Before the age of detectorists there was a band of happy people called coin collectors or numismatists. It now seems that they are quite literally a dying breed. But coins really do hold the key to a fascinating hobby.

The earliest coins used in Britain came from Northern France and were probably copies of the gold stater of Philip II who was king of Macedonia in ancient Greece.  However these first Celtic coins were quite crude and made of cast bronze and probably were minted around 80BC. A few examples have been found in Kent and were known as ‘Thurrock type.’

By 55BC gold and silver Staters were being produced but the king’s head and horse motifs had become somewhat abstract in their design.

The arrival of the Romans in 43AD brought a new coinage to the country. The beautiful gold Aureus and the silver Denarius were complemented by the much lower value Sesterius and the Dupondius. These last two coins were made from an alloy of copper, zinc and tin which was called archalcum.

The Romans left around 450AD and the British went back to the barter system. Even with the arrival of the Anglo Saxons things didn’t change much until around 600AD when coins started to slowly re-appear. Up in the North-East the Vikings introduced their coinage some of which was being minted in York – an example being the silver pennies of King Cnut.  The Anglo Saxons minted a gold Thrymsa copied from the Roman bronze coins.

 The most long-lived coin that was invented was the silver Penny which replaced the sceatta. A Denier had been struck by Charlemagne in the kingdom of the Franks about 755 AD, and the King of Kent at the Canterbury mint and King Offa of Mercia at the London mint based their new coins on this but it was only when Eadgar became King of all England in 959, reigning until 975, that the silver penny was used throughout England. The old abbreviation d for penny comes from the denier, which in turn derives from the Roman denarius. 

Following William II (William Rufus), Henry I, Stephen and Matilda, Henry II came to the throne in 1154 and found that the quality and fineness of the coins had deteriorated. In order to restore confidence, a new coin type was introduced in 1180 known as the Short Cross penny (from its reverse design) which was of a good weight and fineness of silver, and a better style. 

The Short Cross penny design was continued for nearly 70 years by Richard I and John with unchanged obverse legend, still reading HENRICUS REX (“King Henry”), and for the first 30 years of Henry III’s reign. It was discontinued in 1247 and the reverse design changed to the Long Cross type with the cross extending to the edge of the coin to discourage clipping. Henry’s title was extended to include III or the word TERCI (Third). 

 Only the silver penny and a very few half-pennies were in use and sometimes, to make a smaller denomination, penny coins were cut in half (‘hæflings’) or into quarters (‘feorthings’) which became farthings). The double lines of the reverse cross on the Long Cross penny made it easier and more accurate to make these divisions. In 1266 Henry III decreed that the Tower Pound = 12 ounces = 5400 grains was to be the monetary unit in England and it lasted until 1527 (named after the Tower Hill mint in London). The monetary pound was the value of one pound Tower weight of sterling silver, hence the name ‘pound sterling’. 

 By Edward I’s accession in 1272, there was a need for other denominations and in 1279 Edward commenced a major recoinage. The basis of this was a redesigned penny minted in millions, and three new coins, the Groat (valued at four pence), Half-penny and Farthing. The old pennies could be taken to the mint and exchanged for the new coins. The groat was unsuccessful because it was underweight but the others were all of a more acceptable standard and the design made clipping easier to detect.

It was not until 1351, in the reign of Edward III, that the groat reappeared, together with a half-groat of two pence value. This time the weights were correctly proportioned and the new denominations were accepted. 

 The year 1279 is also significant because prior to this the coins usually had abbreviations of the name of the moneyer and the mint on the reverse. After the re-coinage, an abbreviation for the city or town where the coin was produced was given.

Until now all English coinage had been in silver. Several European countries were already minting gold coinage and it was decided that England should follow. The first gold coins minted were by two Florentine engravers in 1343 and were called the Florin or Double-Leopard, Leopard (half-florin) and Helm, with values of six shillings, three shillings and one shilling and sixpence respectively (one shilling = 12 pence). The coins were issued by a royal proclamation in January 1344 which described two leopards, one on each side of the king’s throne, presumably based on the biblical story of King Solomon seated in the Temple accompanied by two lions. This allusion would not be lost on the king’s deeply religious subjects. However the gold in the double-leopard was overvalued and the coin was not a success. It appears that only three specimens have survived of which two are in the British Museum and the third is on show at present (2009) in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

The following year Edward tried again, this time successfully, with the gold Noble which was the first popular and successful English gold coin, valued at half a mark or six shillings and eight pence (80 pence). It replaced the double-leopard which was demonetised in August of that year.

The half-noble (three shillings and four pence = 40 pence) and, two years later, the quarter-noble of one shilling and eight pence (20 pence) were also issued. These new coins were of the correct weight for the values assigned to them. 

 The new system of gold and silver coinage continued virtually unchanged during the reign of Richard II until 1412, in the reign of Henry IV. A shortage of bullion forced an approximately 10 per cent reduction in the weight of the gold coinage and a 16 per cent decrease in the silver, bringing the English coinage into line with prevailing Continental standards. 

 These remained the standards until 1464 when the cost of the interminable wars coupled with another shortage of bullion caused Edward IV to make further reductions. All the gold coins in circulation were revalued upwards, the noble to eight shillings and four pence, the half-noble to four shillings and two pence and so on. Three new coins were introduced, the Ryal or rose noble (because of a rose on the ship on the obverse) with a value of ten shillings and the Angel (so-called because of its obverse design depicting archangel St Michael spearing a dragon, which represented Satan) given the former value of the noble, six shillings and eight pence and the rose half-noble or half-ryal, five shillings. The rose noble was unpopular and was discontinued after a few years but the angel was very popular. 

Adapted from B S Sharples 16 June 2009