Featured Origins of the English Penny

Discussion in 'World Coins' started by John Conduitt, Oct 9, 2020.

  1. John Conduitt

    John Conduitt Well-Known Member

    With the news that production of 2 penny coins is being paused, it’s tempting to think the humble penny’s time might be up soon. Its purchasing power is half that of the halfpenny when it was withdrawn. But it would be hasty to condemn it – it’s been England’s most resilient and long-lived coin.

    The penny’s predecessors

    The story begins, as it often does, with the Romans. When they invaded Britain in 34AD they put a stop to British coin production and brought their own coins. They also brought the ‘pound’ with them, although as a weight standard rather than a coin. Indeed, the ‘£’ sign is based on the Latin word for pound – ‘libra’ – which also provided ‘lb’ for the pound weight. The abbreviations for shillings and pence were also Roman, so that ‘l. s. d.’ stood for ‘librae, solidi and denarii’. These were used in Britain all the way to decimalisation in 1971.

    Trajan, silver denarius, 98-117AD, Rome. 19mm, 3.1g. IMP TRAIANO AVG GER DAC PM TRP COS V P P. SPQR OPTIMO PRINCIPI. From the Westbury Sub Mendip Hoard, Somerset, England, buried in 193AD (RIC 226; RSC 571). The denarius (‘containing ten’, as it was worth 10 assēs) was the ‘standard’ Roman coin and provided the symbol for the pre-decimal British penny.

    When the Romans left, the Saxons arrived. Their coinage was initially gold (scillingas), but within a hundred years it consisted of small, thick silver coins now known as sceattas. Scillingas and sceattas might have been measures of weight rather than coins – the Saxons probably referred to ‘sceattas’ as denarii or the Germanic ‘pennings’. These were around 1.1 to 1.3g – the weight of the penny for the next 700 years.

    Series C1 silver primary sceatta (or ‘penning’), 690-710, mint in Kent. 11.5mm, 1.27g (Abramson 4.10; North 41).

    Offa’s penny

    Further inspiration came from the continent when Offa, King of Mercia, created a slimmer, broader coin based on those of the Carolingians in France. This was the ‘penny’, pretty much the only denomination until Edward I’s reforms 500 years later. It featured the monarch’s name and the moneyer, as would all pennies for the next 500 years.

    Offa also made the Roman ‘pound’ popular as a unit of account. The Romans had divided a ‘libra’ into 12 uncias (ounces) but their system had been reformed so many times it ended a confused mess (much like the Roman Empire). Instead, it was Charlemagne who reformed the Roman system and it was his division of librae into 20 solidi and solidi into 12 denarii (1l. = 20s. = 240d.) that Offa imported.

    Offa, cut halfpenny, light coinage. 780-792, London. 16mm, 0.43g. Moneyer Aethelweald (S 904).

    Edgar’s standardisation

    Æthelstan first unified England in 927 but on his death the Vikings took control of the north. When Edgar reunified England in 973, he standardised the penny across England’s 70 or so mints. From that point all pennies featured the king's portrait on the obverse, with the moneyer and mint around a small cross on the reverse.

    Left: Burgred, King of Mercia, silver penny, 868-874, London. 19mm, 1.3g. BURGREDREX+. +BEAGZTA [N]MON | ETA (Beagstan moneyer) (S 938). Right: Eadmund silver penny, 939-946, uncertain southern mint. 20mm, 1.21g. EΛDMVИD REX. EADRED MO (S 1105). Pre-unification: Burgred’s has a portrait but no cross. Eadmund’s has the small cross but no portrait. Neither name the mint.

    Despite being the only denomination, a penny was high value – perhaps £10-30 today. Alfred the Great of Wessex and Ceolwulf II of Mercia produced a few halfpennies, but small change was mostly created by cutting pennies in quarters or halves (as with the Offa coin above). This was done at the mint or could be done as needed, but it was difficult to be sure you’d got the right amount. The cross on the reverse became a guide to cutting in the correct proportions.

    Cnut the Great silver short-cross penny. 1029-1035, London. 18mm, 1.12g. CNVT RECX. GODINC ON LVND (S. 1159).

