Definitions

maundy coins

Coins of the pound sterling

The standard circulating coinage of the United Kingdom is denominated in pounds sterling (symbol "£"), and, since the introduction of the two pound coin in 1998, ranges in value from one penny to two pounds. Since decimalisation, on 15 February 1971, the pound has been divided into 100 (new) pence. For several hundred years prior to decimalisation, the pound was divided into 20 shillings, each of 12 (old) pence. British coins are minted by the Royal Mint in Llantrisant, Wales. The Royal Mint also commissions the coins' designs.

The first decimal coins were circulated in 1968. These were the five pence (5p) and ten pence (10p), and had values of one shilling (1/-) and two shillings (2/-), respectively, under the pre-decimal £sd system. The decimal coins are minted in copper-plated steel (previously bronze), cupro-nickel and nickel-brass. The two pound coin is bimetallic. The coins are discs, except for the twenty pence and fifty pence pieces, which are heptagonal. All the circulating coins have an effigy of Queen Elizabeth II on the obverse, and various national and regional designs, and the denomination, on the reverse. The circulating coins, excepting the two pound coin, were redesigned in 2008, keeping the sizes and compositions unchanged, but introducing reverse designs that each depict a part of the Royal Shield of Arms and form the whole shield when they are placed together in the appropriate arrangement. The exception, the 2008 one pound coin, depicts the entire shield of arms on the reverse. All current coins carry a Latin inscription whose full form is ELIZABETH II DEI GRATIA REGINA FIDEI DEFENSOR, meaning "Elizabeth II, by the grace of God, Queen and Defender of the Faith".

In addition to the circulating coinage, the UK also mints commemorative decimal coins (crowns) in the denomination of five pounds (previously twenty-five pence). Ceremonial Maundy money and bullion coinage of gold sovereigns, half sovereigns, and gold and silver Britannia coins, are also produced. Some territories outside the United Kingdom, that use the pound sterling, produce their own coinage, with the same denominations and specifications as the UK coinage but local designs.

In the years just prior to decimalisation, the circulating British coins were the half crown (2s 6d), two shillings or florin, shilling, sixpence (6d), threepence (3d), penny (1d) and halfpenny (½d). The farthing (¼d) had been withdrawn in 1960.

All modern coins feature a profile of the current monarch's head. The direction in which they face changes with each successive monarch, a pattern that began with the Stuarts. For the Tudors and pre-Restoration Stuarts, both left and right-facing portrait images were minted within the reign of a single monarch. Medieval portrait images tended to be full face.

From a very early date, British coins have been inscribed with the name of the ruler of the kingdom in which they were produced, and a longer or shorter title, always in Latin; among the earliest distinctive English coins are the silver pennies of Offa of Mercia, which were inscribed with the legend OFFA REX "King Offa". The English silver penny was derived from another silver coin, the sceat, of 20 troy grains weight, which was in general circulation in Europe during the Middle Ages. In the 12th century, Henry II established the Sterling Silver standard for English coinage, of 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper, replacing the earlier mediæval use of fine silver. The coinage reform of 1816 set up a weight/value ratio and physical sizes for silver coins. Silver was eliminated in 1947, except for Maundy coinage.

Current circulating coinage

Production and circulation

All UK coins are produced by the Royal Mint. The same coinage is used across all countries of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). Unlike banknotes, local issues of coins are not produced in these regions. The pound coin until 2008 has been produced in regional designs, but these circulate equally in all parts of the UK (see pound coin design section).

Every year, newly minted coins are checked for size, weight, and composition at a Trial of the Pyx. Essentially the same procedure has been used since the thirteenth century. Assaying is now done by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths on behalf of HM Treasury.

As of March 2007, the total value of coinage in circulation is estimated at three and a half billion pounds, of which the £1 and £2 coins account for over two billion pounds. The 1p and 2p coins from 1971 are the oldest standard-issue coins still in circulation.

Coins from the British dependencies and territories that use the pound as their currency are sometimes found in change in other jurisdictions. Strictly they are not legal tender in the United Kingdom and tend not to be accepted by UK traders and some banks. Since they have the same specifications as UK coins, they are sometimes tolerated in commerce, and can readily be used in vending machines.

UK-issued coins are, on the other hand, generally fully accepted and freely mixed in other British dependencies and territories that use the pound.

The new 2008 design of UK coins are expected to start circulating gradually during 2008, although as with all other coins the actual schedule will be dictated by the orders from the UK banks, which in turn depend on the variable patterns of public demand for new coinage. The pre-2008 coins will remain legal tender and are expected to stay in circulation for the foreseeable future.

UK decimal coinage history

Decimalisation

Since decimalisation on 15 February 1971 the pound (symbol "£") has been divided into 100 pence. (Prior to decimalisation the pound was divided into 20 shillings, each of 12 (old) pence. The value of the pound itself was unchanged by decimalisation.)

