In early Anglo-Saxon times, the shilling was simply a numerical unit used in calculations – interestingly, there was no corresponding coin. Once thought to be the equivalent of a cow or sheep, it eventually acquired the value of twelve pence and there were 20 shillings to the pound.
The shilling first appeared as a coin in the sixteenth century, during the reign of Henry VII. When it was first minted, it was originally known as a ‘testoon’. Unlike most of the coins that preceded it, it had a realistic portrait of the monarch – the name therefore came from the Italian ‘testone’ or ‘headpiece’ coins, which were introduced in Milan during the fifteenth century.
The design of the shilling remained fairly consistent throughout the different monarchs’ reigns, always bearing the portrait of the king or queen on the obverse. The reverse of the shilling traditionally featured the Royal Arms of England, though during the reign of King Henry VIII this was amended to bear a crowned Tudor rose.
It was around the mid-1500s that the coin was renamed as a ‘shilling’, which came from the Old English word ‘scilling’.