    The penny persisted largely unchanged through the Viking and Norman invasions. Henry III lengthened the ‘short cross’ on the reverse to prevent clipping and was the first to include his regnal number, but his successors didn’t copy the idea until Henry VII (which would’ve been useful given they included 3 more Henrys, 2 more Richards and 5 Edwards).

    Henry III silver voided long-cross penny, 1216-1272 London. 17mm, 1.35g. HENRICVS REX III. NIC-OLE-ON L-VND (SCBC 1364).

    Edward I’s reforms

    It wasn’t until Edward I’s reforms in 1279 that round farthings, halfpennies and groats were successfully introduced. He also reformed the mints, so that responsibility for weight and fineness was centralised and coins named the mint rather than the moneyer (who had long ceased to be the person who actually struck the coin).

    Edward III silver penny, 1344-1351, London. 18.5mm, 1.28g. 3rd Coinage, Class 2, Reverse I. +EDWA R ANGL DNS HYB. CIVI-TAS LON-DON (S 1544). The mint is named rather than the moneyer.

    Pennies remained much the same – only numismatists can distinguish the coins of many medieval monarchs – until the Tudors. Henry VII, fresh from victory in the Wars of the Roses, introduced new denominations. These included the testoon (12 pence), a coin that would become better known as the shilling (from the Saxon scillinga), and the gold sovereign (worth a pound). These were the ‘l’ and ‘s’ in ‘l. s. d.’, which, unlike the penny, had gone 700 years without coins to represent them.

    Tudor debasement

    Henry VII was the first to feature a realistic portrait on his coins since the Romans, although that didn’t stop Henry VIII using the same portrait. It also did not extend to the penny, which was shrinking and becoming less significant. By Edward VI’s reign, there were no less than 10 denominations (excluding gold), which is probably why his were the first English coins marked with a value.

    Philip and Mary base issue silver penny, 1554-1558, London. 15mm, 0.65g. Tudor rose, P Z M D G ROSA SINE SPINE (Philip and Mary, by the Grace of God, a rose without thorns). Shield of arms, CIVI-TAS LON-DON (S 510A). The Tudors were the first to stop using portraits on pennies since Edgar’s reforms 600 years before.

    Elizabeth I recalled the coinage (which had been debased by her father) and replaced it with coins with a higher silver content. This reduced their size, and since the Mint refused to stoop to producing coins in copper, her silver halfpenny was the lightest coin ever (officially) produced in England. The penny too was the smallest it had ever been at half a gram.

    Left: Elizabeth I silver halfpenny, 1582-1584, London. 9mm, 0.24g. 6th coinage (S 2581, N 2017). Right: Elizabeth II bronze penny, 1984, Llantrisant. 20.3mm, 3.56g (S B2). Elizabeth I’s portcullis design (the Badge of Henry VII, also used on coins by Henry VIII) was used for Elizabeth II's decimal penny nearly 400 years later.

    The Great Recoinage

    James I’s introduction of copper farthings and Charles II’s successful reintroduction of milled coinage pointed to a brighter future for the penny, but an epidemic of forgery and the continuing refusal of the Royal Mint to produce copper coins eventually left England with a serious shortage of small change. By the reign of George III things had got so desperate private companies were producing their own copper pennies. (More about that here: https://www.cointalk.com/threads/george-iiis-numismatic-menagerie-part-i.366092/).

    It was only when Matthew Boulton at the Soho mint persuaded the authorities that copper coins were the way forward that they regained any sort of control. Since the face value of a coin had to correspond to the value of the metal, the penny went from being one of the smallest coins to the one of the largest – Boulton’s 1797 penny weighed 28.4g. This made the coins unpopular, so the Great Recoinage of 1816 broke the link between a coin’s intrinsic value and its face value, paving the way for the coins we know today.

    Victoria, bronze penny, 1865, London. 31mm, 9.40g. VICTORIA D G BRITT REG F D. ONE PENNY (S 3954). What feels like a huge coin to us was less than a third of the weight of a 1797 penny.

    The current bronze penny (20.3mm, 3.56g) is similar in size to the silver denarius (19mm, 3.1g), the coin that perhaps started it all 2000 years earlier.