The first decimal coins — the five pence (5p) and ten pence (10p) — were introduced in 1968 in the run-up to decimalisation in order to familiarise the public with the new system. These initially circulated alongside the pre-decimal coinage with values of 1 shilling and 2 shillings respectively. The fifty pence (50p) coin followed in 1969, replacing the old ten shilling note. The remaining decimal coins — at the time, the half penny (½p), penny (1p) and two pence (2p) — were issued in 1971 at decimalisation. A quarter-penny coin, to be struck in aluminium, was proposed at the time decimalisation was being planned, but was never minted.

The new coins were initially marked with the wording NEW PENNY (singular) or NEW PENCE (plural). The word "new" was dropped in 1982. The symbol "p" was adopted to distinguish the new pennies from the old, which used the symbol "d" (from the Latin denarius, a coin used in the Roman Empire).

Post 1982

In the years since decimalisation a number of changes have been made to the coinage. The twenty pence (20p) coin was introduced in 1982 to fill the gap between the 10p and 50p coins. The pound coin (£1) was introduced in 1983 to replace the Bank of England £1 banknote which was discontinued in 1984 (although the Scottish banks continued producing them for some time afterwards; the last of them, the Royal Bank of Scotland £1 note, is still in production as of early 2006). The designs on the one pound coin change annually in a largely five-year cycle.

The decimal half penny coin was demonetised in 1984 as its value was by then too small to be useful. The pre-decimal sixpence, shilling and two shilling coins, which had continued to circulate alongside the decimal coinage with values of 2½p, 5p and 10p respectively, were finally withdrawn in 1980, 1990 and 1993 respectively.

In the 1990s the Royal Mint reduced the sizes of the 5p, 10p and 50p coins. As a consequence, the oldest 5p coins in circulation date from 1990, the oldest 10p coins from 1992 and the oldest 50p coins come from 1997. Since 1997, many special commemorative designs of 50p have been issued. Some of these are found fairly frequently in circulation and some are rare. They are all legal tender.

A circulating bimetallic two pound (£2) coin was introduced in 1998 (first minted in, and dated, 1997). There had previously been unimetallic commemorative £2 coins which did not normally circulate. This tendency to use the two pound coin for commemorative issues has continued since the introduction of the bimetallic coin, and a few of the older unimetallic coins have since entered circulation.

There are also commemorative issues of crowns. Before 1990 these had a face value of twenty-five pence (25p), equivalent to the five shilling crown used in pre-decimal Britain. However, in 1990 crowns were redenominated with a face value of five pounds (£5) as the previous value was considered not sufficient for such a high-status coin. The size and weight of the coin remained exactly the same. Decimal crowns are generally not found in circulation as their market value is likely to be higher than their face value, but they remain legal tender.

2008 redesign

In 2008 UK coins underwent an extensive redesign, which changed the reverse designs (and some other minor details) of all coins bar the £2. The original intention was to exclude both the £1 and £2 coins from the redesign because they were "relatively new additions" to the coinage, but it was later decided to include the £1 coin.

A competition to find the new reverse designs was launched by the Royal Mint in August 2005, and closed on 14 November 2005. The winning designs, produced by Matthew Dent and depicting sections of the Royal Shield, were unveiled in April 2008. It was announced by the Royal Mint that the new designs, "reflecting a twenty-first century Britain", would be introduced in the late spring of 2008.

The effigy of the Queen, by Ian Rank-Broadley, continues to appear on the obverse of all the coins. The obverse of coins from 2008 will no longer feature the "beading" that traditionally borders UK coins. The obverse of the 20p coin has been amended to incorporate the year, which had been on the reverse of the coin since its introduction in 1982. The 50p coin has been "flipped" so that it points downward to fit the new reverse; the obverse of the 50p has also been flipped accordingly.

The fact that no specifically Welsh symbol (such as the Welsh dragon) appears on any of the coins caused upset when the designs were unveiled. This is because the Royal Shield does not include a specifically Welsh symbol, Wales having been a principality of the United Kingdom, called in this period just "England", at the time of the 1707 union with Scotland that formed the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Wrexham MP Ian Lucas called the omission "disappointing". The Royal Mint stated that "the Shield of the Royal Arms is symbolic of the whole of the United Kingdom and as such, represents Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland. Ironically Matthew Dent is himself Welsh.

The designs also lack a numerical representation of their value, previously present on all coins except £2 and £1, instead spelling out the coins' value in words.

An advisor to the Royal Mint described the new coins as "post-modern".

