Toggle menu

Mint condition - coins from our collection

Some research into banks in Georgian Guildford got me thinking about the importance of money to the town. Two periods are particularly interesting, separated by 600 years or so. I will cover the first of these here, looking at coins and the Guildford mint.

Iron Age gold coin

Money in some form has been with us for many years, originating as trade became more established and a system of barter no longer worked.

It is difficult to pin down a time when coins were introduced as other objects with a recognized value were used as currency. This is still the case in some parts of the world.  Coins as we would recognise them now were probably first seen in China around 1,000 BCE (Before the Common Era) sometimes using base metal. This shows a trust in the issuer of the coins rather than the intrinsic value of the coin. Most other areas used precious metals - typically gold or silver - until relatively recently.

We think coins were first used in this country from the later Iron Age, perhaps middle of the second century BCE. They are often Celtic in origin, many minted in Gaul (roughly modern-day France and its eastern neighbours). Coins were produced in England from around 80 BCE.

Iron Age gold coin

Iron age gold coin, 'stater' found at Wonersh ©The Trustees of the British Museum.

The coins above are part of a hoard of gold coins found at Wonersh and probably minted in central southern England. These 'stater' coins date from between 60 and 20 BCE. They may have been issued by the Atrebates tribe who controlled this part of Surrey in the Iron Age.

Iron age potin

Iron age potin, found West Horsley ©Guildford Heritage Services.

This Iron Age potin coin, on display at Guildford Museum, dates from around 70 BCE. This is made from a bronze alloy (mix of metals) and these coins are cast in a mould rather than struck using a die.

Iron age silver coin

Iron age silver coin, found at Wanborough ©The Trustees of the British Museum.

Also possibly linked to the Atrebates are coins from the Wanborough Temple hoard, such as this silver coin minted around 30 to 45 CE (Common Era). This shows Epaticcus, a ruler in southern Britain.

Roman silver coin

Roman silver coin, found in Guildford ©The Trustees of the British Museum.

Roman coins were in circulation before the Roman occupation and were probably widespread, used alongside Celtic style coins. This one minted in Constantinople between 355 and 361 CE shows the emperor Constantius II and was found in Guildford.

Saxon sceatta

Saxon sceatta, found Effingham ©Guildford Heritage Services.

These are silver Saxon coins, known as 'sceatta' found at Effingham but it is not known where they were minted, possibly in the Netherlands or Kent. They date from 680 - 750 CE. Known as a bird on cross type they show similarities with the Roman coins.

In late Saxon and Norman periods, coins were produced by large numbers of moneyers in dozens of towns.

Coin of AEthelred II

Coin of Æthelred II ©Guildford Heritage Services.

This coin in Guildford Museum is from the reign of Æthelred II, minted in Southwark and dates between 978 CE and 1016.

Edgar (959 - 975 CE) reformed the mints in the 970s. There is not a clear written source but Roger of Wendover provides an account, which may be a little embroidered, from the 13th century. "Edgar ordered a new coinage to be made throughout England because the old was so debased by the crime of clipping that a penny hardly weighed a halfpenny in the scales." Clipping was taking silver from the edge of the coin, discouraged in later coins by a pattern up to the edge or by milling the edge. Making coins from a base metal stopped the practice.

The reform seems to have set up a national network of 44 mints and at least five more mints, probably including Guildford, were operating under Edward the Martyr (975 - 78 CE). We tend to think of a mint as a large operation but at this time it just means the moneyer's workshop.

Mints were only allowed in a borough. Guildford was not formally named as a borough in a charter until 1257 but the presence of the mint is one piece of the evidence for it being a borough long before this.

Between 975 CE and 1158 Guildford was the only mint for some distance. The nearest were Winchester to the west, Steyning to the south, Rochester to the east and Southwark towards London. There were many to the west, including Bristol and Taunton, probably to make use of silver sourced from lead mines in the Mendips. They were also concentrated in the South East along the coasts suggesting the importance of trade as a source of silver.

Guildford coins have been found in Scandinavia, perhaps from payment of Danegeld (money which aimed to buy off Danish invaders).

Coin of Harold II

This silver penny is from the short reign of Harold II (1066), minted in Guildford. The reverse has the Latin word PAX, or Peace, in the centre surrounded by Old English words meaning 'Leofwold in Guildford'.  He was the moneyer. The obverse has the Latin words HAROLDI [REX] ANGLO, meaning 'Harold king of the English'.  It was not until later that kings spoke of being king of a country.

Coin of William I

Coin of William I ©Guildford Heritage Services.

Also minted in Guildford, this silver penny of William I has a cross and PAXS in circles on the reverse. Around the edge the words 'SERIC ON GILDFRD' - the moneyer and the town, shortened. The obverse shows the bust of William and the words 'PILLEM REX' - 'King William'.

This design is also found in Chichester, perhaps from a moneyer working in both places. Or perhaps the dies were transferred when a mint closed, as may have happened in Guildford in 1087 - 1090.

Things were going wrong again in the 12th century when Henry I was receiving complaints from his soldiers that they were being paid in debased money. One trick moneyers used was to silver plate coins rather than make them from solid silver. At Christmas 1124 the king summoned the moneyers to him at Winchester. By twelfth night they were all castrated and had their right hands amputated as punishment for false dealing. After this, the number of mints was greatly reduced during 12th and 13th centuries. By the second half of the 15th century, London was the only full-time royal mint.

The blog post was written by Malcolm Watson, one of Guildford Museum's volunteers.