    Introduction to medieval coins and identification guide for archaeologists, Guide 37, BAJR http://www.bajr.org/BAJRGuides/37. Coin Identification/37Coins_I.pdf
    A Short History of English Coins, Barry Sharples http://www.bsswebsite.me.uk/A Short History of/coins.html.
    Early Edwardian Pennies (1279-1344), Rod Blunt https://www.ukdfd.co.uk/pages/edwardian-Pennies/Edwardian Pennies P1.htm
    Numismatic History of the Reigns of Edward I, II and III, HB Earle Fox and Shirley Fox https://www.britnumsoc.org/publications/Digital BNJ/pdfs/1909_BNJ_6_11.pdf
    The History of the English Penny, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_English_penny_(c._600_–_1066)
    The Anglo-Saxon Pound, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglo-Saxon_pound
    JamesEire, Neal, Pellinore and 31 others like this.
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  3. paddyman98

    paddyman98 I'm a professional expert in specializing! Supporter

    This would be the best and proper way to use the wording penny's.. Nice thread.
    Thanks for sharing!
  4. Wizank

    Wizank Well-Known Member

    Thanks for posting this, very helpful!
  5. Robidoux Pass

    Robidoux Pass Well-Known Member

    Excellent summary. I learned some additional facts. Thanks for preparing this.
    +VGO.DVCKS and John Conduitt like this.
  6. Publius2

    Publius2 Well-Known Member

    Great concise history. Not my area but really gave me some perspective. My family traces back to the Saxon domination.
    John Conduitt likes this.
  7. Coinsandmedals

    Coinsandmedals Well-Known Member

    Yet another great read. Thank you for taking the time to share it with us!
    John Conduitt likes this.
  8. Kentucky

    Kentucky Supporter! Supporter

    Please to put a penny in an old man's hat...
    +VGO.DVCKS likes this.
  9. whopper64

    whopper64 Well-Known Member

    Interesting article/post - thanks!
    John Conduitt likes this.
  10. lordmarcovan

    lordmarcovan Eclectic & Eccentric Moderator

    Or better yet, pennies, without the greengrocer's apostrophe. ;)
    -jeffB and Kentucky like this.
  11. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander find me at NumisForums Supporter

    Great thread, I like seeing this long history laid out like that. (Too bad it can't be cross-posted in Ancients. Or can it?)

    Here's a Merovingian denier that links the early sceats to the denarius issued c. 700 in St. Denis near Paris:
    Screen Shot 2020-10-10 at 4.10.39 PM.jpg

    And a Henry VI penny from Calais, issued 1422-1427:
    Screen Shot 2020-10-10 at 4.13.45 PM.jpg

    And finally a rather grotty excuse for a penny of Richard III (1483-85):
    Screen Shot 2020-10-10 at 4.14.48 PM.jpg
  12. +VGO.DVCKS

    +VGO.DVCKS Well-Known Member

    @John Conduitt, this is an amazing piece of work. For the concision, yes --but in a strategic rather than a merely tactical sense, especially relative to the sheer amount of content you managed here. If I had a hat, you'd have it.
  13. +VGO.DVCKS

    +VGO.DVCKS Well-Known Member

    @Severus Alexander, your Richard III is the kind that only a mother (or, well, let's just say, present company included) could love. 'Grotty' seems a just a bit extreme....
    Severus Alexander likes this.
  14. +VGO.DVCKS

    +VGO.DVCKS Well-Known Member

    ...Really, @Severus Alexander, your Richard III took me from Spink, to North, to
    Stewartby. This is already, emphatically too late for yours truly not to be in Way over my head, but now I'm settling on Durham as the mint, especially from North 1687 and Stewartby, especially from p. 447. ...How far off was that?
  15. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander find me at NumisForums Supporter

    Yes, that's right, as far as I know. It was originally attributed by Andy Singer... otherwise I wouldn't be sure myself!
    +VGO.DVCKS likes this.
  16. +VGO.DVCKS

    +VGO.DVCKS Well-Known Member

    @Severus Alexander, now I'm racking my brain to try to remember who Andy Singer is. It's the kind of name that's as resonant as it could be, in the absence of that little detail. Could you help out, Please? ...Or I can just google him....
  17. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander find me at NumisForums Supporter