Summary of denominations

  • Half penny (½p; £0.005) 1971–1984, demonetised since then.
  • One penny (1p; £0.01), 1971–
  • Two pence (2p; £0.02), 1971–
  • Five pence (5p; £0.05), 1968–1990 (reduced to present size); 1990–
  • Ten pence (10p; £0.10), 1968–1992 (reduced to present size); 1992–
  • Twenty pence (20p; £0.20), 1982–
  • Twenty-five pence or crown (25p; £0.25), 1972–1981 (special issues, not in common circulation)
  • Fifty pence (50p; £0.50), 1969–1997 (reduced to present size); 1997–
  • One pound (£1.00), 1983–
  • Two pounds (£2.00), 1986–1997 (special issues); 1997– (general issue)
  • Five pounds or crown (£5.00), 1990– (special issues, not in common circulation)

Specifications

Denomination Diameter Thickness Mass Composition Edge Introduced
One penny 20.03 mm 1.65 mm 3.56 g Copper-plated steel (1992, previously bronze) smooth 1971
Two pence 25.90 mm 1.85 mm 7.12 g Copper-plated steel (1992, previously bronze) smooth 1971
Five pence* 18.00 mm 1.70 mm 3.25 g Cupro-nickel milled 1990
Ten pence* 24.50 mm 1.85 mm 6.50 g Cupro-nickel milled 1992
Twenty pence 21.40 mm 1.70 mm 5.00 g Cupro-nickel smooth, seven-sided 1982
Twenty-five pence 38.61 mm 2.89 mm 28.28 g Cupro-nickel 1972 (commemorative, not in general circulation)
Fifty pence* 27.30 mm 1.78 mm 8.00 g Cupro-nickel smooth, seven-sided 1997
One pound 22.50 mm 3.15 mm 9.50 g Nickel-brass milled with variable inscription or decoration 1983
Two pounds 28.40 mm 2.50 mm 12.00 g Inner: Cupro-nickel
Outer: Nickel-brass
milled with variable inscription or decoration 1997
Five pounds 38.61 mm 2.89 mm 28.28 g Cupro-nickel 1990 (commemorative, not in general circulation)

* The specifications and dates of introduction of the 5p, 10p and 50p coins refer to the current versions. These coins were originally issued in larger sizes in 1968, 1968 and 1969 respectively.

With their high copper content, the pre-1992 1p and 2p coins would be worth more if melted down than their face value (as of February 2007). To do this, however, would be illegal, and they would need to be melted in huge quantities to achieve significant gain.

UK designs

Obverse

All modern British coins feature a profile of the current monarch's head on the obverse. There has been only one monarch since decimalisation, Queen Elizabeth II, so her head appears on all decimal coins, facing to the right (see also Monarch's head, below). However, three different effigies have been used, reflecting the Queen's changing appearance as she has aged. These are the effigy by Arnold Machin until 1984, that by Raphael Maklouf between 1985 and 1997, and that by Ian Rank-Broadley since 1998.

All current coins carry a Latin inscription whose full form is ELIZABETH II DEI GRATIA REGINA FIDEI DEFENSOR, meaning "Elizabeth II, by the grace of God, Queen and Defender of the Faith". The inscription appears on the coins in any of several abbreviated forms, typically ELIZABETH II D G REG F D.

Original reverse designs

The original decimal coinage reverse designs are as follows:

  • ½p (discontinued 1984) — A crown, symbolising the monarch.
  • 1p — A crowned portcullis with chains (the badge of the Houses of Parliament).
  • 2p — The Prince of Wales's feathers: a plume of ostrich feathers within a coronet.
  • 5p — A crowned thistle, formally "The Badge of Scotland, a thistle royally crowned".
  • 10p — A crowned lion, part of the crest of England.
  • 20p — A crowned Tudor Rose, a traditional heraldic emblem of England.
  • 50p — Britannia and lion
  • £1 — Numerous different designs; see one pound section.
  • £2 — An abstract design symbolising technological development

Royal Shield reverse

The 1p, 2p, 5p, 10p, 20p and 50p coin designs post 2008 each depict a part of the Royal Shield, and form the whole shield when they are placed together in the appropriate arrangement. The Royal Shield is seen in its entirety on the £1 coin. This is the first time that one design has been split across a range of British coins.

  • The 1p coin depicts the first and third quarter of the shield, representing England and Northern Ireland
  • The 2p coin depicts the second quarter of the shield, showing the lion rampant representing Scotland
  • The 5p coin depicts the centre of the shield, showing the meeting of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland at the middle of the arms
  • The 10p coin depicts the first quarter of the shield, containing the three lions passant representing England
  • The 20p coin depicts the second and fourth quarter, representing England and Scotland
  • The 50p coin depicts the bottom of the shield where the harp and lions passant meet, representing England and Northern Ireland again
  • The £1 coin depicts the whole of the Royal Shield
  • The standard-issue £2 coin design remains unchanged

The new designs are as shown below.

