal Mint at the Tower of London circa 1809

The Seven LUCKIEST Coins in the World

Do coins have the power to bring GOOD LUCK? For centuries, many have believed this to be true. There are countless stories of how coins have ensured fortune and luck (and in some cases, the loss of a coin has led to failure and even disaster!) While your choice of a personal good luck charm remains completely up to you, let’s examine SEVEN of the most popular lucky coins around the world. 

1. The Silver Sixpence (Great Britain)

In Great Britain, the Lucky Sixpence appears in the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence as well as the tradition of hiding a Sixpence inside each British child’s Christmas Pudding to bring good luck for the new year. 

Even better known is the mention of this coin in the famous wedding rhyme: “Something borrowed, something Blue, and a Sixpence for her shoe.” For centuries, brides have been wearing a sixpence coin in their shoes in the hope that their marriage be filled with prosperity and good luck. For that reason, British sixpence coins are among the most popular wedding gifts for brides.

2. The Lucky Irish Penny (Ireland)

The Lucky Irish Penny was minted in Ireland from 1928-1968. In 1926, as designs were being considered for this new coin, Irish poet William Butler Yeats was named the design committee’s chairman. Ultimately, the committee selected a design of the Irish harp, which traced its origins to a coin first issued by Henry VIII in 1534.  The coin’s reverse side, it was decided, would feature a hen and chicks design as a tribute to Ireland’s tradition of agriculture.

These coins were first minted in 1928 and continued to be issued virtually unchanged until 1968. Struck in copper, each coin weighs approximately an ounce. The coin’s inscription is in Gaelic, the native language of Ireland. 

Large and relatively inexpensive, the Lucky Irish Penny is a popular good luck piece carried in pockets throughout the world.

3. Leap Year Mercury Dimes (United States)

Many gamblers across the U.S. swear by the luck of the leap year Mercury Silver Dime. This widespread superstition likely stems from an overall belief in the power of silver coins coupled with Mercury being the god of “the crossroads” or fate, as well as chance. The leap year dates that occurred during the run of the Mercury Dime series are 1916, 1920, 1924, 1928, 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944.

The belief in the Leap Year Mercury Dime is particularly ironic, however, since this silver dime has long been misidentified as depicting the Roman god Mercury, when it actually features Lady Liberty wearing a winged cap – symbolizing freedom of thought.

4. The Five-Yen Coin (Japan)

Many Japanese people believe in destiny. The term “go-en” (ご縁) refers to those seemingly serendipitous encounters that result in long and meaningful relationships. The Japanese 5-yen coin is also called “go-en” 五円.  Because it sounds the same as the “go-en” of destiny, many Japanese people believe that holding a 5-yen coin will help them discover what the Universe has in store for them. This could involve finding soulmate spouse, a perfect job, a dream home, or many other facets of life. 

Similarly, 5-yen coins are commonly placed into offering boxes at shrines while one utters a prayer of thanks, followed by a wish for something in the future (always in that order). Because this belief all ties back to destiny, a 5-yen coin is seen as simply helping along the good luck and the serendipity that is actually always meant to be!

5. Vault Protector/Cash Coins (China)

In China, “cash coins” featuring a square hole in the middle hold a special meaning. The square in the centre represents the four corners of the Earth while the outer circle shape symbolizes the heavens around it. In ancient China, money was often frequently carried on strings rather than in purses. These coins are also often worn around the neck with a red ribbon as amulets to fight off negativity and illness.

Certain large and heavy cash coins are known as “Vault Protector” coins. Created only for special occasions, Chinese mints would sometimes cast large, thick, and heavy coins with a square hole in the centre. These coins were not for circulation – but instead occupied a special place at the treasury. The treasury had a spirit hall, where offerings could be made to gods such as the God of Wealth. These special coins would often be hung with red silk through their square hole, suspended above the incense table. They were called Vault Protector coins because they were believed to have charm-like powers to protect against evil and disaster, thus ensuring good fortune, prosperity, and wealth.

Giving a gift of Chinese cash coins ensures that the receiver is granted your wishes of wealth, prosperity and happiness.

6. Touch Pieces – Healing Coins (England & France)

Touch Pieces are coins that have been touched by rulers, monarchs or other powerful beings who are believed to hold their authority directly from God. Touch Piece coins were extremely auspicious and are said to have demonstrated healing powers.

Actually, this practice dates back to the Ancient Roman Empire. The Roman Emperor Vespasian (69-79AD) is reported to have initiated ceremonies during which he would hand out coins to the sick. This ceremony became known as “The Touching”.

Centuries later, the Kings and Queens of England and France embraced this practice – holding regular touching ceremonies up through 1714. The fact that an angel appeared on some British coins from the time of Henry VIII onward further cemented the tradition of the healing coin from the hand of your monarch. The British tradition of Maundy Money may have derived from this overall custom, as it features the monarch gifting specific subjects with token gifts of silver coins. 

Of course, it wasn’t just about royalty. Clergymen were also known to hand out or even sell healing coins during ceremonies which were said to bring healing powers to the believer. There are many contemporary accounts of people being cured by this method. In a convenient bit of rationale, those who remained ill were accused of not having enough faith.

7. The Gold Angel (France)

As we have just seen, coins with angels on them have been treasured as tokens of good luck, health, and fortune. If a King or Queen handed an angel coin to a subject, it would often become a family heirloom – being handed down through the generations. 

The legend of the Lucky French Gold Angel, however, has an even more dramatic start. During the French Revolution, Augustine Dupré, was standing on the platform waiting in line to lose his head to the guillotine. In his pocket, Dupré carried a gold coin that he himself had engraved, a French Gold Angel. He believed that carrying the coin with him would protect him from evil and danger. Sure enough, faced with the dire prospect of the guillotine, the Angel delivered him! 

Legend holds that moments before his execution, a huge thunder roared and lightning struck, scaring the executioner and delaying the planned execution. Before it could be rescheduled, Dupré was granted a pardon – and thus the Gold Angel saved his life. 

Inspired by this tale, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte also carried a Lucky Gold Angel—but legend reports that he lost his coin just the day before the Battle of Waterloo. We all know the outcome of that battle!  

Dupré’s angel design was revived from 1871 to 1898 on 20 Franc and 50 France gold coins. The coin’s legend continued into the 20th century, with sea captains and fighter pilots in both World Wars believing the coin brought them luck and protection.

SPECIAL BONUS: Personal Lucky Charm Coins

The above list details some of the most popular and longstanding lucky coins from around the globe. But you may, in fact, find your own lucky coin(s) quite a bit closer to home. 

Commonly, coins dated from your birth year or other significant milestone in your life are believed to be lucky. Also, if you are from an immigrant background, treasuring a coin from the country your parents or grandparents came from is often considered a way to ensure good luck, prosperity and fortune. 

No matter what the source, look around you today and see if you can’t pocket a special coin to bring you luck, prosperity, and happiness!

Steve Wolff is an American numismatist, writer, and video producer who has spent over 20 years sharing the fascinating stories behind coins and the historical events and personalities that inspired and shaped them. 

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.

Irish Gun Money

King James II

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. 

King WIlliam III and Queen Mary II, who reigned as joint sovereigns

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.

Emergency Money

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). 

Gun Money Sixpence (1689)
Gun Money Shilling (1689)
Gun Money Half Crown (1689)

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.

Gun Money Crown (1690)

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.  

Restrike showing the original undertype

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.

William at the Battle of the Boyne

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.  

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.