Early British Coins

Early British Coins


A Brief History of Early Britain Through Coinage (50 BC-1750 AD)


Britain as a Colony of Rome

            The beginnings of British coinage lie in the dawn of the Roman Empire. The First Triumvirate emerged from a confluence of ambition, power, and discontent with the Senate's authority. Pompey, a staunch supporter of Sulla, rose to prominence through military might, while Crassus's immense wealth bolstered his influence. Caesar, a scion of an esteemed lineage, possessed an extraordinary persona and an innate ability to sway the masses, despite his relative youth compared to his allies. Together, they resonated with the common folk who perceived the Senate as an impediment.

As Caesar campaigned extensively in Gaul and ventured into Britain, he remained acutely aware of public sentiment in Rome. Caesar started the Gallic wars against the indigenous British tribes in 55 BC, whilst issuing coinage around this time depicting a Gallic captive. The captive is depicted relatively unscrupulous, perhaps the famous Gallic king Vercingetorix. Vercingetorix was captured by Caesar after leading an unsuccessful counter-campaign against Caesar and his army. He was captured and taken to Rome, where he was executed. These captive coins were issued only at the Rome mint, and were perhaps an early form of propaganda to support the Gallic campaigns since efforts before Caesar had been undertaken to control the British isles. Meanwhile, Crassus undertook endeavors in the East, and Pompey held sway in Spain. However, Crassus's demise in Spain in 53 BC triggered a shift. Caesar's ambitions swelled, inciting envy in Pompey. Their alliance fractured, leading to conflict.

A Denarius depicting a Gallic captive

A Denarius depicting a Gallic captive (perhaps the king Vercingetorix ), ca. 48 BC. L. Hostilius Saserna.

Courtesy of CNG

Pompey attempted to strip Caesar of his command, but Caesar, undeterred, crossed the Rubicon into Rome, igniting a full-fledged civil war. As the turmoil unfolded, Pompey was forced out of Italy, seeking refuge in Greece and then Egypt, where his life met its end in 45 BC, his demise a consequence of the rivalry's intensity.

Having triumphed over his adversaries, Caesar ascended as a dictator, leveraging grand public celebrations to win the favor of the masses. His governance was marked by a paradoxical blend of generosity and assertiveness. While extending citizenship and government positions, he resettled retired soldiers and initiated public projects. Yet, his disregard for the Republican system triggered dissent among loyal senators, including Cassius Longinus, Marcus Brutus, and Marcus Cicero. On the ominous Ides of March in 44 BC, a group of senators publicly stabbed Caesar, an act laden with symbolism. It stood as a defense of the old ways, a poignant statement defending the traditional system against a dictator's encroachment, resonating profoundly with the populace.

Legionary Denarius minted by Caesar to pay his troops

Legionary Denarius minted by Caesar to pay his troops, struck in Gallia ca. 49 BC.

Courtesy of Bruun Rasmussen

            Emperor Claudius was granted the honorific title “Britannicus” by the senate as a reward for his conquests in Britain in 43 AD. He never used the title himself, but allowed his son to assume the title in statehood. After Capturing the entirety of southern Britain, the Romans then turned their attention to the North, towards Wales. In 51 AD, British Governor Publius Ostorius Scapula snuffed out a revolt led by revolutionary tribes which led to the eventual surrender to the Romans. It is unsure how many legions were sent into Rome during this long invasion of Britain, but the estimates on casualties for both sides leaves Rome with only a few hundred compared to the hundreds of thousands of Britons that perished. Caratacus, the leader of the revolt against Rome, was captured and killed. A series of Aurei and Denarii were minted by emperor Claudius to commemorate this great victory, declaring Claudius as the sole victor without mentioning any of the military forces which helped contribute to the conquest. This is a theme that would exist until the end of Rome.

Aureus struck ca. 47 AD, commemorating the conquering of the British North

Aureus struck ca. 47 AD, commemorating the conquering of the British North.