£ 0.01 £ 0.02 £ 0.05

The left segment of the

Segment of the second quarter of the

The centre of the
£ 0.10 £ 0.20 £ 0.50

Segment of the first quarter of the

The right segment of the

The bottom of the
£ 1.00 £ 2.00

The Royal Shield

Design representing technological development
The edge lettering features the quotation "standing on the shoulders of giants" by Bernard of Chartres. The quote was most famously used in a letter to Robert Hooke by Sir Isaac Newton, and the engraving is in his honour.

Edge

The 1p, 2p, 20p and 50p coins have smooth edges. The 5p, 10p, £1 and £2 coins have milled edges. The milling, in combination with the non-circular shape of the 20p and 50p, serve as the primary means of identification and differentiation between coinage for blind or visually impaired people. Another reason for the milling relates to coin clipping.

The £1 coin and £2 coins have, inscribed into the milling, words or a decoration related to their face design (see one pound and two pound coin sections).

Commemorative designs

Circulating fifty pence and two pound coins have been issued with various commemorative reverse designs. (The two pound coin was previously minted in non-circulating commemorative issues.) The one pound coin "bridge" series (see one pound section) can also be considered commemorative, but these were the standard designs for their year of issue, rather than supplementing a standard-issue coin as has been the case for the 50p and £2 coins,

Three designs were issued on the large version of the 50p, in 1973 (the EEC), 1992-3 (EC presidency) and 1994 (D-Day anniversary). Designs on the smaller 50p coin have been issued in 1998 (twice) and from 2000 to 2007 yearly. The small designs commemorate various anniversaries.

Commemorative £2 coins have been regularly issued since 1999, two years after the coin's introduction, to mark the anniversaries of historical events or the births of notable people. One or two designs have been minted per year, with the exception of none in 2000, and four regional 2002 issues marking the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester. As well as a distinct reverse design, these coins have an edge inscription relevant to the subject. The anniversary themes are continuing until at least 2009, with two designs announced.

One pound coin

Up until the 2008 redesign, the reverse designs of the one pound coin have followed a five-year cycle (although no coins were circulated in 1998 or 1999). This cycle successively represents each of the four constituent countries of the United Kingdom, namely England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, with a royal design used in the year of introduction (1983) and in each subsequent fifth year.

The royal symbol has always been an ornamental royal coat of arms, with the exception of 1988, which featured a crown over a shield. For the 1984-1987 and subsequent 1989-1992 cycles, the national symbols were plants (the thistle, leek, flax and oak). For the next two cycles, 1994-1997 and 1999-2002, the symbols were the Lion Rampant, Welsh dragon, Celtic cross and the three lions. For the 2004-2007 cycle, the symbols were pictures of famous bridges in the respective countries.

The 2008 design – the whole Royal Shield – fits in with the cycle of a royal symbol being used every five years.

Many issues of the £1 coin carry one of the following edge inscriptions:

  • DECUS ET TUTAMENLatin for "An ornament and a safeguard", a phrase taken from Virgil's Aeneid, and here referring to the fact that the inscription serves both as a decorative feature and as a safeguard against the clipping of the coin's edges (this is not a modern concern, but harks back to the days when circulating coins were made of precious metals). This appears on coins with English-themed, Northern Irish-themed or general UK-themed designs.
  • PLEIDIOL WYF I'M GWLADWelsh for "True am I to my country", from the Welsh national anthem. This appears on coins with Welsh-themed designs.
  • NEMO ME IMPUNE LACESSIT — Latin for "No-one provokes me with impunity", the motto of the Order of the Thistle. This appears on coins with Scottish-themed designs.

Standard two pound coin

Since introduction, the standard reverse of the two pound coin has featured an abstract design of concentric circles, representing technological development from the Iron Age to the modern day electronic age.

The standard-issue £2 coin carries the edge inscription STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS. Some more recent issues have instead an ornamental edge design with no lettering.

The design of the £2 coin is unchanged in the 2008 redesign.

Non-UK coinage

Outside the United Kingdom, the British Crown dependencies, consisting of the Isle of Man and the Channel Island bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey, use the pound sterling as their currencies. However, they produce their own local issues of coinage, in the same denominations and to the same specifications as the UK, but with different designs. The island of Alderney also produces occasional commemorative coins. See coins of the Jersey pound, coins of the Guernsey pound, coins of the Manx pound and Alderney pound for details.

The pound sterling is also the official currency of the British overseas territories of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, British Antarctic Territory and British Indian Ocean Territory. South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands produces occasional special collectors' sets of coins.

The currencies of the British overseas territories of Gibraltar, The Falkland Islands and Saint Helena — namely the Gibraltar pound, Falkland Islands pound and Saint Helena pound — are pegged one-to-one to the pound sterling but are technically separate currencies. These territories issue their own coinage, again with the same denominations and specifications as the UK coinage but with local designs, as coins of the Gibraltar pound, coins of the Falkland Islands pound and coins of the Saint Helena pound.

