15 July 2013
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, as we reveal in our beginners' guide to Elizabethan coins.
In an exlusive coins feature from Coin Collecting Magazine, Brett Hammond describes the coinage of Elizabeth I…
One of the first advisers granted an audience by Elizabeth, following her coronation in 1558, was financier Sir Thomas Gresham.
Gresham 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.’
Elizabeth quickly understood 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.
The coin which epitomised 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 forty percent of its silver content with base metal.
Elizabeth 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.
Over the next few years, as finances allowed, Elizabeth also de-rated other debased silver money, eventually demonetising it altogether in 1561.
Her gold denominations consisted of:
• the fine sovereign of thirty shillings
• the pound
• half pound
• half crown
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.
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 idolise.
Read much more about Elizabeth I and her coinage in issue 2 of Coin Collecting Magazine.