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What is the smallest coin in Britain?

Coins of the British Isles, colonies, and Commonwealth

The earliest coinage of Britain consisted of small, cast pieces of speculum, a brittle bronze alloy with 20 percent tin. These coins copied the bronze of Massilia (Marseille) of the 2nd century bce and circulated, mainly in southeastern Britain, early in the 1st century bce their relationship with contemporary iron currency bars is uncertain. At the same time, uninscribed gold coins of the Gaulish Bellovaci, a tribe located near Beauvais, imitated from the famous gold stater of Philip II of Macedon, were being introduced, probably by trade. The first Belgic invasion, about 75 bce , brought variants of these, from which arose a complex family of uninscribed imitations. The study of distribution in Britain has ascribed them to fairly well-defined tribal areas in the south and east; some are crude, but the best illustrate the peak of Celtic art in Britain. The gold was of variable purity. After the second Belgic invasion (following Caesar’s raid in 55 bce ) the coinage entered a historical phase through the addition (in Latin, and with Roman titles, etc.) of the names of kings. Roman influence under Augustus prompted the introduction of silver and copper to reinforce the gold and the Romanization of previously “Celtic” types. Claudius’ conquest in 43 ce ended native coinage except for crudely cast billion pieces long continued in the Hampshire and Dorset area; the gold of the tribe of the Brigantes in what is now Yorkshire was the last to disappear.

Roman Britain

Unofficial copies of Claudian bronze were produced in Britain to alleviate the shortage of official Roman coinage after the conquest. Thereafter, no coinage was produced until the reign of the usurper Carausius (286–293 ce ), who coined profusely in orthodox Roman fashion at Londinium (London) and elsewhere in gold, silver, and copper; the same was done briefly by Allectus, his murderer (293–296 ce ). Diocletian’s London mint was continued under Constantine until 324 ce ; thereafter, except under Magnus Maximus (383–388 ce ), whose usurpation was legitimized by the Eastern emperor Theodosius I, Britain lacked an official mint, being supplied with coinage mainly from Gaul. Imitative bronze pieces, however, appeared in the 3rd century and continued to be made in the 4th.

Early Anglo-Saxon coins

Infiltration of Merovingian gold from France in the 6th century prompted the issue of Anglo-Saxon gold “thirds” in the 7th; solidi were only very rarely struck, because of their high intrinsic value. Output, never great, was confined chiefly to the London– Kent area. The London mint, almost certainly episcopal, signed its coins with the name LONDVNIV; Kentish coinage was mainly regal. In addition, there were a perhaps small Mercian series and another from York. A further series, copied from late 4th-century Roman prototypes, was struck about 650, when the gold content was fast diminishing. Gold coinage soon gave way to that of small thick silver sceats (meaning “a portion”; about 1.29 grams, or 20 grains) of essentially different style. Some had Runic legends, including the name Peada, supposedly a reference to the king (flourished 656) of Mercia; most, however, were nonregal, and their legends are Latinized. Types were varied, and some almost certainly originated in Frisia, where sceats are found in large quantities, denoting the trading connection that called for their use; these show animal and floral design. In the south the sceats lasted until about 800. Small silver sceats were developed in the mid-8th century in Northumbria, where they quickly gave way to copper, which lasted until about 850.

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Anglo-Saxon penny coinages

English coinage proper began with the silver penny of Offa, king of Mercia (757–796). It was first struck at around the weight of the sceat, from about 790, and its weight increased to about 22 1 / 2 grains (equal to 240 to the Tower pound; the standard pound used by the Royal Mint until its replacement in 1526 by the troy pound, whose name derives from the French city of Troyes, site of a major medieval fair). The new pennies showed Carolingian influence in their broad, flat forms. Their designs, however, insofar as they were not influenced by late Roman coin portraiture, displayed a brilliant originality (both in Anglo-Saxon portraiture and also in pattern design and decorative lettering), which had no equal for some centuries. Offa’s coinage, though minted expressly for him as Rex Merciorum, was mainly current in the southeast and was probably struck at Canterbury. Evidence for this lies in the fact that the moneyers of Offa were also those of the kings of Kent, and the coins of archbishops of Canterbury, including Jaenbeorht (died 792), bore the names of Offa and his successor Cenwulf: under Ceolwulf (821–823) the mint name of Canterbury appeared on the coins. Offa struck pennies with the portrait and name of his wife, Cynethryth, as Regina M(erciorum) and also issued gold pieces copying a 774 dinar of the caliph al-Manṣūr but with the addition of OFFA REX. Ceremonial gold coins, like Offa’s, all now represented by unique examples, were minted, perhaps partly to pay the Romescot (an annual tax to the papal see), by Archbishop Wigmund of York (837–854?), Edward the Elder (899–924), Ethelred II (978–1016), and Edward the Confessor (1042–66).