The other British overseas territories do not use the pound as their official currency.

Non-circulating coins

25p and £5 coins

Although these coins are in practice very rarely found in circulation, they are for convenience described with the circulating coins, above.

Maundy money

Maundy money is a ceremonial coinage traditionally given to the poor, and nowadays awarded annually to deserving senior citizens. There are Maundy coins in denominations of one, two, three and four pence. They bear dates from 1822 to the present and are minted in very small quantities. Though they are legal tender in the UK, they are never encountered in circulation. The pre-decimal Maundy pieces have the same legal tender status and value as post-decimal ones, and effectively increased in face value by 140% upon decimalisation. Their numismatic value is much greater.

Bullion coinage

The traditional bullion coin issued by Britain is the gold sovereign, formerly a circulating coin with a face value of one pound. The Royal Mint continues to produce gold sovereigns and half sovereigns, with 2008 list prices of, respectively, £215 and £110.

Since 1987 a series of bullion coins, the Britannia, has been issued, containing one troy ounce, half ounce, quarter ounce, and one-tenth ounce of fine gold at a millesimal fineness of 917 (22 carat) and with face values of £100, £50, £25, and £10.

Since 1997 silver bullion coins have also been produced under the name “Britannias”. The alloy used is Britannia silver (millesimal fineness 958). The silver coins are available in 1 ounce, ounce, ounce, and ounce sizes.

The Royal Mint also issues silver, gold and platinum proof sets of the circulating coins, as well as gift products such as gold coins set into jewellery.

Pre-decimal coinage

For further information about the history of pre-decimal coinage, see Pound sterling. See also Decimal Day.

System

Before decimalisation in 1971, the pound was divided into 240 pence rather than 100, though it was rarely expressed in this way. Rather it was expressed in terms of pounds, shillings and pence, where:

  • £1 = 20 shillings (20s).
  • 1 shilling = 12 pence (12d).

Thus: £1 = 240 pence. The penny was further subdivided at various times, though these divisions vanished as inflation made them irrelevant:

  • 1 penny = 2 halfpennies and (earlier) 4 farthings (half-farthing, third-farthing, and quarter-farthing coins were actually minted in the late 1800s, but circulated only in certain British colonies and not in the UK itself).

Using the example of five shillings and sixpence, the standard ways of writing shillings and pence were:

  • 5s 6d
  • 5/6 (see below for the / mark)
  • 5/- for 5 shillings only, with the dash to stand for zero pennies.

The sum of 5/6 would be spoken as "five shillings and sixpence" or "five and six".

The abbreviation for the old penny, d, was derived from the Roman denarius, and the abbreviation for the shilling, s, from the Roman solidus. The shilling was also denoted by the slash symbol, also called a solidus for this reason. The symbol "£", for the pound itself, is derived from the first letter of the Latin word for pound, libra.

A similar pre-decimal system operated in France, also based on the Roman currency, consisting of the livre (L) sol (s) and denier (d). Until 1816 the same system was used in the Netherlands, consisting of the gulden (f) stuiver and duit.

Denominations

For an extensive list of historical pre-decimal coin denominations, see List of British bank notes and coins.

In the years just prior to decimalisation, the circulating British coins were:

The farthing (¼d) had been withdrawn in 1960. The crown (5/-) was issued periodically as a commemorative coin but was rarely found in circulation.

The crown, half crown, shilling and sixpence were cupro-nickel coins (in historical times silver or silver alloy); the penny, halfpenny and farthing were bronze; and the threepence was a twelve-sided nickel-brass coin (historically it was a small silver coin).

Some of the pre-decimalisation coins with exact decimal equivalent values continued in use after 1971 alongside the new coins, albeit with new names, (the shilling became equivalent to the 5p coin, with the florin equating to 10p). The others were withdrawn almost immediately. The use of florins and shillings as legal tender in this way ended in 1990 when the 5p and 10p coins were replaced with smaller versions. Indeed, while pre-decimalisation shillings were used as 5p coins, for a while after decimalisation many people continued to call the new 5p coin a shilling, since it remained 1/20 of a pound, but was now worth 5p instead of 12d. The pre-decimalisation sixpence, also known as a sixpenny bit or sixpenny piece, was rated at 2½p but was demonetised in 1980.

