Perhaps no coinage is as filled with arcane denominations as Great Britain’s. Since the 8th century, British shopkeepers and merchants have been required to accept six different values for pennies, five types of farthings, and a dizzying variety of shillings, florins, nobles, guineas, crowns, and pounds. The coinage also includes gold sovereigns, which are kept as bullion, and Maundy money, which is handed out by the Monarch once a year as he or she sees fit.
The earliest coins used in the British Isles date to the 2nd century BCE, when invaders from Belgic Gaul on the other side of the English Channel brought gold staters with them. These coins resembled ancient Greek coins, bearing the likeness of Apollo on the obverse and a chariot on the reverse. A century later, copper coins clad in tin from Gaul proper arrived, and by around 90 BCE, gold staters were struck in England itself.
Some of the earliest sources of British coins include those hammered at mints in Colchester, West Surrey, Essex, and Kent. The Roman emperor Julius Caesar attacked the island fro...
Coinage in England during the Dark Ages was, as one might expect, a hodgepodge, but by the end of the 8th century, the penny had emerged. The earliest examples are thought to have been hammered in Canterbury, and the name of the person doing the striking, the so-called moneyer, was typically stamped right on the coin.
By the beginning of the 11th century, there were some 87 mints throughout England. In most cases, the name of the moneyer and the mint can be found on their faces. And what did they strike? Pennies, which was the land’s sole coinage for about 500 years. Half pennies and farthings also circulated, but only because people would cut their pennies into halves and quarters. It wasn’t until Edward I assumed the throne in 1272 that distinct half pennies and farthings were coined. A fourpence piece known as a groat followed those, and then gold florins circulated beginning in the 14th century.
Milled coins were introduced during the 16th century, when Elizabeth I sat on the throne, but the practice did not become widespread for almost another 100 years. It was during the reign of Charles II that the system of farthings, pence, shillings, florins, crowns, and pounds was codified—gold sovereigns were also added to the mix. Presses turned by humans or horses soon replaced the hammer.
For the most part, British coins depicted whoever happened to be in power at the time. For example, many British coins from the 19th century feature a bust of Queen Victoria on the obverse. Coins minted in the late 1830s and throughout the 1840s and ’50s depict a young woman, her hair tied back in a tidy bun. By the end of the century, Victoria’s features appear more rounded, and she wears a crown on her head. Coins from the Victorian Era are relatively easy to come by, but a few, such as the silver crowns minted between 1839 and 1853, are in greater demand.
Twentieth-century British coins are also generally plentiful, the exception being Maundy money. Especially collected is Maundy money distributed by Elizabeth II in 1953, her first year as monarch. Based solely on their face values—four coins are distributed, in one-, two-, three-, and four-pence denominations—they should not be worth much at all, but their limited supply (only about 1,000 sets are minted) and handsome red cases make them quite collectible.