In 2021, we’re celebrating one of the biggest changes to Britain’s coinage that the nation has ever seen. Decimalisation took place on 15 February 1971, but UK coinage had been evolving for centuries and The Royal Mint has been at the heart of each major change.
The Coinage of Charles II
When Charles II was restored to the throne of England in 1660, he came back to a country that had experienced great upheaval since the start of the Civil Wars some 20 years early. The nation had seen death on an unimaginable scale, the execution of a king, the institution of a republic in the Commonwealth and, finally, a military dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell.
The nation’s coins reflected these changes in their designs but one aspect of the coinage that had remained largely constant throughout was the method of production. Coins were still struck out by hand, just as they had been for centuries, but it was a method that was increasingly becoming outdated in Europe. When Charles II returned to England he and those of his entourage who had spent time in exile abroad would have no doubt viewed the English coinage unfavourable when compared with that of its continental neighbours. Produced using modern machinery and much closer to coins in use today, these were vastly superior to the thin, often ill-defined, ones in use in Britain.
This partly explains the change that occurs in the 1660s. The Royal Mint finally sees the introduction of new, modern production methods, with coins now being manufactured using horse-drawn rolling mills and screw presses, just like their continental cousins. Much thicker, enabling the addition of milling and edge lettering, coupled with greater relief, these new coins were a distinct improvement. It wasn’t, however, until the significant logistical challenge of the Great Recoinage in the 1690s that the damaged, worn and underweight coins of previous centuries were finally removed from circulation.
The Coinage of George III
A common theme throughout the history of The Royal Mint has been our ability to respond effectively to the need for change, just as with the decimalisation programme of the late 1960s and 1970s or the recoinage in the 1690s. Large scale periodic recoinages were to be expected and the end of George III’s reign bore witness to such an event.
By 1815, the British coinage was in dire need of reform. Over 20 years of war with France had taken its toll but this had only exacerbated an underlying problem. Throughout George III’s reign barely any silver coins had been struck and there was a chronic shortage of small change. Largely, this was the result of silver being worth more as bullion than it was as coinage, stemming from a system which relied on pieces having their intrinsic value in the metal content.
The Battle of Waterloo finally brought to an end the war with France and peace allowed an opportunity to reform the coinage system. The changes enacted instituted a significant recoinage and silver was once again struck in large quantities but only as a token coinage, or rather one that did not rely on the weight of silver to give the coin its value. Overseen by the perfectionist Master of the Mint, William Wellesley Pole, a brother of the Duke of Wellington, millions of new coins were produced ahead of their distribution to the public in February 1816.
Just as the effects of decimalisation are felt today, so too, perhaps surprisingly, are those of the coinage reforms of George III’s reign. The changes enacted then heralded the introduction of the modern Sovereign, a coin the The Royal Mint still makes to this day to exactly the same specification and virtually the same design as that envisaged by Benedetto Pistrucci more than 200 years ago.