Slang

Some pre-decimalisation coins or denominations became commonly known by colloquial and slang terms, perhaps the most well known being bob for a shilling, and quid for a pound. A farthing was a mag, a silver threepence was a joey and the later nickel-brass threepence was called a threepenny bit (pronounced /θrʌpni/, /θrʊpni/ or /θrɛpni/ bit); a sixpence was a tanner , the two-shilling coin or florin was a two-bob bit, and the two shillings and sixpence coin or half-crown was a half dollar. Quid remains as popular slang for one or more pounds to this day in Britain in the form "a quid" and then "two quid", and so on. Similarly, in some parts of the country, bob continued to represent one-twentieth of a pound, that is five new pence, and two bob is 10p.

History

Manufacture

The history of the Royal Mint stretches back over 1100 years. For many centuries production took place in London, initially at the Tower of London, and then at premises nearby in Tower Hill. In the 1970s production was transferred to Llantrisant in South Wales. Historically Scotland and England had separate coinage; the last Scottish coins were struck in 1709 shortly after union with England.

Coins were originally hand-hammered. The first milled (that is, machine-made) coins were produced during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603) and periodically during the subsequent reigns of James I and Charles I, but there was initially opposition to mechanisation from the moneyers who ensured that most coins continued to be produced by hammering. All British coins produced since 1662 have been milled.

Silver content

From the time of Charlemagne until the 12th century, the silver currency of England was made from the highest purity silver available. Unfortunately there were drawbacks to minting currency of fine silver, notably the level of wear it suffered, and the ease with which coins could be "clipped", or trimmed, by those dealing in the currency.

In the 12th century a new standard for English coinage was established by Henry II — the Sterling Silver standard of 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper. This was a harder-wearing alloy, yet it was still a rather high grade of silver. It went some way towards discouraging the practice of "clipping", though this practice was further discouraged and largely eliminated with the introduction of the milled edge we see on coins today.

The coinage reform of 1816 set up a weight/value ratio and physical sizes for silver coins.

In 1920, the silver content of all British coins was reduced from 92.5% to 50%, with a portion of the remainder consisting of manganese, which caused the coins to tarnish to a very dark colour after they had been in circulation for a significant period. Silver was eliminated altogether in 1947, except for Maundy coinage, which returned to the pre-1920 92.5% silver composition.

The 1816 weight/value ratio and size system survived the debasement of silver in 1920, and the adoption of token coins of cupro-nickel in 1947. It even persisted after decimalisation for those coins which had equivalents and continued to be minted with their values in new pence. The UK finally abandoned it in the 1990s when smaller, more convenient, "silver" coins were introduced.

Origins of the penny

The English penny first appeared in Anglo-Saxon times, as a silver coin. It was derived from another silver coin, the sceat, of 20 troy grains weight, which was in general circulation in Europe during the Middle Ages. The weight of the English penny was fixed at 22.5 troy grains (about 1.46 grams) by Offa of Mercia, an 8th century contemporary of Charlemagne. The coin's designated value, however, was that of 24 troy grains of silver (one pennyweight, or of a troy pound, or about 1.56 grams), with the difference being a premium attached by virtue of the minting into coins. Thus 240 pennyweights made one troy pound of silver in weight, and the monetary value of 240 pennies also became known as a "pound". (240 actual pennies, however, weighed only 5400 troy grains, known as tower pound, a unit used only by mints. The tower pound was abolished in the 16th century.) The silver penny remained the primary unit of coinage for about 500 years.

The purity of 92.5% silver (i.e., sterling silver) was instituted by Henry II in 1158 with the "Tealby Penny"—a hammered coin.

Over the years the penny was gradually debased until by the 16th century it contained about a third the silver content of a proper troy 24 grain pennyweight.

The medieval penny would have been the equivalent of around 1s 6d in value in 1915. British government sources suggest that prices have risen over 61-fold since 1914, so a medieval sterling silver penny might have the equivalent purchasing power of around £4.50 today, and a farthing (a quarter penny) would have the value of slightly more than today's pound (about £1.125).

Monarch's head

All coins since the 1600s have featured a profile of the current monarch's head. The direction in which they face changes with each successive monarch, a pattern that began with the Stuarts, as shown in the table below:

Facing left Facing right
James I 1603–1625 Charles I 1625–1649
Cromwell 1653–1658 Charles II 1660–1685
James II 1685–1688 William and Mary 1689–1694
William III 1694–1702
Anne 1702–1714 George I 1714–1727
George II 1727–1760 George III 1760–1820
George IV 1820–1830 William IV 1830–1837
Victoria 1837–1901 Edward VII 1901–1910
George V 1910–1936
Edward VIII 1936
(uncirculated issues)
George VI 1936–1952 Elizabeth II 1952–

For the Tudors and pre-Restoration Stuarts, both left and right-facing portrait images were minted within the reign of a single monarch (left-facing images were more common). Medieval portrait images tended to be full face.