Offa’s coinage influenced design under the kings of Kent and East Anglia, as can be seen in the coinage of the Wessex kingdom, which was produced first at Winchester, then, after the Battle of Ellendun in 825, at Canterbury, still the only permanent mint south of the Humber. Under Aethelwulf (839–858) a uniform type of coinage was achieved for all of southern England except East Anglia. The Viking invaders, from about 870, left an important mark on English coinage, with new designs of northern European derivation. York and Lincoln were their principal mints, from which numerous memorial coins of Saints Peter and Martin were issued. Meanwhile, Alfred (871–899) greatly extended the Wessex kingdom, as shown by his operation of mints: Canterbury (still much the largest), Gloucester, Exeter, Winchester, London, and possibly Oxford. His coins were of careful workmanship and showed Viking influence. In the 10th century the power of English kings spread quickly northward. Under Athelstan (924–939) there were nearly 30 mints at work, mainly southern and central but reaching to Chester; under Edgar (959–975) there was much more uniformity of type. The Council of Grateley under Athelstan had enacted that each permitted mint was to have but one moneyer, with specified exceptions; London, for example, had eight. By the time of Ethelred II more than 70 mints were at work; London, Winchester, Lincoln, and York were the largest and most profuse. From about this time the types were generally standardized: obverse, king’s portrait, and, reverse, some cruciform design.

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Post-Conquest coinage

The Norman Conquest of 1066 made little change in the mint system or in the coinage (though the facing portrait acquired great popularity); the pre-Conquest moneyers stayed in office and struck coins for William I. After his reign the number of mints tended to decline. The pennies of William II have nothing in their legend to distinguish them from his father’s issues, but it is possible to allot eight types to William I and five to his son. Forgery gave Henry I much trouble, and one step he took to prevent it was to issue his later coins with a snick in the edge to show that the silver was good. He also coined round halfpence; previously, silver pennies had to be halved or quartered to produce a smaller denomination. The civil wars of Stephen’s reign produced many interesting coins, such as those struck in the claimant Matilda’s name as Imperatrix and the pennies of Eustace Fitzjohn and other barons, very much on the pattern of feudal issues in France.

Henry II ceased the regular change of types customary since William I’s reign and struck one type until 1180. As a result the work of the English mints reached its lowest level. His short-cross penny, so called from its reverse design, first issued in 1180, remained unchanged—including the name Henricus—not only by Henry II but also by Richard and John and Henry III until 1247, when Henry III coined the long-cross penny with the arms of the cross extended to the edge of the coin to discourage clipping. He also reduced considerably the number of mints. Edward I subordinated all mints to the authority of the master worker in London, William de Turnemire. In 1279 he introduced a new type of penny, with, obverse, bust of the king and, reverse, long cross with three pellets in each angle, a type that was much imitated abroad and persisted on silver until Henry VII. The moneyers’ names disappeared from the reverse legends, and their place was taken by the name of the mint (e.g., CIVITAS LONDON). Edward I also struck halfpennies and farthings to replace the cut pennies that had hitherto done duty for small change. He also introduced a groat, or fourpenny piece, but this larger coin did not establish itself until Edward III’s reign. The coins of Edward I, II, and III can be distinguished only by a minute study of detail. Privileged ecclesiastical mints still continued active.

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See the New British Coins Featuring Charles III

Molly Enking

The first British coins featuring Charles III will enter into circulation before the end of the year, announced the Royal Mint in a statement.

The portrait for the 50-pence coin, which Charles himself approved, was designed by British sculptor Martin Jennings. The same image will also appear on a commemorative coin, which features Elizabeth II on the other side.

“Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has graced more coins than any other British monarch in a reign that lasted for 70 years,” Kevin Clancy, director of the Royal Mint Museum, says in the statement. “As we move from the Elizabethan to the Carolean era it represents the biggest change to Britain’s coinage in decades, and the first time that many people will have seen a different effigy.”

Those who are used to seeing Elizabeth on their coins may notice a few differences that set Charles’ portrait apart. While the late queen’s profile faces right, Charles’ faces left. For centuries, custom has dictated that the new monarch face in the opposite direction as the old monarch, according to the Royal Mint Museum.

In addition, Elizabeth wore crowns—ranging from a simple laurel wreath to a heavy, stately diadem—in each one of her five portraits done for the Royal Mint throughout her lifetime. Traditionally, only female monarchs wear crowns on their coins, while male monarchs go without.

“Queen Elizabeth II wore a crown on her coins, but her father King George VI didn’t,” explains Cosmopolitan’s Jade Biggs. “Similarly, coins featuring Queen Victoria showed her wearing a crown whilst her predecessor, King William IV, wore no crown on his coins.”

His Majesty King Charles II Portrait and Queen Elizabeth II Memorial Coin

For those unhappy about the change, rest assured that Elizabeth will continue to appear on coins for the foreseeable future. Some 27 billion coins bearing Elizabeth’s portrait currently circulate in the United Kingdom, according to Kelvin Chan of the Associated Press (AP). For environmental and practical reasons, they will continue to be recognized as valid legal tender, taken out of circulation only “once they become worn or damaged,” says the Bank of England in a statement.

Jennings says the design was inspired by the iconic effigies of royals on coins over the centuries. “It is the smallest work I have created,” he says in the Royal Mint’s statement, “but it is humbling to know it will be seen and held by people around the world for centuries to come.”

