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The Lost Colony Research Group

Genealogy ~ DNA ~ Archaeology



December 2011


Early Coinage of England

By Roberta Estes and Andy Powell


One night I was sitting and chatting with Andy Powell while we were visiting Hatteras Island during one of our archaeology digs, and we were discussing the trivia piece of information that if you died outside of England during the timeframe where we are looking for colonist records (late 1500s, early 1600s), your estate would have to be filed in the Canterbury or York Prerogative Court....BUT...your estate had to be worth more than 5 pounds if you lived outside London, and 10 pounds if you lived in the city.  Then Andy added that houses were not considered an asset, but land was.  I thought to myself, that's much like Michigan in our economy today.


I wondered to myself though, how much, exactly, was 5 pounds at that time, and what was it worth?  What could it purchase?


Andy replied, it’s difficult to be sure of what £5 would buy in Tudor times, but we know that a tradesman (say a Carpenter or Painter) would earn no more than about £12 a year, whereas a Gentleman (John White for example) could earn around £3000, and Lords such as Sir Richard Grenville, considerably more, in addition to the income they would also receive for serviced rendered to the Crown, (which often could include entire estates of 10,000 acres or more.)


Then Andy and I began to discuss the imperial coinage system, and I thought I'd share this with you.  As an American, I certainly was not aware of a lot of this information. 

In Tudor times there were no such thing as Pound Notes (or Dollar Bills!); only coins.


These coins were always minted in gold or silver with varying degrees of other alloys added more or less proportional to their value. (Even as late as the Victorian Era (1837-1901) a Sixpence was usually made of solid silver.) Here then is a potted history of the English Coinage system.

A Farthing (corruption of its original term a ‘Fourthing’) ~ 4 Farthings or Fourthings = one penny. The farthing was first introduced in 13th century and finally became obsolete in 1960.


Half-Penny (often corrupted to ha’penny) ~ 2 halfpennies = one penny. It had a similar history to the Farthing but lasted until decimalization in 1971.


Penny ~ 240 pennies make One Pound Sterling. The venerable penny was first minted by the Anglo-Saxons in about 700AD and disappeared with decimalization. It is remembered with fondness by most of those who can remember using them. Children were often given them for running small errands. A penny could once buy a handful of sweets. (Andy remembers getting eight ‘Black-Jacks’ or ‘Fruit Salads’ for his!). The term ‘Spending a Penny’ was also a popular English term which came into being when the first municipal or public toilets (Washrooms) opened; because to use these, one would have to place a penny in the slot on the door!.... hence ‘spending a penny’ meant going to the toilet!

Half-Groat - worth two pennies ~ A 13th century coin which was last used in the 18th century.


3 pennies – threepence (usually pronounced  ‘Throopence’) ~ A coin of fascination and having a fascinating if chequered history! It was first minted by Edward VI in 1550 but it proved unpopular and was not accepted by Queen Mary. Queen Elizabeth reintroduced it in about 1570 but it fell out of use again when James I came to the throne. It was finally resurrected by Charles I in about 1640, but was only found in circulation in some parts of the country. (These provincial coins are highly sought after today). Even as late as 1825, it was still only generally being issued as ‘Maundy Money’ ~ a ceremonial currency issued by the sovereign to poor people once a year. (Today Queen Elizabeth II still does this.) Up until George V this coin was made of silver and round in shape. With Edward VIII (1936) the coin was radically changed to become a 12 sided bronze coin. As one can imagine, coins of Edward VIII are extremely rare due to his abdication! The ‘throopenny bit’ as most people called it was finally accepted in its new form and remained popular until its demise with decimalization.

4 pennies - a groat ~ a 13th century coin last minted in 1856 and obsolete by 1880.

6 pennies - Sixpence (also known colloquially as a ‘Tanner’) ~ First made in 1550 and survived officially until decimalization in 1971. However, following decimalization it was realized that under the new system it was worth precisely two and a half new pence and for that reason it curiously remained in accepted use until finally banned by the government in 1980! Traditionally a Silver sixpence would be placed in a significant birthday or Wedding Cake as a symbol of good luck to whoever found it in their slice!

12 pennies ~ a shilling ~ 20 shillings make a Pound. Originally represented the value of a cow or sheep to the Anglo-Saxons! It along with the 2 shillings was the first coin to be decimalized in 1968.


2 shillings - a florin ~ Florin was an Italian word adopted when England first made this coin in the 13th century when in its original form it was originally worth six shillings. Probably the first ever recorded case of Devaluation!


2 shillings and 6 pence ~ a half crown - usually expressed as 2/6d or referred to as ‘half a crown’.


File:Henry VIII Crown 756826.jpg5 shillings - a crown ~ originally made of solid gold when first minted in 1550. Not often seen in circulation as it was only usually struck in small numbers. It is unique in English coinage as being the only coin to have been legal tender with someone else’s head on it during the time of a reigning Monarch. (It was minted in 1966 to celebrate Sir Winston Churchill.)

C:\Users\restes\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows\Temporary Internet Files\Content.Word\10-shillings.jpg


10 shillings - a ten bob note - the lowest value paper monetary item. Obsolete with the advent of Decimalization.  Somehow it is both ironic and fitting that Charles Darwin is on the back of this note.




One Pound = 240 pennies, or 20 shillings. These Bank notes could originally be issued by any English Bank (they more or less started out as I.O.U.’s to cover the shortage of gold caused by the Napoleonic Wars). Today as in most currencies, there are 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100 pound denominations. Interestingly, a one pound note is still issued by Scotland where it is legal tender but it is not legal tender in England, despite our countries sharing all the other coins!

21 shillings - 1 guinea ~ a pure gold coin. Only issued between 1663 and 1813. Highly sought after; originally used only by the wealthiest individuals. Today there continue to be items sold in Guineas (e.g. Horses for Horse-racing) but the buyer pays in standard currency equivalent.


The above values were the original valuations.  If you want to see the size of the coins and particular specifications, take a look at this website that focuses on pre-decimal British coins:

In 1971 the English monetary system was decimalized.  Many of the old coins became obsolete with only the Shilling (5p), Florin (10p), Ten shilling note (now the 50p coin, at right), and the Pound Note (now a One Pound coin, at left) remaining in some form today.


Andy states that, officially, decimalization was sold to the British Nation as a necessary evil to bring us into line with our perceived trading partners in Europe (the much despised ‘European Union’); but everyone acknowledged it presented an opportunity to devalue our currency so as to make us more competitive in the world economy.


Essentially whereas the English family once got 240 pennies for their pound, following decimalization they only got 100 pennies. This change also presented some huge opportunities for companies and retailers to increase their prices because under the new scheme (for example), a New (decimal) two-pence piece was worth between three and four old pence; thus, retailers without exception, valued the new coin at the lower rate, effectively devaluing the money in the English pocket still further. Of the new coinage, the New Half-pence (equivalent to approximately one old penny) was phased out after only ten years in use as it cost more to produce than it was worth! Decimalization is still considered by many to have been one of the most fraudulent activities enacted by any English Government.


On a brighter note, Andy concludes by saying that you will find may of the older English generation (over 50’s) still refer to some of the new coins by their old equivalent, e.g. a five new pence is often still referred to as a Shilling.


But while on the subject of coinage, perhaps we should not forget the English Dollar…..


Not so long ago, the American Dollar was worth about ten shillings or fifty new pence in English money; you got (and some still measure the state of the British economy by it); two American Dollars to the English Pound.


So, if you’re ever in England and someone asks you for a Dollar, don’t get one of those strange green things out (Andy’s comment!), remember that the Englishman is asking you for fifty pence or ten shillings J


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