13 January 2020
Perhaps more than any other reign before the Tudor period, that of Edward III saw the diversification of England’s coins, writes Richard Kelleher from the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
In the 500 years before the 1340s there had been very little production of coins other than the silver penny. This all changed after 1351.
Edward’s fifty-year reign was one of the longest in English history. He became king at fourteen after his father Edward II had been deposed by Edward’s mother queen Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer.
In 1328 he married Philippa of Hainault who would be his wife for the next forty years bearing twelve children, half of whom survived beyond their teens and whose descendants would play such a pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses of the 15th century. At the age of seventeen Edward had his revenge on his mother and Mortimer successfully leading a coup which saw Mortimer executed and his mother bundled off into secure retirement at Castle Rising in Norfolk.
The accomplishments of Edward’s reign were many and varied. He is credited with bringing stability to the country after the disastrous reign of his father while also advancing legislation, transforming England into one of the most powerful military kingdoms in Europe, and also developing notions of chivalry and national identity (among the aristocracy at least) in establishing the Order of the Garter.
Edward III coins
The first coins attributed to Edward III are silver pennies of the type brought in under Edward I but these were not struck in any great quantity and are rare today. In 1335 Edward’s ‘second coinage’ was issued. This consisted entirely of slightly debased silver halfpennies and farthings minted at London and, for the first time, Reading.
These new fractional coins are often referred to as ‘star marked’ as many bear a small star of six or eight points somewhere in the legend. After the limited issue of small silver coins in the second coinage the third coinage of 1344-51 was much more ambitious.
This coinage is commonly referred to as the ‘florin’ coinage as in 1344 it was introduced alongside a new gold coin with its half and quarter. The need for a gold coinage at this time was apparent to many, as merchants would typically use foreign gold coins for high-value transactions rather than the heavier equivalents in silver.
Within eight months however it was clear that these new English gold coins were not a success.
The problem lay in their value.
The florin, at 6 shillings, was not a convenient fraction against the two monies of account – the pound (240d) and the mark (160d). The gold was quickly recalled and a new set of coins – the noble (valued at 6s 8d. equal to one third of a pound or half a mark), and its fractions were introduced bearing fine Gothic artistic representations of the king inspired by French prototypes.
The noble and its half bore on their obverse an image of a ship with a standing armoured figure of the king, which has been interpreted as a reference to the English naval victory at Sluys in 1340. Alongside the three gold denominations were three in silver; the penny, halfpenny and farthing.
In 1351 two new silver denominations were added to the mix; the groat (illustrated) and halfgroat valued at 4 and 2 pence respectively. The new coins were larger and thus provided space for a more elaborate design. On the reverse the extra room allowed for a second band of text reading ‘I have made God my helper’ from Psalm 54.4.
Most of the minting of coins took place in London with small issues from Durham and York however after 1363 significant numbers of coins began to be struck to the English model at Calais.
Edward III’s long reign was a significant one in terms of the development of coinage of England.
The innovations in currency which built on Edward I’s reforms of 1279 saw the addition of new denominations and created a system that would endure into the Tudor period shaping a currency that was more flexible – particularly at the top end for those encountering gold coins.
Image captions: Gold noble of Edward III; Silver groat of Edward III, London mint
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