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Collecting Old English Coins
Many coin collectors enter the hobby by sorting through their change, looking for old or unusual coins to add to their collection. If the novice collector gets bitten by the “coin collecting bug,” before they know it, they are buying old coins from all over the world. When the more advanced collectors start getting interested in numismatic items minted before the eighteenth century, that is where things start to get more complicated.
For these early coins, tokens, and medals, many don’t have dates, virtually none have English language legends, reference books are scarcer, and the country or duchy of origin may be hard to identify. To help shed a little light on collecting some of these early coins, I will go through and discuss the features of one of my recent acquisitions, a 1605–1606 English silver shilling from the reign of King James I (see figure).
The King James I English Shilling Coin
The shillings of James I came in six different bust designs, all with small variations in the face, hair, and armor. This particular coin is of the fourth bust variety, which has plain armor and longer hair. The “rose” at the top of both sides is the mint mark. The coinage of James I is divided into three time periods: the first from 1603 to 1605, the second from 1604 to 1619, and the third from 1619 until his death in 1625. This particular coin is from the second period of coinage. Each of the periods marks some small change in the design or the legends.
The obverse features a bust of King James I with his crown and armor, with the legend: IACOBVS·D:G:MAG:BRIT:FRA:ET·HIB:REX. The legend is in Latin abbreviations and translates into: “James King of Great Britain, France and Ireland.” The XII in the field indicates the coin is a shilling or 12 pence. The reverse features the coat of arms for Great Britain surrounded by the Latin legend: QVAE·DEVS·CONIVNXIT·NEMO·SEPARET, which translates as: “What God hath joined let no man put asunder.”
The coat of arms on the reverse was changed significantly from James’ predecessor Elizabeth I. The earlier coins of Elizabeth I (1558–1603) have a coat of arms with three lions, which goes back to the Great Seal of King Richard the Lionheart, and in two of the shield quadrants are three of the fleurs-de-lis, which signifies a claim to the throne of France.
When James I became king of Britain, he was already King of Scotland, which added the Scottish rampant lion to the upper right-hand quadrant of the shield. Since James was also the great-great-grandson of Henry VII, King of England and Lord of Ireland, the Irish harp was added to the coat-of-arms in the lower left quadrant. There is a lot of interesting history behind these coins once you start digging.
The coin is not dated; however, the rose mint mark and the bust configuration of King James indicates the coin was struck between 1605 and 1606. The Krause catalog number is KM#27, and the Spink catalog number is 2655. It weighs 5.9 grams and is 30-31mm in diameter. Seventeenth-century hammered coins aren’t cheap; expect to pay $300 to $400 for a nice example like this.
The Minting Process for Hammered Coins
From the time of the earliest Greek coins to the middle of the sixteenth century AD, coins were made by hand. The method of making coins was simple. The obverse and reverse designs were engraved or punched into the ends of two bars of bronze or iron and shaped to the required diameter of the coin. The obverse die, known as the "pile," was usually made so that it could be firmly anchored into a wooden block or metal fixture.
The reverse die, called the "trussel," was held by hand or with tongs. The coin was struck by placing a metal blank or planchet between the two dies and striking the trussel with a hammer; thus, coins made by this method are called "hammered" coins. The constant hammering on the dies allowed only several hundred or a few thousand coins to be produced with each die pair. The type of metal used for the coin planchet and the dies greatly influenced the die lifetime. This crude method of making coins results in many coins with "doubling" of the images and legends due to the often multiple hammer strikes required.
If you look closely at the observe of the King James I shilling, you will notice the bust image is doubled and inner ring of beads around the bust also shows signs of being double struck. Since many dies would be required for a popular series, many slight variations in the design are common. Sometime after the middle of the sixteenth century, the European mints started to use machines to make coins. Machine manufactured coins are called "milled" coins, which is derived from the machines used—a mill and screw press.
Mint Marks on Early English Coins
For coins made in the United States, the mint mark, or lack of one, specifies the location of the mint where the coin was struck. In English coins, the mint mark, typically a symbol on hammered coins, might show the place of mintage, or more generally, it was used to show when a particular legend began or possibly who made the coin.
The shillings of King James I have 15 different mint marks, some expels being: lis, rose, escallop, grapes, and coronet. This shilling was made at the Royal Mint housed in the Tower of London. The mint was established in 886 AD by Alfred the Great to standardize and centralize the British coinage, and the mint operated for nearly 800 years at that location.
If you are ready for a little challenge in your coin collecting, the hammered coins of England just may be for you.
Cuhaj, George S. (Editor). Standard Catalog of World Coins 1601-1700, 6th Edition. Iola: Krause Publications, 2014.
Fraser, Antonia (Editor). The Lives of the Kings & Queens of England. Revised and Updated. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
Morrieson, R.A. “The English Silver Coins of James I.” The British Numismatic Journal, 1907. Pages 165-178. Accessed August 3, 2021. https://www.britnumsoc.org/publications/Digital%20BNJ/pdfs/1907_BNJ_4_27.pdf
Standard Catalogue of British Coins: Coins of England and the United Kingdom. 49th Edition. London: Spink & Son Ltd., 2013.
© 2021 Doug West
fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on August 11, 2021:
I hope your dream comes through.
Doug West (author) from Missouri on August 11, 2021:
Thanks for the comment. Finding a cache of old coins is every coin collectors dream - I have actually had that dream myself a few times.
fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on August 11, 2021:
Doug, interesting article on coins. I'd love to find a cache of old coins!
Thank you for your article.