Courtesy of NAC

Sestertius minted ca. 50 AD, in which Claudius’ son assumes the title ‘Britannicus’

Sestertius minted ca. 50 AD, in which Claudius’ son assumes the title ‘Britannicus’

Courtesy of CNG

            Upon Nero's ascension to power there existed an obvious shift in Roman rule in Britain. Gaius Suetonius Paulinus was appointed governor of Britain. His reputation for brutality and forced order in Mauritania soon carried into Britain when he massacred the Druid pagans and burned their sacred grounds. In 61 AD, Rome finished the minor tribes off by conquering the remaining lands of Mona (Northern Wales) by violently seizing the land. Paulinus then rode to Londinium (now called London) to establish permanent rule. It was not a fortified city for defense, so it was burned to the ground and conquered. Paulinus then chose three of his legions and chose a battlefield, where he swiftly wiped out the rebels in the Battle of Watling Street, despite being outnumbered twenty to one. After this long and painstaking period, Nero considered abandoning the campaigns altogether. There were very few coins minted under Nero which can be linked to the battles in Britain. One Aureus minted by Nero in 63 AD, depicts one of a pair of Victory statues erected to commemorate Nero’s victories in Britain and Armenia. The divinity of the emperor, represented in the form of Virtus or Roma, is placing her foot perhaps on the head of a defeated enemy.

Aureus minted ca. 63 AD, commemorating the siege of Armenia and Britain

Aureus minted ca. 63 AD, commemorating the siege of Armenia and Britain

Courtesy of NAC

            After Nero’s suicide, the legions in Britain could not control the occupied land during the civil war. Weak governors could not establish rule in weaker areas, and the native British tribes took advantage of this weakness. The governors and legions were slowly evacuated into safer occupied land, losing much of what was conquered during the reigns of Claudius and Nero. In this, once emperor Vespasian ascended to the throne, the remaining land was re-conquered to all of southern Wales. As a consequence, Vespasian began to exploit the mineral resources of Britain and conquered the small Ordovices tribe in 78 AD. Although Vespasian reached major victories in Judea and elsewhere during his reign, his campaigns to reconquer Britain are often overlooked. His son, Domitian, saw during his rule further military conflict in Britain, in which the legions of the North defeated the Caledonian tribes and established rule in Scotland. Domitian was merely focused on preserving his legacy in the empire, as he had descended from glorious war generals and victorious emperors. During an unnecessary campaign in Germania, he was dubbed ‘Germanicus’ as a result of the campaigns, where an aureus was issued in commemoration. There are no coins minted by Domitiion which conclusively link him to the victories in Scotland.

            Trajan’s wars in Dacia directed troops from the British isles leaving minimal legions to defend britain. Beginning in 105 AD, a series of unnamed British wars erupted indicating hostility on all fronts. Perhaps the tribes took advantage of this conflict maneuvering by the Romans, because it was custom for legions to burn their forts in retreat. There is conclusive evidence that several forts were destroyed in the Scotland frontier during this period. After this, about a decade later, a new crisis arose during the reign of emperor Hadrian in 117 AD. When hadrian reached britannia to squash a northern uprising, he decided to erect a large and fortified defensive wall, now known as Hadrian’s Wall. This wall was built adjacent to the Stanegate Frontier, and was intended to separate the two halves of Britain; one under Roman rule and the other under the britannic tribes. Hadrian issued his famous “Brittania” coinage after the wall was built which was part of a series minted to commemorate Emperor Hadrian's extensive travels across the Roman Empire between AD 119 and 136. Hadrian's journeys aimed to address unrest that had emerged in the later years of Trajan's rule and to assess and stabilize the various provinces he inherited. His travels unfolded in two main phases, with this coin specifically marking the first leg of his expedition. The initial phase of Hadrian's travels focused on fortifying Rome's northern borders. Beginning around AD 119, he visited Gaul and the Germanic provinces of Inferior and Superior. From there, he ventured to Britannia, and continuing his journey, Hadrian spent time in Hispania before heading east to Asia Minor. The latter part of this inaugural tour saw him exploring regions such as the Balkans, Greece, Dacia, and Achaea. Finally, in AD 126, after an extensive journey that included Sicily, he returned to Rome, having traversed and observed various parts of the empire, initiating critical developments and projects that would leave a lasting mark on Roman history.

Hadrian “travel series” Sestertius, ca. 134-38 AD. Depicts Brittania on the reverse

Hadrian “travel series” Sestertius, ca. 134-38 AD. Depicts Brittania on the reverse.

