Remembrance Day 2012 | The Royal Mint

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The History of the Guinea

The guinea, struck between 1662 to 1813, is a famous and important feature of the history of the British coinage and as such is part of the fabric of the British nation. Although the sovereign is considered by many as the pre-eminent international gold coin of the modern era, this is a mantle that it has assumed from the guinea.

Henry VII was the first monarch under whom a sovereign of 20 shillings was struck, and thereafter a gold twenty-shilling piece, not always called a sovereign was a regular feature of the gold coinage. After the restoration of Charles II in 1660 a new twenty shilling coin became known as the guinea, originally a nickname because the gold from which it was made came from the Guinea coast of Africa. A strong link therefore exists between the sovereign and the guinea and it was certainly the view of Duveen and Stride in The History of the Gold Sovereign that the piece could be viewed as an extended part of the sovereign family; ‘In 1662 milled coinage came into existence and the sovereign or twenty shilling piece soon became known as the guinea’ It is a legitimate argument, not least because the weight of the revised sovereign in 1817 was in direct relation to the guinea, which it was replacing, stipulating it at 20/21 parts of a guinea.

Although the guinea coin of 1663 was issued as a 20 shilling piece the price that it circulated at fluctuated over the next 54 years, rising to 30 shillings during the reign of William III, and it was not until 1717 that the price was set at a maximum of 21 shillings on the advice of Sir Isaac Newton, Master of the Mint.

The guinea was to prove a very popular coin with the public, both at home and abroad. The coin’s popularity stemmed from its being recognised as the most convenient value for sizeable transactions, leading to it playing an important part in international trade and commerce. Consequently, large numbers were struck on a regular basis and the coin was found throughout the British Empire from the West Indies and America to South Africa and Australia. It also appeared on the continent of Europe, particularly towards the end of the Peninsular War, where it was used by the British army in Spain and France.

A variety of provenance marks have been used on the guinea to denote the source of the gold and the most common of these was the elephant, or elephant and castle, mark of the Africa Company that supplied gold to the Royal Mint up until the 1720s. The E.I.C mark of the East India Company also appears on some guineas after this date but they are relatively few in number. Other provenance marks include VIGO and LIMA which refer to the battle of Vigo Bay and the capture of two French treasury ships out of Lima. The precious metal captured from both actions was later melted down and struck into coins.

The other coins in the guinea family were the five, two, half, third and quarter guineas. Of these only the half-guinea piece was a regular feature of the gold coinage, circulating actively but not in the same large quantities as the guineas. The short lived third guinea (1797-1813) and the quarter guinea (1718 and 1762) were temporary expedients to address a shortage of silver coins, while the five-guinea (1668-1753) and the two-guinea (1664-1753) were too large to circulate freely and were considered by some to be more like medals. As a result of its popularity the guinea has maintained a place in popular culture long after disappearing from circulation. Brass imitations of the popular spade guinea design adopted in 1787 were made in the nineteenth and the early twentieth century for use as card counters, attachments to watch chains and also as theatrical props. It has even entered literature, with Robert Burns referring to ‘nice yellow guineas’, while colloquially it has found use in expressions such as and the colour of the guinea formed the basis for the phrase ‘as yellow as a guinea’, used to describe people with jaundice.

There is some debate concerning the guinea’s legal status as. It was not demonetised when it was replaced by the revival sovereign in 1817 as it probably continues to circulate until perhaps the early 1840s. It was not, however, included in the 1870 Schedule to Coinage Act and a Royal Proclamation of 1890 demonetised gold coins issued before the reign of Queen Victoria. When the first Guinea was struck on 4th February 1663 it was the first machine-struck English coin, ushering in new standards of precision and consistency of production that The Royal Mint still maintain to this day. You can buy the current GUINEA DESC HERE in our store.