    +VGO.DVCKS likes this.
  18. +VGO.DVCKS

    +VGO.DVCKS Well-Known Member

    Many thanks, @Severus Alexander. ...Sad part being that as far back as he goes, professionally, I could have actually bought something from him when I was kid.
    ...Your Merovingian denier is pretty great, too. Have yet to get one, partly because it would about have to be a one-off representative example.
  19. +VGO.DVCKS

    +VGO.DVCKS Well-Known Member

    @John Conduitt, your article was impressive enough that I initially forgot to comment about your examples. Which, Doh, are consistently on a comparable level.
    There is one other fun thing about Henry III's long crosses. The (notoriously opinionated --if benignly so, at least at this remove) chronicler Matthew Paris mentions this. ...I'm having trouble accessing my bookmarks for the British Library and the Parker Library at Cambridge Uni, but here's a .jpg of the operant illustration from the slightly later ms. (c. 1250) at the former one. The illustration is at the lower left. COINS, ENGLAND, HENRY III, LONG CROSS, MATTHEW PARIS K101671.jpg
    As translated from the slightly earlier ms. at Cambridge, here's some of what he had to say about the reform.
    "[Distress and Trouble Caused by the Changing of the Coinage]
    "Also at this time, various precepts of the lord king, concisely promulgated by criers through the cities of England, concerning the issue of coins, so troubled the people that they would have preferred a measure of corn to have cost more than twenty shillings [then, as you noted, money of account]. For exchange was only permitted in a few cities. When they got there, they were given a certain weight of new money for a certain weight of old, but on every pound [...ditto] they had to pay thirteen pence for the silversmith's work, namely for moneyage, which is commonly called blanching. This money differed from the old in that a double [i.e., 'voided'] cross intersected the border with the inscription. Otherwise, that is in weight, impression and inscription, it was the same as before. Thus the people were constrained and suffered no small damage, for they could scarcely bring back twenty shillings from the money-changer's table, in exchange for their thirty, and had the labour and expense of several days of wasteful and tedious waiting."
    (Vaughan, ed. /trans. The Illustrated [and Very abridged] Chronicles of Matthew Paris. Sutton, "in association with" Cambridge, 1993. Pp. 61-2; under the entry for 1248.)
    In other words, the royal administration was profiting from the endemic practice of clipping; just on the back end. It's easy to speculate that this would have been a factor in the remarkable level of urban and middle-class support Simon de Montfort had during the 'Barons' War' (1258-1265, depending on when you want to end it), especially in contrast to the the Magna Carta era of the preceding generation.
    Last edited: Oct 11, 2020
  20. GregH

    GregH Well-Known Member

    Excellent article, and very relevant to the types of coins i'm collecting at the moment.

    One thing i'm confused about is the link between the denarius and the penny.
    The denarius disappeared sometime in third century, and the siliqua emerged in the 4th century. Wouldn't the siliqua be a more likely predecessor to the sceattas and pennies?
    +VGO.DVCKS likes this.
  21. TheRed

    TheRed Supporter! Supporter

    Great post @John Conduitt it was a really enjoyable read. Your coins are also first rate. The penny of Cnut is fantastic, an am amazing example.

    An interesting fact regarding the voided long cross coinage of Henry III is that it was detested at first, as @+VGO.DVCKS so wonderfully posted about. Besides the blanching, who wouldn't hate that, the initial coins of class 1a had drastically new legends. The mint and moneyer were removed from the reverse of the coin, a break with tradition going back to Anglo-Saxon times. As can be seen on the example below (not my coin, way too costly) the obverse reads HENRICVS REX and the reverse reads ANG/LIE/TER/CI
    Henry III LC 1a Penny +.jpg
    Mint and moneyer listed on the penny was an assurance of quality, and the absence of said information on class 1a pennies damaged the congruence people had in the new penny. The coins proved so highly unpopular that first the mint (class 1b) and then the moneyer (class 2) were restored to the reverse legend. Here is my example of class 1b from London, newly acquired.
    My favorite penny of all is class 1c from the new coinage of Edward I. A close second is his new coinage struck in Ireland. Here are my two best examples.
    Edward I Penny 1c.jpg
    Edward Irish Waterford penny.jpg
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