The Bayeux Tapestry, Magna Carta and the Crown Jewels are all wonders of British heritage, but the everyday objects that were around at the time — though vital to the economy — are often overlooked or consigned to academic texts and museum vaults.
Money, for example, has been used in Britain for over 2,000 years, and most people would assume rare coins can only be viewed through the glass of a museum cabinet. In fact, there is an open market for these small pieces of history, which, when bought with care, can provide owners with an asset as well as a source of pleasure.
Coin collecting has proved a popular pastime for over 2,000 years.
Coin collecting dates all the way back to Roman times, and probably even earlier. Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, owned a collection of coins featuring the greatest generals of the classical world, including Alexander the Great. King George III also kept a coin collection. He promoted the hobby and encouraged much of the landed gentry to start collections of their own. Within decades, swaths of extensive coin collections stood shoulder to shoulder with silverware and paintings in the stately homes of Georgian England.
In more recent years, coin collecting has gone hand in hand with investment. Coins such as Queen Victoria’s 1839 Five Pound Piece, featuring the splendid “Una and the Lion” design, have seen astronomical increases in value over the past two decades. A coin which would have sold for £17,000 in 2004 now sells for upwards of £300,000.
Coins can help shed light on our country’s past. Take the Romano-British emperor, Carausius, a powerful naval general who usurped power from the emperor in Rome and fled to Britain.
In AD286, Carausius ruled his own British empire, and minted his own coins — some of the first Roman coins ever minted in the Isles. His capital was London (then Londinium) and it was from there that so many of his coins were produced.
Aside from a handful of biased Roman texts, the only reason we know of this impressive character is from the coins he left behind, which bear his ferocious portrait. In a classic case of Roman politics, Carausius was murdered by the very man responsible for making the coins, his finance minister, Allectus. Since the coins of the pirate emperor were mostly minted in Britain, they are seldom found across the rest of the Roman world.
They have become very popular with collectors in recent years: an exceptionally rare gold aureus, minted in London between the years 286AD and 287AD, sold at a Swiss auction in 2017 for CHF360,000.
Coins are vital political tools. After his victory at Hastings in 1066, William of Normandy set about cementing his rule over England. But before he ordered the Domesday Book compiled, he ordered new coins to be produced en masse. Then as now, a strong currency was essential, and William could not let his conflict with Harold Godwinson, the Anglo-Saxon king, cripple England’s economy.
Precious silver pennies were minted across the country, each representing over a day’s wage for the average soldier — and he had a lot of them to thank for his victory. Pennies of William, who ruled from 1066-1087, are sought after by coin enthusiasts. A nice example will set you back around £500-£800, but rarer types are known to sell for upwards of £2,000.
Some of history’s greatest scandals are inextricably linked to coins. The reign of England’s best known king, Henry VIII, was rife with them. Henry’s rule (1509-47) saw England’s economy take an almighty shift towards the military. Weapons and troops were expensive.
Strapped for precious silver, the king oversaw the debasement of the currency, reducing the precious metal content from the exceptional .925 sterling silver (an alloy of silver containing 92.5 per cent pure silver) which had been used and respected for centuries.
This was an unthinkable act and appalled the public, but they saw the mint officials, not the king, as responsible. Additional mints were opened at Bristol and Durham House to produce large base silver testoons, with a distinctive image of Henry VIII, which mirrors the Holbein portrait that we know so well today. The silver coating on these testoons would rapidly wear away due to circulation, revealing an ugly metal core. This resulted in Henry being nicknamed “old coppernose”, since the high points of the coin wore away the fastest.
People hoarded the precious high quality silver coins from the years before. Observing this phenomenon, Thomas Gresham, financier to Henry’s son, Edward VI (1547-53), concluded that “bad money was driving out good” — a process that became known as Gresham’s Law.
Gresham knew that a high-quality currency was essential to a strong economy and by the middle of Edward’s short reign, the coinage of England was reformed and re-purified. Despite the poor quality of Henry VIII’s later coins, they are in massive demand by collectors, due to the unmistakable and iconic portrait of the king.
In more recent times, the Royal Mint’s issues of popular 50 pence piece and £2 coin designs, among others, have served to renew interest in coin collecting. Coins remain fascinating pieces of history or collector’s items, and can offer a return on investment — depending on the coin, of course.
Dominic Chorney is a coin specialist at A.H. Baldwin and Sons in London and the author of “In The Money: A guide to the coins that shaped Britain” on sale now for £12.99