01 August 2018
The tumultuous period of the English civil wars of the mid-17th century had a profound effect on the coinage of the kingdom of England, writes Richard Kelleher, as he examines two spectacular gold and silver coins in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
The Civil War was inevitable once Charles, who had fled London fearing for the safety of himself and his family, raised the royal standard at Nottingham on 22 August 1642.
On 20 September at Wellington in Shropshire Charles proclaimed to his army his intention of preserving the protestant religion, the laws of England, and the liberty of Parliament. This ‘declaration’ would feature prominently on the coins of the provincial mints. Charles established his own parliament in Oxford in 1644 and directed his affairs from there.
The king needed coined money to pay for his troops, and as the Parliamentarians had taken control of London and its mint at the Tower, the king was forced to establish mints in parts of England that were still loyal to him.
Sir Thomas Bushell, who ran the Aberystwyth mint (which converted Welsh silver into coin) was tasked with producing coinage for the king. Bushell operated the mint at Aberystwyth before war was declared (1637-42). Once local Royalists had secured the town of Shrewsbury Charles commanded Bushell to move his mint there, which operated between 1642 and 1643.
The Oxford mint was established at New Inn Hall which was on the site of St Peter’s College and produced relatively large amounts of coin between 1642 and 1646. Much of the bullion was donated by the colleges.
The first Oxford coins were rough and clumsy in the Shrewsbury style but over the next few years the style was improved.
As had been the case at Shrewsbury gold coins were also produced at Oxford but in larger numbers (Shrewsbury gold coins are extremely rare), and in a wider variety of denomination.
A plethora of silver denominations from the 20 shilling pound down to the penny were also minted at Oxford. Three gold denominations were struck; the triple unite, the unite and the half-unite.
The image of the king on the larger gold triple unite (illustrated), which was the largest value coin struck to this point, shows him holding a sword in one hand and an olive branch in the other – a clear iconographic message to his enemies that he could offer either war and peace. The reverse shows the inscription EXVRGAT DEVS DISSIPENTVR INIMICI meaning ‘Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered’ (Psalm 68.1), while in the centre is the declaration.
Pounds, halfpounds, crowns and halfcrowns were also produced. Over the course of the mints existence the die engraving improved notably.
A key figure in this improvement was Thomas Rawlins, a former pupil of the brilliant French engraver Nicholas Briot.
Rawlins was appointed to be Graver of Seals, Stamps, and Medals and the handsome coins produced from 1644 are attributed to him. Chief among these are the 1644 ‘Oxford crowns’ which show a view of the city behind the equestrian figure of the king (illustrated).
The shilling, sixpence, groat, threepence, halfgroat, and penny completed the denominational set.
The second siege of Oxford took place in May 1646, negotiations for the surrender of the city followed and it was handed over to Parliamentary troops at the end of June.
Charles was captured in 1647 and held at several locations.
His trial began on 20 January 1649 and continued for seven days. Accused of high treason and other ‘high crimes’ Charles was declared guilty and sentenced to death.
His execution by beheading would take place outside Banqueting House at the Palace of Whitehall in London.
As he went to the block it is said that the doomed king lamented ‘I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown; where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the world.’