Coining it: How Pop-up Mints Paid for the English Civil War

A new exhibition in Cambridge explores the history of coins minted during the Civil War.

By Jonathan Manning
Published 10 Dec 2017, 23:17 GMT
This gold triple unite, struck at Oxford in 1643, was worth £3 at the time, making ...
This gold triple unite, struck at Oxford in 1643, was worth £3 at the time, making it one of the highest value coins ever minted.
Photograph by Fitzwilliam Museum

Emergency money today means a race to the nearest cashpoint machine, or a call to a payday loan company. But, historically, the solution to the need for urgent money was to mint or print it on the spot.

During the English Civil War of 1642 to 1651, for example, the Royalist strongholds at four castles, Pontefract, Newark, Carlisle and Scarborough all produced their own coins while Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentary army laid siege. The money was vital to secure the continued loyalty of soldiers.

The angular sides of this coin, minted in Pontefract Castle in 1648, made it easier to cut to weight.
Photograph by Fitzwilliam Museum

Craftsmen inside the castle walls requisitioned silver objects (rarely gold) then melted them down to produce coins. The coins were not always circular – it was easier to cut specific weights with diamond or hexagonal shapes – and the metal was stamped to establish its authenticity, with ‘dies’ that ranged from crude designs to elaborate engravings. One silver pound coin, that weighs more than 120g, shows the king riding a horse over the arms of his defeated enemies.

“We don’t know how many emergency coins were made during these sieges but a contemporary journal entry from Carlisle suggests that £323 of shilling pieces were struck from requisitioned plate,” said Richard Kelleher, curator of a new exhibition of more than 80 of these coins at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. “They show how a micro-economy developed during times of siege.”

There was clearly an element of early propaganda in the designs. Another silver medal, minted during Cromwell’s short Protectorate, commemorates his forces’ victory at the Battle of Dunbar of 1650. The coin shows the bust of Cromwell with battle scenes in the background, and on the flipside is the inside of Parliament.

Coins could carry a powerful message. This silver medal of 1650 commemorates the victory of Oliver Cromwell's forces at the Battle of Dunbar.
Photograph by Fitzwilliam Museum

By 1558 there was only one royal mint in England, in the Tower of London, but during the Civil War, Charles I moved his court to Oxford and establishing a mint in the city. A magnificent £3 gold ‘triple unite’ coin – one of the largest value coins ever minted - reveals the fine workmanship of the Oxford mint.

Historically, when precious metals have been in short supply, human ingenuity turned to other materials to create coins. During the siege of Leiden in 1573-74, for example, the mayor requisitioned all metal, including coins, for the manufacture of weapons and ammunition. The coins were replaced with tokens; coins cut from hymnals, prayer books and bibles.

A 'cardboard' coin from the siege of Leiden - all coins and metals had been requisitioned to make arms and armour.
Photograph by Fitzwilliam Museum

The temporary exhibition Currencies of Conflict: siege and emergency money from antiquity to WWII is at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge until 23 February 2018. Admission is free.

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