Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Your Weight in Gold - The Problem of Tudor and Stuart Money

By Deborah Swift

This Horrible Histories video shows precisely the difficulty with Tudor and Stuart coinage - the denominations were extremely confusing. But it wasn't the only problem - in these days of virtual money, credit cards and online banking, we tend to forget exactly how much space the average man’s wealth took up. Money in Tudor and Jacobean England was a physical commodity that needed to be stored, carried and guarded. Often wealth was stored as 'plate', i.e. silver and gold that could be used for a purpose such as dining. Large sums of money meant having the physical space to keep it and so wealth was often displayed in the form of silver or gold plate, cutlery, candlesticks or other domestic trappings, which could be melted down to make a large number of coins of the same weight.

Wealth was very visible in the 16th century. Ben Jonson’s play, ‘Volpone’, opens with Volpone’s worship of his gold:

‘Good morning to the day; and next, my gold!
Open the shrine that I may see my Saint!’

Johnson’s play about greed and lust satirises some of the forms of financial speculation practised in Jacobean London. The phrase ‘worth your weight in gold’ was a literal truth in Tudor England.

Currency was based on the penny, and the smallest denomination above it was the humble groat or fourpenny piece, and the half-groat (twopence), and one of the largest was the Angel or Angel-noble, called this because of its image of the Archangel Michael stamped in the design. The first shillings, or 'testoons' were created in 1502 in the reign of Henry VII. Occasionally half-pennies or farthings (quarter of a penny) were actually struck as coins, but this was rare: the smaller denominations were usually made by cutting a full penny into halves and quarters, or by using tokens as in Pepys’s Diary.

From The Pastry Cook at the sign of the Crown in Shoe Lane
The picture above is from this excellent site about trade tokens in the 17th Century.

Just a few of the coins in circulation:
Farthing = 1/4 penny
Half-penny = 1/2 penny
Three-farthing = 3/4 penny
Groat = 4 pennies (4d)
Sixpence = 6 pennies (6d)
Shilling = 12 pennies (1s )
Half-crown = 30 pennnies (2s 6d)
Crown = 60 pennies (5s)
Angel = 120 pennies (10s)
Pound = 240 pennies (20s or £1)
Sovereign = 360 pence (30s or £1 10s)

The sovereign was first minted under Henry VII as the gold equivalent of a pound (20 shillings) and was much easier to carry about than the arm-stretching weight of a pound of silver coinage. However, because the currency was based on the actual value of the precious metal, the face value of individual coins was not static as modern coins are, and a particular coin’s value would fluctuate with the price of silver or gold. Apart from the weight, the other disadvantage was that counterfeiting and coin-clipping (chipping a bit off the edge) was rife, although counterfeiting coins was a hanging offence. More detail about actual coins is here: Tudor Coinage.

Gold Angel

Most Elizabethan and Jacobean aristocrats borrowed heavily. Shakespeare’s patron William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, for instance, borrowed large sums from regular court money-lender Sir Michael Hicks. The borrowing was mainly to invest in mercantile ventures in other countries, from where England imported luxury goods or foodstuffs not easily obtained at home. Investing in trade was a risky business. Most trades depended on the ocean and many investors lost their fortunes to the sea. There were rare examples of great success in trade, such as Sir Thomas Gresham who became enormously wealthy from his dealings in munitions and bullion in the Netherlands. Gresham founded and invested in the Royal Exchange, the forerunner of London’s modern stock exchange in 1570. Sadly the first Royal Exchange, the great centre of trade and finance, was destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666.

And in fact the biggest risk to all wealth was fire. In towns made of wood and wattle, and thatched with reed, it was an ever-present risk. In this letter from Henry Wotton to Edward Bacon dated 13 July 1613, he says; ‘some of the paper or other stuff where with one of them was stopped did light on the thatch, where being thought at first but an idle smoke, it kindled inwardly and ran round like a train, consuming the whole house to the very grounds.’

