An Introduction to Elizabethan Coins [Stamp and Coin Mart, October 2009, Pages 98-100 and Cover]
When Queen Elizabeth came to the throne England's economy was in a terrible state, prompting the new monarch to introduce good money to drive out the bad. By Brett Hammond of TimeLine Originals

One of the first advisers granted an audience by Elizabeth following her coronation in 1558 was financier, Sir Thomas Gresham, who had worked in Antwerp during previous Tudor reigns, and who knew better than most just how perilously weak England’s economy was at that moment. Huge sums had been borrowed in Antwerp by Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, with little repaid by either Mary or Edward VI. By 1558 the debt stood at a massive £227,000, while revenue to the Crown at home barely reached £200,000. Furthermore, huge sums would have to be spent on defence to secure the young queen’s hold on her realm.

Elizabeth listened in silence as Gresham expounded what we have come to call Gresham’s Law, though the principle had been stated many times beforehand. Gresham merely spelled it out clearly and simply, perhaps because he thought a woman might not grasp it: “When some of the coin of the realm is debased, mutilated and devalued, yet at the same time allowed to circulate alongside coins of higher value in terms of their precious metal content, the inevitable result is that hoarders will withdraw as much of the valued money as they can lay hands on.”

Fortunately for Sir Thomas the young woman to whom he addressed his lecture was highly intelligent and well able to grasp what he was saying - that good money drives out bad. She seems to have warmed to his policy proposals at once, determined to wean the English crown off foreign loans; equally determined to restore the nation’s coinage to purity; and willing in all things - except in her personal expenditures on costumes and jewellery - to practice frugality.

The coin which epitomized bad Tudor money was the testoon - or shilling as it later became known - the basic coin of the realm cynically adulterated by Henry VIII, who replaced 40 percent of its silver content with base metal. Henry justified his actions by claiming that he had simply increased his income without raising taxes. But his subjects saw through this underhand devaluation; or rather they saw through the low silver content of his testoons as the rub of circulation allowed their copper content to show through on high spots, earning the king his Old Copper Nose nickname.

Elizabeth, determined to wipe away the slur, ordered a great recall of all adulterated silver bearing her father’s portrait that remained in circulation. The coins were to be melted down, their base metal removed, and pure silver shillings carrying the new queen’s fair face struck to replace the bad money. The English shilling soon afterwards became the most sought-after coinage in international commerce; a small step that set this nation on the long road to acquiring a mighty empire.

In 1559 Elizabeth was informed that in market-places across the length and breadth of her kingdom people were now refusing to accept that the base shillings of Edward VI’s second and third issues, which remained in circulation, were worth twelve good pence apiece. Once again the queen acted swiftly with an order to call in the offending coins and have them countermarked to indicate a lower value. Those stamped with a portcullis were now to circulate at fourpence-halfpenny; and those counterstamped with a seated greyhound were given a new value of twopence-farthing. Over the next few years, as finances allowed, Elizabeth also de-rated other debased silver money, eventually demonetizing it altogether in 1561.

Her gold denominations consisted of the fine sovereign of thirty shillings, the pound, half pound, crown and half crown of twenty, ten, five shillings and 2s 6d respectively. Occupying a slightly anomalous position were the series of angels, half angels and quarter angels, all with the same values as the half pound, crown and half crown.

The importance Elizabeth placed on her coins as bearers of the regal and majestic image of the supreme ruler is confirmed in the enthusiasm with which she supported trials of the newfangled horse-powered screw press, introduced to England in 1560 by Eloye Mestrelle, a former employee of the Paris mint who crossed the Channel and was given employment at the Royal Mint. Between 1561 and 1571 he minted both gold and silver coins. The denominations included the gold half-sovereign, crown and half-crown; and the silver shilling, sixpence, groat, threepence, half-groat and three-farthings. The result was the handsomest and most symmetrical set of coins of the Elizabethan age. They certainly pleased the Queen, who awarded Mestrelle a modest royal pension. However, he was less popular with the manual coin strikers, who feared he might put them on the bread line. Nevertheless, with the queen’s support he worked on, turning out thousands of fine coins over eight years. But the quantities were never enough to meet the demands of a nation. Eventually, perhaps as a result of false charges, he was dismissed from his post. Short of money, he turned his expert’s hand to counterfeiting and was eventually caught, tried and executed in 1578.

( Mestrelle's silver sixpences stayed in circulation for 130 years and became valuable as gaming counters. Shakespeare refers to them in the opening scene of The Merry Wives of Windsor, written between 1598 and 1600, when Falstaff asks Slender if he has picked his master’s purse. Slender replies: “Aye, of seven groats in mill sixpences.”)

Elizabeth’s concern for her poorer subjects is demonstrated by her willingness to mint small denominations. For the first time threepence, three-half-pence, and three-farthings were struck. Despite the very small size of the latter, it boasted a portrait of Elizabeth that the labouring classes were said to idolize. To facilitate easy identification of the various small denominations, a rose was placed behind the queen's head on the obverse, and the date above the shield on the reverse, of alternate denominations from the shilling downwards. The reason for introducing a three-farthing coin was to facilitate the use of a penny when buying an item valued at a farthing. The buyer could tender a penny and receive a three-farthing piece in change.

The suggestion was put to Elizabeth on a number of occasions that copper coinage might better meet demand for small denominations. The queen refused to sanction what she regarded as base money - a quite different stance to that of her father!

by Brett Hammond

View Article Scan...