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English Penny part 3

The Tudors (1485-1603)

Henry Tudor, who reigned as King Henry VII between 1485 and 1509, had a rather tenuous claim on the throne, being the Lancastrian claimant via an illegitimate descendant of Edward III when all the more senior candidates had been killed off in the Wars of the Roses. He brought the wars to a conclusion by marrying Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV. A ruthless man, he subsequently arranged for most of his rival claimants to the throne to be executed on various pretexts. The whole style of Henry's coinage marked a break with what had gone before -- the king's bust becomes much more lifelike, and the shields on the reverse become much more detailed. Henry's first coinage is very like that of Henry V and VI, minted at London, Canterbury, Durham and York the inscription is one of a variety of HENRIC DI GRA REX ANG. Soon, however, Henry introduced what is known as the Sovereign coinage, so-called because the king is depicted seated on a throne, while the reverse shows the royal shield over a cross. This issue is regarded as marking the division between the coins of the Middle Ages and of the Renaissance in England. The Sovereign coinage was minted at London, Durham, and York, and inscribed with one of a variety of HENRICUS DI GRA REX ANG.

Henry VIII (1509-1547) is one of England's more interesting monarchs, not just for having married six times, but numismatically too. Henry's first coinage, to 1526, resembled that of his father and still used his father's portrait. With higher bullion prices on the continent, the weight of the silver coins was reduced again. Pennies were minted at the London, Canterbury, and Durham mints. With the reformation starting in the 1530s, the principal effect as far as the coinage was concerned was the closure of the ecclesiastical mints of Canterbury, Durham and York -- in future all mints would be Royal mints, under the control of the crown who would consequently get all the revenue. The second coinage, of 1526-1544 had a completely different inscription H.D.G. ROSA SIE SPIA - Henry by the grace of God a rose without a thorn. The coins were minted at London, and the Canterbury, Durham and York ecclesiastical mints. The Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s and the creation of the state-controlled Church of England resulted in a huge financial bonus for the king, but by 1544 Henry was running short of money, thanks partially to his own extravagant lifestyle and expenditure. Henry's solution was to drastically lower the fineness of the third coinage (1544-47) to only one-third silver and two-thirds copper. This was understandably not popular with the people, and it resulted in Henry acquiring the nickname "Old Coppernose" as the silver rubbed off the high-relief part of the coin design. By this time there were two mints in London, at the Tower and in Southwark, and both of them, together with mints in Bristol, Canterbury and York produced the debased coinage which bore the inscription H.D.G. ROSA SINE SPINA.

The debased coinage caused rampant inflation, so when Henry died in 1547 he left behind a country with a sickly nine-year-old king, religious turmoil, and economic unrest. Moreover the influx of silver and gold from Central and South America into Spain and thus to the rest of Europe was destabilising the price of bullion and making the situation worse.

Until 1551 what is known as the posthumous coinage was produced -- these were coins which were exactly the same as Henry's last issue, but with a different portrait of him. Inflation over the last thirty years had made the penny much less important, and in fact for the next few reigns the most common coins would be shillings, sixpences, and groats. The reign of Edward VI though short (1547-1553) was numismatically important for seeing the introduction of new denominations -- the silver Crown, Halfcrown, Shilling, Sixpence, and Threepence -- which were to survive until 1971, and which were a reflection of the increasing wealth of the country. The new coins were struck in good silver, with the aim of revitalising the economy. Edward VI's pennies however, were still struck in debased metal (except for one, possibly unique, coin) at the Tower, Southwark, Bristol and York, with the inscription E.D.G. ROSA SINE SPINA.

In 1553 Edward died and was succeeded after the nine-day rule of Lady Jane Grey by his older sister, the strongly Catholic Queen Mary. Pennies of her first year, bearing her head alone with the inscription M.D.G. ROSA SINE SPINA are quite rare. In 1554 she married Philip, the Prince of Spain, and put his portrait on the coinage as well as her own. Both fine silver and base metal pennies of this reign were issued from the Tower mint, with the legend P Z M D G ROSA SINE SPINA - Philip and Mary by the grace of God a rose without a thorn.

When Elizabeth I ascended the throne in 1558, England was an impoverished country, in religious turmoil, and with a coinage which was in a poor state after Henry VIII's debasement, since when little had been done to improve either the quantity or quality of the coins in circulation. The coinage system as a whole urgently needed reform, and Elizabeth boldly set about doing this. Throughout her reign large quantities of gold and silver coins of many denominations were produced (the gold and silver often being obtained by raiding Spanish shipping); of the silver denominations produced the shilling and sixpence were most important, but small denomination coins -- groats, threepences, half-groats, three-halfpence, pennies, three-farthings, and halfpennies -- were also struck and were very popular with merchants and small traders. For the first time in England milled, or machine-produced, coins were produced by Eloye Mestrell, an ex-employee of the Paris mint, between 1560 and 1572, but while the milled issue was fairly successful there was animosity towards Mestrell by other employees of the Tower mint who feared for their jobs, which ultimately led to his dismissal. No milled pennies were produced, as they would probably have been too small to be mechanically produced by the equipment of the time. Also for the first time some of Elizabeth's coins were dated.

Elizabethan pennies are very small, and are often found creased or bent. The obverse bears the legend E D G ROSA SINE SPINA around a left-facing bust of the queen, while the reverse bears the legend CIVITAS LONDON. All pennies were minted at the Tower mint, in London.

Previous chapter:
The Plantagenets
Penny Next chapter:
The Stuarts and the Commonwealth

For other denominations, see British coinage.

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