Counter Table from Hull Museum

Fear of losing all your money led to obsessive tallying, both at home, and at the ‘Counting House’. This is a rare example from Hull Museum is of a 'counter table' from the time of Henry VIII. Often the surfaces were marked with a grid or had a chequered board to help counting. In fact this is where the word 'counter' , as in a shop counter, is derived. In wills and inventories from the 16th century, counters are often listed as having a compartment. These compartments were probably for storing money and accounting ledgers, but in this example the drawers and hinged lid were added to it later, probably in the 18th century.

By the closing years of Elizabeth’s reign inflation was unstoppable and if their ships failed to come in, many men found themselves in debt. Debt carried a prison sentence so was greatly feared. In ‘The Merchant of Venice’ the themes of loans, bonds and mercantile transactions are interwoven with the plot. Financial concerns would have been familiar to Shakespeare as his father John Shakespeare made a good deal of money from investments in commodities such as wool and malt, apart from carrying on his business as a glover. He also did a bit of moneylending on the side. William followed in his father’s footsteps and these ventures, apart from inspiring a play, probably brought in considerably larger sums than his craft.

The Moneylender and his Wife - Matsys

Lending sums of money at a high rate of interest was common as interest rates were not fixed. It was usual to charge ‘damages’ , particularly if a debt was paid late, and often substantial fines were added with the full support of the law.

In Johnson’s ‘Every Man out of his Humour’ Puntarvolo invites his friends to sponsor him in his journey to Constantinople. Men would regularly lay down large sums of money to sponsor travellers on condition that the sums were doubled or trebled on their safe return. Travel was risky, but could be lucrative for the sponsor when the traveller returned with the spoils of their travels. 

Johnson and Shakespeare deposited £40 with the eccentric Somerset traveller Thomas Coryate before he set out to walk to Venice and back in a single pair of shoes. Coryate seems to have made quite a good living out of his sponsored travels, together with the books he wrote about them -- and even those who did not provide him with major support were willing to stand him a good dinner in return for his eyewitness accounts of exotic places. Coryate died during his last journey to India in 1670, but his books are still available today.

This type of sponsorship was a form of gambling, and the dividing line between legitimate investment or ‘venturing’ and various forms of betting was a good deal finer than it is today. Almost all Elizabethans gambled, from schoolboys who wagered with the ‘points’ that fastened their clothes, to the Queen and her courtiers who loved to play card games with enormous stakes. John Harrington wrote an epigram on the ‘rake’s progress’ of Marcus, a young man who gambled away his fortune at the very popular card game Primero. ‘The Counter’, where Marcus ends up, was one of London’s debtors prisons, called that because of its large number of debtors.

Lucas van Leyden - Primero players

Primero appears to have been one of the earliest card games played in England during Tudor and Stuart times, and was a forerunner to poker. Even Kings, or especially Kings, were not immune to gambling. During the reign of Henry VII, notices of the King's losses at cards appear in the Remembrance's Office. An entry is shown of one hundred shillings paid at one time to him for the purpose of playing at cards. The private expenses of Princess Mary, Henry VIII's daughter and later Queen, also contain numerous items of money ‘for the playe at cardes’.

Shakespeare's Life and World - Katherine Duncan-Jones
Early Modern England - Sharpe
The Time Traveller's guide to Elizabethan England - Ian Mortimer

Deborah Swift is the author of five historical novels for adults and a trilogy for teens. She blogs on her website about historical curios and historical fiction, and whilst you're reading this she is probably staring out of the window, coffee in hand, lucky black cat on lap, plotting her next book. You can chat to her online @swiftstory, or find her on facebook.


  1. Love the video! At first it seems baffling the extreme penalties for clipping the King's coins, but not so if you consider it was the foundation of their economy.

    1. Yes, I love those videos too. informative and fun!

    2. Horrible Histories is brash, hilarious, informative and a whole lot of fun. Thanks for sharing this. Since I'm on my way to HNS this Sept, I am SO grateful that the money system was changed over. The old one is just too complicated for the forthright Canadian mind!

  2. That was a very interesting read, thank you. I had forgotten about the Sovereign being worth £1.10s and was totally unaware of the Angel. I own a Groat, given to me by my mother many years ago, also a farthing which was a favourite since it has a Wren on it.

  3. I also own a farthing. Would love a sovereign and a groat. Now I'm thinking of it, I might look online - see if I can get one, and how much they cost!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.