There was a small quirk in this alternating pattern when Edward VIII ascended to the throne. George V coins had him facing the left, as did Edward VIII, his successor. This was because Edward thought that to be his best side, breaking with tradition (many saw this as portent of a bad reign). However, none of these coins were put into general circulation before Edward abdicated. When George VI came to the throne, he had his coins struck with him facing the left, as if Edward's coins had faced the right (as they should have done in theory). This means that in a timeline of coins used in Britain, George V and VI's coins face to the left, despite the fact they follow directly chronologically.

Titles

From a very early date, British coins have been inscribed with the name of the ruler of the kingdom in which they were produced, and a longer or shorter title, always in Latin; among the earliest distinctive English coins are the silver pennies of Offa of Mercia, which were inscribed with the legend OFFA REX "King Offa". As the legends became longer, words in the inscriptions were often abbreviated so that they could fit on the coin; identical legends have often been abbreviated in different ways depending upon the size and decoration of the coin. Inscriptions which go around the edge of the coin generally have started at the center of the top edge and proceeded in a clockwise direction. A very lengthy legend would be continued on the reverse side of the coin.

More recent legends include the following, in unabbreviated form:

  • HENRICUS VII DEI GRATIA REX ANGLIAE & FRANCIAE "Henry VII by the grace of God, King of England and France". France had been claimed by the English continuously since 1369.
  • HENRICUS VIII DEI GRATIA REX ANGLIAE & FRANCIAE "Henry VIII by the grace of God, King of England and France". The Arabic numeral 8 was also used instead of the Roman VIII.
  • HENRICUS VIII DEI GRATIA ANGLIAE FRANCIAE & HIBERNIAE REX "Henry VIII by the grace of God, Of England, France and Ireland, King". Henry VIII made Ireland a kingdom in 1541. The Arabic numeral 8 was also used instead of the Roman VIII.
  • PHILIPPUS ET MARIA DEI GRATIA REX & REGINA "Philip and Mary by the grace of God, King and Queen". The names of the realms were omitted from the coin for reasons of space.
  • ELIZABETH DEI GRATIA ANGLIAE FRANCIAE ET HIBERNIAE REGINA "Elizabeth, by the grace of God, of England, France, and Ireland, Queen".
  • IACOBUS DEI GRATIA MAGNAE BRITANNIAE FRANCIAE ET HIBERNIAE REX "James, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King". James, King of Scotland, by succeeding to the English throne united the two kingdoms in his person; he dubbed the combination of the two kingdoms "Great Britain" (the name of the whole island) though they remained legislatively distinct for more than a century afterwards.
  • CAROLUS DEI GRATIA MAGNAE BRITANNIAE FRANCIAE ET HIBERNIAE REX "Charles, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King".
  • OLIVARIUS DEI GRATIA REIPUBLICAE ANGLIAE SCOTIAE HIBERNIAE & CETERORUM PROTECTOR "Oliver, by the grace of God, of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland etc., Protector". Cromwell ruled as a monarch but did not claim the title of king.
  • CAROLUS II DEI GRATIA MAGNAE BRITANNIAE FRANCIAE ET HIBERNIAE REX "Charles II, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King".
  • IACOBUS II DEI GRATIA MAGNAE BRITANNIAE FRANCIAE ET HIBERNIAE REX "James II, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King".
  • GULIELMUS ET MARIA DEI GRATIA MAGNAE BRITANNIAE FRANCIAE ET HIBERNIAE REX ET REGINA "William and Mary by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King and Queen". The spouses William and Mary ruled jointly.
  • GULIELMUS III DEI GRATIA MAGNAE BRITANNIAE FRANCIAE ET HIBERNIAE REX "William III by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King". William continued to rule alone after his wife's death.
  • ANNA DEI GRATIA MAGNAE BRITANNIAE FRANCIAE ET HIBERNIAE REGINA "Anne by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, Queen".
  • GEORGIUS DEI GRATIA MAGNAE BRITANNIAE FRANCIAE ET HIBERNIAE REX FIDEI DEFENSOR BRUNSVICENSIS ET LUNEBURGENSIS DUX SACRI ROMANI IMPERII ARCHITHESAURARIUS ET ELECTOR "George by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, of Brunswick and Lüneburg Duke, of the Holy Roman Empire Archtreasurer and Elector." George I added the titles he already possessed as Elector of Hanover. He also added the title "Defender of the Faith", which had been borne by the English kings since Henry VIII, but which had previously only rarely appeared on coins.
  • GEORGIUS II DEI GRATIA MAGNAE BRITANNIAE FRANCIAE ET HIBERNIAE REX FIDEI DEFENSOR BRUNSVICENSIS ET LUNEBURGENSIS DUX SACRI ROMANI IMPERII ARCHITHESAURARIUS ET ELECTOR "George II by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, of Brunswick and Lüneburg Duke, of the Holy Roman Empire Archtreasurer and Elector."
  • GEORGIUS III DEI GRATIA MAGNAE BRITANNIAE FRANCIAE ET HIBERNIAE REX FIDEI DEFENSOR BRUNSVICENSIS ET LUNEBURGENSIS DUX SACRI ROMANI IMPERII ARCHITHESAURARIUS ET ELECTOR "George III by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland King, Defender of the Faith, of Brunswick and Lüneburg Duke, of the Holy Roman Empire Archtreasurer and Elector."
  • GEORGIUS III DEI GRATIA BRITANNIARUM REX FIDEI DEFENSOR "George III, by the grace of God, of the Britains King, Defender of the Faith." By the Act of Union 1801, Ireland was united with Great Britain into a single kingdom, which is represented on the coinage by the genitive of the Latin Britanniae "Britains" (often abbreviated BRITT), signifying "The United Kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland". At the same time the United Kingdom abandoned the traditional claim to France, and the other titles were dropped from the coinage.
  • GEORGIUS IIII (IV) DEI GRATIA BRITANNIARUM REX FIDEI DEFENSOR "George IV, by the grace of God, of the Britains King, Defender of the Faith." The Roman numeral "4" is represented by both IIII and IV in different issues.
  • GULIELMUS IIII DEI GRATIA BRITANNIARUM REX FIDEI DEFENSOR "William IV, by the grace of God, of the Britains King, Defender of the Faith."
  • VICTORIA DEI GRATIA BRITANNIARUM REGINA FIDEI DEFENSOR "Victoria, by the grace of God, of the Britains Queen, Defender of the Faith."
  • VICTORIA DEI GRATIA BRITANNIARUM REGINA FIDEI DEFENSOR INDIAE IMPERATRIX "Victoria, by the grace of God, of the Britains Queen, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India." Queen Victoria was granted the title "Empress of India" in 1876.
  • EDWARDUS VII DEI GRATIA BRITANNIARUM OMNIUM REX FIDEI DEFENSOR INDIAE IMPERATOR "Edward VII, by the grace of God, of all the Britains King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India." Edward VII's coins added OMNIUM "all" after "Britains" to imply a rule over the British overseas colonies as well as the United Kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
  • GEORGIUS V DEI GRATIA BRITANNIARUM OMNIUM REX FIDEI DEFENSOR INDIAE IMPERATOR "George V, by the grace of God, of all the Britains King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India."
  • GEORGIUS VI DEI GRATIA BRITANNIARUM OMNIUM REX FIDEI DEFENSOR INDIAE IMPERATOR "George VI, by the grace of God, of all the Britains King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India."
  • GEORGIUS VI DEI GRATIA BRITANNIARUM OMNIUM REX FIDEI DEFENSOR "George VI, by the grace of God, of all the Britains King, Defender of the Faith." The title "Emperor of India" was abandoned in 1948, after the independence of India and Pakistan.
  • ELIZABETH II DEI GRATIA BRITANNIARUM OMNIUM REGINA FIDEI DEFENSOR "Elizabeth II, by the grace of God, of all the Britains Queen, Defender of the Faith."
  • ELIZABETH II DEI GRATIA REGINA FIDEI DEFENSOR "Elizabeth II, by the grace of God, Queen, Defender of the Faith." The "of all the Britains" was dropped from the coinage in 1954, and current coins do not name any realm.

