Georgian Guineas [Stamp and Coin Mart, September 2010, Page 98, 99]
Brett Hammond of TimeLine Originals looks at some highly collectable Hanoverian gold, which helps describe an incredibly interesting period in British history
Guineas …. It's a word all but extinct in our modern vocabulary, lingering only in horse racing, a few auction houses, and in the well-heeled worlds of Savile Row tailors and Harley Street physicians. Yet a little over two hundred years ago, when we possessed American colonies, and the British Navy ruled the waves, and our cargo ships sailed the world's oceans in quest of profits, guineas were the day-to-day coins of Georgian commerce and banking. Every English gentleman farmer, every landowner, indeed anyone who claimed membership of the aristocracy and the burgeoning middle class, carried a jingle of gold guineas in pocket or purse.
The word had first entered the language of money in 1662 when the recently restored monarch, Charles the Second, decreed that his Mint would abandoned hand-hammered coinage in favour of money manufactured in screw presses that could produce symmetrical coins with milled edges to deter the practice of clipping. Gold for this new currency came to England in ships of the Africa Company arriving from the land of Guinea on Africa's west coast. The Guinea bullion soon passed its name to the new coins as people rushed to the Mint to buy "guineas" and to admire not only the machine-made perfection of these coins for the first time, but also the depiction of an elephant and howdah beneath the king's bust. This symbol, more often called an elephant and castle, was the badge of the Africa Company. The king showed his gratitude for the profits he made from minting their gold by permitting the company's logo on the new gold coins.
At that time gold coins were minted at the 22 carat (91.6%) gold standard, but the fluctuating price of gold throughout Europe meant that guineas rose and fell in value against silver shillings. It took more than fifty years - until the reign of the first of the Hanoverian kings, George the First, for the value of a guinea to stabilize at twenty-one shillings, where it was to remain for the next ninety-six years.
A brief explanation of why Britain accepted a German prince as king seems appropriate here. When Queen Anne died in 1714 more than fifty potential heirs could claim closer blood kinship to Anne. However, they were all Catholics, and as the Act of Union (1701) specifically prohibited Catholics from inheriting the throne, the crown went to her closest Protestant relation, George, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg. Many Scots objected and would have preferred to see a Catholic Stuart on the throne, but they were overruled and George arrived from Hanover.
His guineas provide collectors with no fewer than five different obverse portraits despite a relatively short reign. Their legends are equally interesting, and the elephant and castle device appears on some years. The 1714 issue had the reverse legend: BRVN ET LVN DVX S R I A TH ET PR EL, which abbreviated: DUKE OF BRUNSWICK AND LUENEBURG, ARCH-TREASURER AND PRINCE ELECTOR OF THE HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE. The right facing obverse portraits had the legend: GEORGIVS D G MAG BR FR ET HIB REX F D, which abbreviated: GEORGE BY THE GRACE OF GOD, OF GREAT BRITAIN, FRANCE, AND HIBERNIA KING, AND DEFENDER OF THE FAITH. Additionally the reverse design now carried the shields of England, Scotland, France, Ireland, and Hanover. Half-guinea issues added to the general usefulness and wider circulation of gold coins during this reign; but a short-lived trial with quarter-guineas lasted for only one year (1718).
A further innovation on George I guineas sought to improve defences against the crime of filing the milled edges of coins and re-milling so that the unwary failed to notice that a tiny amount of gold had been stolen. At the Mint practices altered so that guineas were pressed in a way that produced diagonal milling on their edges, making filing and re-milling more difficult.
George II inherited the throne on the death of his father in 1727. He spoke little English on his arrival from his birthplace in Hanover, and he was generally regarded throughout his reign as a weak monarch, though we must acknowledge that he was the last English king to personally lead troops into battle. ( During the War of Austrian Succession, at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743, George took to the field and the British defeated a French army.) Additionally, it was during this reign that the firm foundations of the British Empire were secured through force of arms in India and Canada.
His guineas offer even more challenges than his father's issues, with no fewer than eight obverses and five reverses employed during a reign of thirty-three years. Although there are no elephant and castle devices beneath the left-facing portraits, we do encounter guineas bearing the letters EIC, the initials of the East India Company, as suppliers of bullion to the new king from 1729-1739. Additionally some guineas issued in 1745 carried the word LIMA to mark British successes in capturing Spanish treasure ships that had sailed from the city of Lima in Peru. Half-guineas of this reign also carry those privy marks.
The reverse on the guineas displays a single large crowned shield with the arms of England and Scotland in one quarter and the arms of France, Hanover and Ireland occupying the other three quarters. The reverse legend reads: M B F ET H REX F D B ET L D S R I A T ET E, which abbreviates: KING OF GREAT BRITAIN, FRANCE AND IRELAND, DEFENDER OF THE FAITH, DUKE OF BRUNSWICK AND LUENEBURG, ARCH-TREASURER AND ELECTOR.
Two further innovations at the Mint during this reign merit mention. In 1732 all hammered gold coins were declared no longer current as a result of clipping and wear over many years. Some of the gold received by the Mint in this operation was re-issued as newly pressed guineas. And in 1739, responding to successes by a daring gang of guinea filers, the milling was altered to the shape of a chevron.
The sixty-year reign of George III (1760-1820) witnessed momentous events. He occupied the throne while America gained its independence; while France experienced its Reign of Terror, while Napoleon lost at Waterloo; and while the Industrial Revolution gained momentum in Britain. Coin collectors mark his reign as the last in which guineas were struck, and as the reign in which the Royal Mint removed to Little Tower Hill where the world's most advanced steam-driven coin presses were soon at work.
Several busts were used during his long reign, so it is simpler to distinguish George III guineas by the three shield types depicted on reverses. The first, issued from 1761-1786, had an ornate shield similar to that used in the previous reign. The second, which became popularly known as the spade guinea, depicted a pointed and spade-like shield. These are the guineas widely imitated in brass and used as gaming counters ever since. Gold spade guineas were issued from 1787 to 1799, when the war against France forced up the price of gold to a level that obliged the Mint to temporarily cease production. The third was an emergency issue in 1813: 80,000 guineas struck to pay the Duke of Wellington's army in the Pyrenees because local traders would accept only gold in payment for military food supplies. This issue has become known as the Military Guinea. It bears a crowned shield within a garter, with the legend: BRITANNIARUM REX FIDEI DEFENSOR and with 1813 between the legend and the garter.
Some half, third and quarter guineas were also issued during this reign; but guineas were finally replaced by sovereigns in 1816. * Credits are due to both wildwinds.com and to TimeLine Originals for help with illustrations for this article. A selection of Georgian gold coins for sale can be viewed on TimeLine Originals web pages.
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