Courtesy of CNG

            During the early third century, after the death of Commodus, Britain saw a new wave of conflict that would rival the past two hundred years. This conflict was no longer with the tribes of the north (although they still played a pivotal role in some conflicts and skirmishes) it was from within. Clodius Albinus was declared governor of Britain, where he became an ally with the reigning emperor Septimius Severus. Albinus had controlled three legions, and seeing him as a threat, Severus turned on his once well-respected ally. Albinus committed suicide after continued pressure in the battlefields of Gaul. A new governor, Virus Lupus, was elected in replacement.

Aureus of Clodius Albinus, minted ca. 193-5 AD

Aureus of Clodius Albinus, minted ca. 193-5 AD

Courtesy of NAC

            Severus, realizing he could escalate his minor conflict into a major assault, opted to invade Caledonia. His goal was to move 20,000 troops north so that his two sons, Geta and Caracalla, could gain military experience. However, Severus faced obstacles and couldn't advance past York. He was compelled to negotiate a treaty with the Caledonians, who sought peace. For this small campaign, Severus paid his men ten Aurei for their work, issuing legionary coins struck in Rome ca. 193 AD. Shortly after this unsuccessful campaign, Caracalla encountered the Maeatae, a neighboring tribe, leading to conflict around 210 AD. Severus returned to York, leaving his son to handle a punitive expedition, bestowing upon himself the title of Germanicus. Among his notable actions, Severus divided Britannia into Superior and Inferior regions, demarcated by Hadrian's Wall.

Legionary Aureus struck ca. 193 AD

Legionary Aureus struck ca. 193 AD

Courtesy of CNG

            A few decades later, in 259 AD, the corrupt governor Postumus initiated a rebellion against Emperor Gallienus. Subsequently, the area of Britannia was split into the so-called Gallic Empire, controlled by Postumus. However, this segment of Rome's control was short-lived, as it was reunited by Aurelian in 274 AD.

Aureus of Postumus

Aureus of Postumus, ca. 261/2 AD

Courtesy of Jean Elsen & Fils

In 286 AD, the naval commander Carausius endeavored to reclaim control over the Gallic lands. He spearheaded an extensive effort to consolidate all the Britannic provinces. Emperor Maximian issued a death sentence on Carausius for his crimes in Britain and prior embezzlement of loot in France, prompting an invasion in 288 AD. Despite the attempt, Carausius managed to maintain his position, declaring himself emperor and minting coins as Augustus. During a fleeting period of calm within the Gallic empire, the junior emperor in Rome, Constantius Chlorus, plotted a second offensive. In 293 AD, he besieged Carausius’s control by both land and sea, resulting in a significant defeat for Carausius. Amidst the turmoil, the people of Gallia lost faith in their new emperor, briefly deposing him in favor of his treasurer, Allectus. Allectus, assuming the title of Augustus, clashed with praetorian prefect Julius Asclepiodotus, engaging in a decisive land battle near Southampton, where Asclepiodotus emerged victorious.

Aureus of Carausius after declaring himself emperor

Aureus of Carausius after declaring himself emperor, ca. 286/7 AD

Courtesy of NAC

Aureus of Allectus ca. 293 AD after deposing Carausius

Aureus of Allectus ca. 293 AD after deposing Carausius

Courtesy of NAC


Medieval Britain

After 400 AD, Rome's overextension forced a retreat from the fringes of the empire, creating a power vacuum in these peripheral regions. Left without the protective shield of the legions, these territories became prey to aggressive outside groups that settled permanently, birthing the Anglo-Saxon culture. Dominated by a warrior class, society witnessed the rise of Bretwaldas, societal overlords, coinciding with the emergence of independent kingdoms like Mercia, Wessex, and Sussex.

Amidst a continuous struggle for resources and prestige, warfare became a regular affair, shaping the traits of kingship. In this culture, one's eminence was measured by battlefield triumphs, engendering loyalty to Bretwalda rulers. The economy became intrinsically linked to warfare, with wealth garnered through plunder and tribute, weaker entities paying taxes to avoid obliteration. Coinage still existed, but it was a mere crude design imitated with leftovers from the great Roman past.

