British Museum coins: Coin jewellery in medieval England

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14 August 2018
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In medieval Britain coins sometimes found use beyond the monetary exchange purpose for which they were originally produced, as revealed in our regular insight into the British Museum’s Coins and Medals Department

One way in which coins were adapted was through transformation into a form of coin jewellery.

Different types of coin jewellery are known from almost all historic periods and from all over the world.

So why coins were used in this sort of transformation and for what purpose? 

People searching with metal detectors all over Britain find coins, and these round, everyday objects in copper, silver, and sometimes gold, are the single largest artefact type known.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme (www.finds.org.uk) has revolutionised finds recording and thanks to its network of officers, who record finds made by the public, provides a database of more than 1.3 million objects for researchers and enthusiasts.

Among the Roman denarii and the Georgian pennies are a number of objects that show signs of re-use or adaptation.

These types of object do not typically survive as their adapted nature means they were not hoarded alongside other full-weight, undamaged coins. These adapted coins, which were altered to function beyond currency, provide a remarkable insight into medieval attitudes to display, value and identity. 

The term coin ‘jewellery’ is used here in the modern sense to describe objects worn for personal adornment, either on the body or used to fasten clothing. Coin jewellery is present in periods preceding the medieval, for example Roman coins are known mounted as rings or pendants.

In the early Anglo-Saxon period Roman coins (which must have been discovered as stray finds on old Roman settlements or as hoards) were reused in several ways and are occasionally found in cemeteries.

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There are two main types of coin jewellery.

The first are coins transformed into a form of badge which is a tradition spanning the 10th and 11th centuries, but which peaks in the years either side of the Norman Conquest. This group consists of silver pennies, usually gilded on the reverse side to display the cross. A pin and catchplate is either riveted or soldered onto the obverse of the coin to create the means of fixing.

Late 11th-century jewellery is generally very rare so it is difficult to make any broad assumptions about where the coin badges drew inspiration from, or if they were an innovation influenced by other forms of visual art.

The most commonly used coin types are Edward the Confessor’s Expanding Cross and Pointed Helmet types.

Some earlier coins of Cnut and Harthacnut have been turned into similar style badges but it is uncertain as to whether these coins were older coins converted in the 1050s.

The example illustrated is interesting, It is a silver penny of Cnut’s ‘Short Cross’ type. The name of the mint and moneyer (London, Aelfwig) is visible on the side of the coin facing the viewer. Unlike this example most are gilded on the side meant for show – which is usually that with the cross design, thus relegating the bust of the king to obscurity. A pin and catchplate have been soldered onto the coin. In this case the finder has repaired the fixing with a length of wire. 

In the late t13th and early 14th centuries a new trend for coins fashioned into dress hooks became popular (see second illustration).

We use the term dress hook rather than brooch as the attachments soldered onto surviving examples consist of a loop and hook. The loop is clearly intended to be sewn onto a garment with the hook used to secure part of an item of clothing to another. The choice of coins used show a marked preference for larger module pieces, initially these were Edward I’s groats but as the denomination was withdrawn from the English currency similar size gros from the continent were substituted and used instead.

The method of conversion sees the cross side gilded (obverse on English coins, reverse on French coins) and the soldering of either a single or double piece loop and hook to the opposing face. This Edward I groat has had the fixings removed to return the coin to its original appearance, however the gilding of the cross side is still visible.

The use of coins as jewellery was a statement of relative wealth as it demonstrated the wearer’s ability to change money into jewellery, but they also helped display the Christian identity of the wearer through the outward display of the coin’s cross design.