New paper banknotes haven’t been revealed yet, but the Bank of England says a design will be ready before the end of the year.

Similar changes are likely on the horizon for countries that use currency featuring the queen, though they may happen on longer timelines, per the AP.

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Molly Enking

Molly Enking is a writer, editor and producer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work can be found in Wired, Rolling Stone, PBS NewsHour, Grist, Gothamist and others. She covers health disparities, space, the environment, scientific discoveries and oddities, food and travel, as well as how art, pop culture and history impact the way we view the world.

Decimalisation in Britain

Prior to 1971, there were 12 pennies to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound. There were guineas, half crowns, threepenny bits, sixpences and florins. This old system of currency, known as pounds, shillings and pence or lsd, dated back to Roman times when a pound of silver was divided into 240 pence, or denarius, which is where the ‘d’ in ‘lsd’ comes from. (lsd: librum, solidus, denarius).

To prepare the nation for the changeover in currency systems, the Decimal Currency Board (DCB) was set up, running a public information campaign in the two years prior to the switchover on Monday 15 February 1971, also known as Decimal Day. Three years before changeover, new 5p and 10p coins were introduced; these were the same size and worth the same amount as the one and two shilling coins. In 1969 a new 50p coin was introduced to replace the old 10 bob (shilling) note.

The banks were closed for four days before changeover to prepare. Currency converters were available for everyone, and prices in the shops were shown in both currencies. This went some way to alleviate the feeling many people had, that shopkeepers might use the conversion from old money to new to increase prices!

A pre decimal menu, circa 1960

Cafe price list circa 1960 with prices in shillings and pence

‘Decimal Day’ ran without a hitch. Although the elderly generation found it more difficult to adapt to decimalisation, in general the population readily embraced the new currency and the oft-used phrase of the 1970’s “How much is that in old money?” is now more commonly used in reference to metrication.

For a short time the old and new currencies operated in unison, whereby people could pay in pounds, shillings and pence and receive new money as change. Originally it was planned that old money would be phased out of circulation over eighteen months, but as it turned out, the old penny, halfpenny and threepenny coins were officially taken out of circulation as early as August 1971.

A shilling, farthing and threepenny bit

from l to r: shilling, farthing, threepenny bit

It was originally intended that the new unit of currency would be referred to as ‘new pence’ to distinguish it from the old money, but this was quickly adapted to the abbreviation ‘pee’, which we still use today.

The term ‘decimal currency’ describes any currency that is based on one basic unit with a sub-unit which is a power of 10, most commonly 100, and comes from the Latin word decem, meaning ten. In comparison to the rest of the world, Britain lagged behind in the decimalisation stakes. Having converted to the ruble (equal to 100 kopecks) in 1704, Russia became the world’s first country to adopt a decimal currency, followed by the 1795 introduction of the franc in the wake of the French Revolution.

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A sixpence (or tanner), half crown and half penny

from l to r: sixpence (or tanner), half crown, half penny

Whilst Britain and our nearest neighbour Ireland did not convert to decimalisation until 1971, this was not the first time Britain had considered decimalisation. As far back as 1824 Parliament had considered decimalising the British currency. In 1841,the Decimal Association was founded in support of both decimalisation and use of the SI metric system, the international standard for physical measurements which had been adopted by France in the 1790s and has since been widely introduced across the world (although interestingly the metric system has still not been fully implemented in the UK).

However despite the introduction of the two shilling silver florin in 1849, worth one-tenth of a pound, and the double florin (a four-shilling piece) in 1887, there was little development towards decimalisation in Britain for nearly a century.

It was not until 1961, in the wake of South Africa’s successful move to decimalisation that the British Government introduced the Committee of the Inquiry on Decimal Currency, whose 1963 report resulted in the final agreement to adopt decimalisation on 1 March 1966, with the approval of the Decimal Currency Act in May 1969.

Whilst various names for a new unit of currency had been suggested – such as the new pound, the royal or the noble – it was decided that as a reserve currency, the pound sterling was too important to lose.

Conversion table – decimal and pre-decimal systems

Halfpenny½d.5 ⁄24p ≈ 0.208p
Penny1d.5 ⁄12p ≈ 0.417p
Half crown2/612½p

There are now only two countries in the world who officially continue to use non-decimal currencies. Mauritania still employs the ouguiya, which is equal to five khoums and Madagascans use the ariary, which is equal to five iraimbilanja. However, in reality the khoum and iraimbilanja sub units are so small in value that they are no longer used and the rest of the world’s currencies are either decimal, or use no sub units.

Whilst many of our closest neighbours have succumbed to the simplicity of the Euro since its induction on 1 January 2002, for now at least the majority of Britons remain faithful to the pound sterling. Whether this is down to a sense of identity or the more altruistic suspicion that goods prices will rise dramatically (or a combination of the two!), whatever the viewpoint it is agreed that there is still a great deal of debate over any change to British currency. As with decimalisation then, perhaps in two hundred years time we will have decided our European counterparts are on to something!

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