While sedentary markets and trading persisted, literacy dwindled with the decline of Rome, rendering reading and writing rare skills. Trained scribes were exceedingly scarce, responsible for drafting agreements and documents in this era. Religiously, many Germanic groups initially adhered to paganism, yet over centuries, there was a gradual conversion to Christianity. This transformation sparked tensions between Christian beliefs and staunchly polytheistic practices, notably those of the Druids, resistant to Christian influence. Moreover, conflicts centered around polytheistic concepts, particularly those involving magic, contributed to this religious friction. Sutton Hoo, a Viking-style burial site featuring a ceremonial longboat laden with goods, treasures, and a buried body, symbolized the cultural practices of this time, with an earth mound constructed atop it. The coins found in this burial site date to around the time of Raedwald.

Gold Penny minted in London under the ruler Coenqulf

Gold Penny minted in London under the ruler Coenqulf, ca. 796-821 AD

Courtesy of Spink

The Western Church assumed a prominent role, training priests to educate the populace, while bishops wielded military responsibilities, occasionally drawn away by secular ideas from their religious duties. Monks and nuns adhered to specific codes and orders, holding considerable economic and social sway, often having familial ties to rulers. As cities waned, monasteries burgeoned as educational hubs in areas once influenced by Rome.

This era witnessed fervent evangelism reaching the last pagan strongholds, with Irish monasteries renowned for their missionary efforts. St. Columba's establishment of a monastery off Iona along the Scottish coast highlighted this missionary zeal. The articulation and ascendancy of St. Augustine's 'City of God' marked a new identity, envisioning Europe as a universal Christian society with secular characteristics. This vision sought unity in a divided political landscape, portraying Europe as a singular Christian entity despite political fragmentation.


Anglo-Norman England

In the era of the Heptarchy, England was divided into seven kingdoms. However, a new challenge emerged with the Viking invasion from Norway. These invaders raided the coasts, enticed by the riches held in the monasteries. By the early 9th century, they settled among the Anglo-Saxons, altering the political landscape.

Amidst this upheaval, England faced challenges in consolidating power over around 100 barons residing in England and Wales. As the Vikings conquered, six of the seven kingdoms succumbed, leaving Wessex as the sole surviving realm. Ruling from 870 to 899, Wessex commenced the process of consolidating the southern part of England, laying the groundwork for its dominance in what would become modern-day England, incorporating the defeated Vikings.

A significant turning point arrived in 1066 with the demise of Edward the Confessor, triggering a power struggle for the throne. William, Duke of Normandy, with Viking lineage, gathered an invading force, prompting a dispute over the succession. The Battle of Hastings resulted in victory for the Normans, despite Anglo-Saxon resentment. William I, also known as William the Conqueror, reigned from 1066 to 1087, establishing a French-speaking monarchy in England. Despite being viewed as an outsider, he effectively structured English governance, constructing numerous castles to exert control over the land. He standardized the coinage, allowing for wide circulation throughout his area of control.

Silver penny of William the Conqueror

Silver penny of William the Conqueror, ca. 1066/87 AD

Courtesy of CNG

The lineage continued with Henry II, William's great-grandson, expanding English power and territory by marrying Eleanor of Aquitaine. Like the French, Henry developed a robust system of justice called the king's bench, a criminal court aiming to hear pleas from all criminals. His efficient royal finance system utilized monetary penalties instead of physical punishments, emphasizing accounting and financial management.

Denier minted under Eleanor of Aquitaine

Denier minted under Eleanor of Aquitaine, ca. 1189-1204

Courtesy of CNG

However, tensions brewed between Henry II and Thomas Becket, whom he appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket resisted Henry's attempts to influence Church affairs, leading to his eventual murder. Henry's son, John, who ruled from 1199 to 1216, faced a tumultuous reign, marked by military losses, oppressive taxation, and clashes with the Catholic Church over Investiture. This culminated in the Pope placing England under a papal interdict in 1208, leading to civil strife. The nobles forced concessions from John, resulting in the Magna Carta, a seminal document that curbed royal authority, emphasizing baronial rights, and becoming one of the earliest constitutional documents.