Mottos

In addition to the title, a Latin or French motto might be included, generally on the reverse side of the coin. These varied between denomiations and issues; some were personal to the monarch, others were more general. Some of the mottos were:

  • POSUI DEUM ADIUTOREM MEUM "I have made God my helper". Coins of Henry VII, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I. Possibly refers to Psalms 52:7, Ecce homo qui non posuit Deum adjutorem suum "Behold the man who did not make God his helper".
  • POSUIMUS DEUM ADIUTOREM NOSTRUM "We have made God our helper". Coins of Philip and Mary. The same as above, but with a plural subject.
  • FACIAM EOS IN GENTEM UNAM "I shall make them into one nation". Coins of James I, signifying his desire to unite the English and Scottish nations. Refers to Ezekiel 37:2 in the Vulgate Bible.
  • CHRISTO AUSPICE REGNO "I reign with Christ as my protector". Coins of Charles I.
  • EXURGAT DEUS DISSIPENTUR INIMICI "May God rise up, may [his] enemies be scattered". Coins of Charles I, during the Civil War. Refers to Psalms 67:1 in the Vulgate Bible.
  • PAX QUAERITUR BELLO "Peace is sought by war". Coins of the Protectorate; personal motto of Oliver Cromwell.
  • BRITANNIA "Britain". Reign of Charles II to George III. Found on pennies and smaller denominations.
  • HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE. "Shamed be he who thinks ill of it." Sovereigns of George III. Motto of the Order of the Garter.

See also

References

External links

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