From Elizabeth to Elizabeth: five centuries of English queens through their coinage
The English coinage offers one of the most continuous series of female portraits, because of the number of queens and the length of their reigns; Queen Victoria ruled for 64 years, Elizabeth II for 62 years so far, Elizabeth I for 45 years, Anne for 12 years, Mary I and Mary II for five years each. Some of the key steps of British monetary history can be retraced through these coins, on the occasion of Women's Day.
Lady Jane Grey was queen for nine days in 1553 but then deposed, declared an usurper and executed without having the time to issue any coinage. Mary Tudor (1553-1558) married King Philip II of Spain. Her most interesting coin shows her profile facing that of the facing profiles of the two Catholic monarchs. She failed to restore Catholicism in England, just as she failed to restore the currency of the country, weakened by the massive debasement of gold and especially silver coinage undertaken by her father Henry VIII and continued under her brother Henry VI, in order to provide a form of hidden taxation to the Crown. By 1551 new silver coins had only 25% of silver content and had to be given an artificial colouring to hide the high copper alloy ('blanched" with a thin surface coating of pure silver which rapidly wore down). The coinage had lost its credibility and purchasing power.
On her arrival on the throne, Mary I issued a few full finenesse undebased coins, but to little effect, given that following "Gresham's law" the good new coins of Mary were chased out (hoarded or melted for their higher silver content) by the bad ones of Henry VIII.
Her successor Elizabeth I (1558-1603) took a much more forceful approach and had a full recoinage carried out massively in less than a year between 1560 and 1561, borrowing fine metal abroad to be able to issue large quantities of the new currency, while all the old currency was being withdrawn and simultaneously melted to produce new coins re-establishing the quality and credit of the English currency. The coin here illustrated is a milled sixpence silver piece from 1562, a latecomer in the great recoinage operation. Behind a portrait of the queen, tightly dressed and crowned, is the Tudor rose, which combined the red rose of Lancaster with the white rose of York
When Mary II (1689-94) acceded to the throne together with William, thanks to the "glorious Revolution" of 1688, the British currency was still dominated by silver. A great new recoinage took place only two years after her death, under the direction of her husband, leading to the emergence of gold as the main currency of England (even this was though recorded in law only in 1816.) The 1689 silver half crown coin, here illustrated, shows Mary's portrait placed behind that of her husband, despite the fact that they were coregents and that she was the first in line to the succession of her deposed father, King James II, while William was only a nephew of James (William and Mary were first cousins).
Anne Stuart's reign (1702-1714) was marked by the Act of Union of 1707 which transformed her from Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland into Queen of Great Britain and Ireland. She is pictured here in a silver shilling of 1711, which along with the new British title still carried claims to the throne of France, which was dropped in coinage only at the end of the century when the term "Britannia" unified all titles and claims on British coins.
Victoria's reign (1837-1901) was the period of the triumph of the gold pound, with silver reduced to subsidiary token status, having officially lost its equal footing with gold as the monetary standard of the country, in 1816. Nevertheless many monetary changes were attempted during her reign. Banknotes had already overtaken coinage as means of payments. Attempts were made in the 1850s to decimalize the pound, dropping the duodecimal system (1 pound equal to 20 shillings and 240 pence). The Gothic silver florin coin of 1849, here pictured, represents a young and elegant Victoria, dressed in a way which would not have been considered Victorian a few decades later. This very particular coin was authorized by Parliament to test the reaction of the public to decimalization, being worth 2 shillings or a tenth of a pound. The reaction was negative because the coin omitted for the first time the terms DEI GRATIA (Queen by the grace of God) and was labeled the Godless florin. All further attempts at decimalization failed for over a century, as did also further attempts to join international monetary unions. The older Victoria pictured in this half Sovereign gold coin of 1896 was a veiled widow, morally austere, but also the symbol of the age of British international supremacy, economically, politically and militarily. The pound and the Bank of England were recognized as playing a central role in the international gold standard.
Decimalization of the pound was finally adopted in 1971 under Elisabeth II (1952- ), but monetary unions continued to be rejected, despite brief participation in the European Monetary System (EMS) in 1990-92. Coins have become a very marginal component of the monetary base, after the gold standard was abandoned in 1931 and gold and silver coins stopped being minted, except for special collectors' issues. The commemorative coin of Elizabeth II presented here is a 5 pounds (a new Crown) in cupro-nickel from 1997, minted to celebrate 50 years of the Queen's marriage with Prince Philip, with the Consort represented placed behind the Queen.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics
Centre for History and Economics,
Cambridge CB3 0AG, UK
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