English Monarchy

In the English Reformation, Henry VIII's quest for a male heir led to the separation of the Church of England from the papal authority. Thomas Cromwell, his secretary, engineered legal measures in Parliament to redirect appeals from Rome to the Archbishop of Canterbury, establishing the monarch as the supreme head of the Church of England through the Act of Supremacy. This move resulted in England's separation from Rome, enabling Henry to divorce his wife Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn. Although Henry's theological stance remained flexible, this shift led to the establishment of the Anglican Church and the production of the Book of Common Prayer, a compilation of Protestant devotional works.

Testoon of Henry VIII

Testoon of Henry VIII, ca. 1544/47 AD

Courtesy of Spink

However, this religious upheaval in England also saw resistance. Thomas More, who resisted the legal proceedings instigated by Henry, was martyred for his opposition. Following Henry's reign, Mary I, raised as a Catholic, reverted the kingdom to Catholicism. A clash emerged between Mary and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, a Protestant, leading to Cranmer's public refusal to submit, resulting in his execution.

Shilling depicting Philip and Mary

Shilling depicting Philip and Mary, ca. 1554-58 AD

Courtesy of CNG

Amidst these changes, the Counter-Reformation gained momentum. The Council of Trent from 1545 to 1563 revitalized the Catholic Church, dissecting Protestant beliefs and emphasizing the Church's divine role in salvation. Ignatius Loyola, a former soldier from Spain turned devout Catholic, renounced his military career and founded the Jesuits. Highly educated and missionary-oriented, the Jesuits became renowned for their academic rigor and were dispatched worldwide, even into Protestant territories, where they were perceived as enigmatic figures.

King James, known as James VI of Scotland and James I of England, authored the "True Law of Free Monarchy" in 1658, asserting that rebelling against a divinely appointed monarch is unholy. He advocated the concept of Divine Right Monarchy, positing that God appoints representatives in kingdoms, and resistance against them is not permissible. Philippe Duplessis-Mornay, a figure within the Calvinist tradition, presented ideas that countered this, asserting the right to resist a ruler who interferes with one's relationship with God.

Sovereign of James I

Sovereign of James I, ca. 1604

Courtesy of Goldberg Auctions

During England's Civil War, Charles I, son of James I, adopted a "personal rule" stance, clashing with Parliament over his stubbornness and insistence on control. The Petition of Right in 1628 highlighted historical precedents, such as the Magna Carta, to curtail the king's powers and safeguard the rights of English citizens against arbitrary actions. Charles I resorted to ruling without Parliament for over a decade, collecting revenue through various means, including levying taxes and selling titles, which led to dissatisfaction among the growing Puritan movement in England. The Puritans aimed to purify the Church of England from what they perceived as Catholic remnants, while Charles supported Arminianism and Archbishop William Laud's efforts to enforce religious uniformity. Tensions escalated when Charles imposed the Scottish Prayer Book in 1637, viewed by the Scots as a Catholic-influenced imposition. Scottish rebellion ensued, leading to Charles losing control, eventually compelling him to summon Parliament in 1640, after an 11-year absence. This move signified his need for parliamentary support due to the escalating conflicts within the realm.

Gold unit and triple unit of Charles I, his early coinageGold unit and triple unit of Charles I

Gold unit and triple unit of Charles I, his early coinage.

The Long Parliament, seated in 1640 for three years, united Charles I's opponents to enact laws curbing the monarch's powers. They sought to limit the king's religious practices and attempted to abolish the position of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Charles viewed this as treason, sparking civil war in 1642. Parliament and the king raised armies, leading to Parliament's victory in 1645, ultimately capturing the king. His trial and conviction for crimes resulted in Charles I's execution on January 30, 1649. England became a republic, abolishing the House of Lords and the monarchy.

Unit of Charles I minted in Scotland

Unit of Charles I minted in Scotland, ca. 1625-49 AD

Courtesy of CNG

Seven years later, there were trials conducted to have coins featuring a depiction of Oliver Cromwell as a king. This portrayal included a laureate figure on the left side and the royal crown on the reverse, created by the engraver Thomas Simon. The minting process took place at the currency press facilitated by Pierre Blondeau. The proofs or trials of 50 shillings were produced using the same tools employed for the 20 shilling broad, albeit on a thicker blank of the appropriate weight (2.5 times that of the 20 shilling). The edge was inscribed in relief using a two-ring machine. Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, led the republic. He aimed for religious tolerance, allowing Jewish people to return after a 400-year exile. However, conflicts arose with radical elements in Parliament. Cromwell ruled increasingly as a military dictator without Parliament from 1653 to 1658. He employed generals to oversee districts and governed with martial law, censoring the press and banning sports and theaters. His death in 1658 led people to reconsider if England under Cromwell was worse than under Charles I.

