Into Battle Naked
The catalyst for this piece was a comment in an old 1924 newspaper by art critic John Ruskin on the old type of sovereign. I wonder if, in the eyes of some people, the coin was made to look comic through lack of knowledge or skill of the designer? St. George is shown fighting the dragon with a sword the size of a carving knife, his feet bare, and wearing a helmet. Seriously, would you go in to battle like this?
“As a design how brightly comic it is! The horse looking abstractedly into the air, instead of where precisely it would have looked, at the beast between its legs: St George, with nothing but his helmet on (being the last piece of armour he is likely to want), putting his naked feet, at least his feet showing their toes through the *buskins, well forward, that the dragon may with the greatest convenience get a bite at them; and about to deliver a mortal blow at him with a sword which cannot reach him by a couple of yards, or, I think, in George III’s piece, with a field-marshal’s truncheon.”John Ruskin – *A buskin is a calf-high boot of leather.
Ruskin was talking about the George III sovereign, struck from 1817-1820. They were the very first modern sovereigns. The design has been used on most sovereigns ever since.
The Cromwell and Commonwealth of England Coinage issued between 1649 and 1660 is sometimes referred to as ‘breeches money’. This type of late hammered coinage was minted in England after a period of Civil War, which culminated in the execution of King Charles I in London in 1649. Hammered coins of this period didn’t bear a portrait of the King or Queen; there wasn’t one.
The standard design used on all coins from 1649 to 1660, consisted of an obverse showing the shield of St. George within a wreath and the legend THE COMMONWEALTH OF ENGLAND, and reverse with date, value mark, and the legend GOD WITH VS with two shields, that of St George and that of Ireland.
The numerals over the shields designated the value whose arrangement and appearance was the subject of much ridicule, and acquired for the coin the nickname of the breeches money. For me to see a pair of *keks takes a leap in my fertile imagination and I still don’t see it! Do you? *Northern English for trousers.
I think that this was the first time an English inscription had appeared on a coin.
Kiss Me Mary
When Queen Mary was married to Philip of Spain she had a set of coins struck on which the Spanish king is depicted face to face with his English bride as if about to kiss her. This was rather unusual.
“Still amorous, and fond, and billing, Like Philip and Mary on a shilling” In 1555 the poet Samuel Butler made reference to coins struck that year in Hudibras, his satirical work about Roundheads, Puritans, Presbyterians and many of the other factions involved in the English Civil War. He was making fun at Mary and Philip being face to face, and not cheek by jowl, the usual way.
The Devil’s in the Detail
King William III (William of Orange 1650-1702), was informally and affectionately known by sections of the population in Northern Ireland as ‘King Billy’. He was also known as William the Conqueror and William the Bastard and depicted on coins with a beautifully coiffured and luxurious hairstyle … or was it a wig? But with constant wear all that changed.
It’s ironic to read (on the BBC History website, for example) that he was brought up to believe that he was ‘an instrument of God’. If you look carefully at the rather worn shilling on the right, a transformation has taken place. The two uppermost leaves of the wreath binding his head have turned into what look like Lucifer’s horns! A remarkable transformation!
The Barter Economy
Most readers of this blog will think of money in a certain way, but we must remember that money is defined by what it does, not by what is. Detectorists recognise pound coins and £10 notes as money, simply because we use them to buy goods and services, but it could be anything else. Do you know why Americans call dollars ‘bucks’? The term is a diminutive of ‘buckskins’, which once served as money on the American frontier.
Jevons in his book Money and the Medium of Exchange, Appleton 1875, tells a delightful story about the barter system: A well-known French singer was on a world tour in the 19th century and visited the Society Islands near Tahiti. She agreed to give a concert in return for one third of the takings from tickets.
He reports, “When counted, her share was found to consist of three pigs, 23 turkeys, 44 chickens, 5,000 cocoa nuts, besides considerable quantities of bananas, lemons and oranges.” I understand from a snippet in the Australian World News that before leaving the islands she found it necessary to feed the pigs and poultry with the fruit, as she couldn’t consume all the receipts.
There was also a snippet telling readers that hand-made nails were once used as currency on many Scottish villages, which went on to say: “This is probably the origin of the saying ‘hard as nails’. Several ancient writers allude to the extensive use of iron for coinage in the form of large nails or spikes, but not a single specimen is known to exist.” Unless, of course, PullTabPete finds a pair in Perth.
Unusual Threepenny Bit
The coins above reminded me of the time I did an electrical apprenticeship. In the early days of training, one of the basic tasks was to make a perfect square out of a piece of round bar using only a file and a Vernier gauge – that’s a device for making precise measurements.
The coins found by detectorist Malcolm Potter intrigue me. The threepenny bit has been carefully milled (I think) so that the sixpence ( tanner ) fits neatly inside. Why should anyone do this? Was it just an exercise like the one I describe above … or something else? Perhaps I’ve missed the obvious here and welcome other suggestions you may have. Have you found anything similar?
Magna Carter Blunder?
At the beginning of 2015, the Royal Mint produced a £2 commemorative coin marking one of the most important moments in British history. And what a fuss it caused! Historians slated the coin for its historical inaccuracy; the rest of the world carried on with business as usual.
The ‘experts’ said that showing the king holding the parchment charter in one hand and a quill in the other was a ‘schoolboy error’. Historian Dr Marc Morris said King John didn’t sign Magna Carta, but would have used a wax seal to endorse and authenticate documents. He said, “all that the pen in John’s hand symbolises is ignorance of this basic fact.”
The Royal Mint defended the coin, saying it was intended to be ‘symbolic’ and not a ‘literal account of what actually occurred’. A spokesman added: “The design is in fact inspired by King John’s royal seal.” The coin remained on sale for £10 on the Royal Mint website, with a footnote saying, ‘the image used on this coin packaging is a well-known visual representation of historical events from the time, and not factual depiction. “The Royal Mint understand that the Magna Carta was in fact witnessed and sealed by King John and not physically signed.
Money, Banking, and Financial Markets, Laurence M Bell.
Money and the Medium of Exchange, Appleton 1875; Daily Mail Brisbane Daily Standard 1934; The London Globe Letterbox: Samuel Butler’s Hudibras; TROVE: National Library of Australia; Detectorist Malcolm Potter; Searcher Magazine; Martin Lewis of MSM; UKDFD.