Pattern 50 Shillings of Oliver cromwell

Pattern 50 Shillings of Oliver cromwell, ca. 1656

Courtesy of SBG

Following negotiations, Charles II, Charles I's son, restored the monarchy in 1660, ruling with relative peace. Following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 after Cromwell's passing, hammered coinage replaced Republican Milled coinage for a brief period spanning 1660 to 1662. However, this transition proved problematic, as the older hammered coinage, prone to lower production quality and frequent clipping, resurfaced with its former issues. Due to his ties with the Commonwealth and Oliver Cromwell, Simon, the previous chief engraver, was replaced by the Dutch engraver John Roettiers at the Royal Mint. In 1662, the Royal Mint commenced the production of a new milled Crown using machinery provided by Peter Blondeau, a Frenchman who had previously supplied equipment for milled coinage during the Commonwealth era. Simon, potentially aiming to regain favor with King Charles II and perhaps reclaim his former position as chief engraver, crafted the Pattern Crown as a petition, showcasing his exceptional craftsmanship to the king.

The “Petition Crown” of Charles II Coin

The “Petition Crown” of Charles II, considered to be the most advanced coin minted since the fall of Rome

Courtesy of SBG

Considered the pinnacle of Thomas Simon's career, the Petition Crown showcases an unparalleled level of engraving expertise matched only by a select few highly skilled medallic artisans. The bust of Charles II, reportedly influenced by Simon Cooper's portrait, displays an exceptional style for its time. The engraving captures a lifelike portrayal while presenting an extraordinarily artistic rendition that distinctly embodies the likeness of Charles II. Simon placed his signature below the bust, leaving no doubt about the creator of this remarkable engraving.

Pattern crown, Charles II Coin

Pattern crown, Charles II ca. 1662

Courtesy of MDC

However, questions persisted about who held the true power. With Charles II passing without an heir, his brother James II succeeded him. James II, a Catholic, faced opposition due to his religious preferences and governing style. His appointment of Catholics to high positions upset Protestants, and the birth of his Catholic son intensified discontent. In 1688, the Glorious Revolution replaced James II with William III of Orange and his wife Mary. William invaded England with minimal bloodshed, leading to James II's flight and William's acceptance of Parliament's requirements, outlined in the English Bill of Rights. This act curtailed the monarch's power and further cemented Parliament's role in determining succession, as seen in the Act of Settlement of 1701.

Gold 5 guinea Coin of William III

Gold 5 guinea of William III, ca. 1699

Courtesy of Spink

Conjoined busts of William and Mary

Conjoined busts of William and Mary

Courtesy of CNG

With Mary's passing in 1694 and William's death in 1702 without children, the succession question arose. Sophia of Hanover, a Lutheran Protestant and James II's granddaughter, was elected by Parliament to succeed. Her son George I became king, marking the advent of the German line in England. George I, not fluent in English, became the first German king of England and Hanover.

5 guinea of George I

5 guinea of George I, ca. 1717

Courtesy of Goldberg Auctions

            The Germanic line of English kings would reinvest coinage. British coins would still be minted at the royal mint in England, whilst coins in Hannover would be minted at the Goslar and Zellerfeld mints. George would adapt the Wildman coinage, circulating it throughout Hannover and occupied lands. This coinage would continue until the early 19th century.

Pfennig depicting the Wildman, Constanter, minted under George II

Pfennig depicting the Wildman, Constanter, minted under George II ca. 1732

Courtesy of Heritage

Taler depicting the Wildman, in Hannover, minted under George II

Taler depicting the Wildman, in Hannover, minted under George II ca. 1723

Courtesy of Goldberg Auctions


Article By Colby Abele

Later Period 19th and 20th Century British Coinage Can be found in VCD Auction's World History Sales 3 and World History 4

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