The History of Silver Coinage

Over time, Silver has been used for, and within, a number of products, and as a versatile metal, its utility continues to evolve. In this article, we explore the role of silver as coinage in Great Britain.

  • For a substantial amount of time, the coinage of Great Britain was comprised of silver pennies. These would have been high value coins used for paying taxes rather than day-to-day transactions. One example of such a coin would be the silver penny of King Alfred the Great, which features the ‘LONDONIA’ monogram on the reverse; dating from around 886 ad, this is also the first example we have of the Mint being located in London.







Silver Penny of Alfred the Great

  • The penny remained the only denomination in circulation until the 1200s, when the groat (worth fourpence) and half groat (worth twopence) coins were introduced, also in silver. These coins began to be used in day-to-day transactions, and a more sophisticated coinage began to evolve.


  • Between 1544 to 1546, Henry VIII attempted to raise his funds by debasing the sterling standard of silver coinage. By 1546, there was so little silver remaining circulating coins (testoon, groat, half groat and pennies), that they had to be blanched in silver to give them a more silvery tone. As a result, when the coins started to wear to show the copper underneath, it was first the nose of Henry VIII’s portrait (the highest point of relief), which earned him the name of ‘Old Coppernose’.

Henry V111 Testoon

  • When Elizabeth I took to the throne in 1558, silver coins were initially struck at a fineness of 916 as in the reign of her brother Edward VI.  Within a few years of coming to the throne, the Queen initiated a substantial re-coinage which restored the standard of silver coins to 925 sterling. It may be taken as a sign of her personal satisfaction that she visited the mints in the Tower on 10 July 1561 and, according to a contemporary commentator, struck coins whilst she was there.


  • During the reign of William III, the silver coinage was made up of badly worn or clipped hammer silver coins. In 1696, a re-coinage of the silver coin took place. For a short time before they were demonetised, unclipped hammered coins could circulate provided that they had been officially pierced through the centre.


Silver sixpence of James I dated 1604, to illustrate the worn and clipped coins in circulation during the reign of William III until the re-coinage in 1696.


Shilling of William III dated 1696, showing the re-coinage of 1696.


  • 18th Century: The production of silver coins was very low at this time, with the large number of sixpences, shillings and half-crowns remaining being so badly worn that the public were handling blank silver disks. In 1797, the Bank saw a convenient way of supplying the country with silver by countermarking Spanish dollars it had acquired through trade. Dollars were overstamped as 5 shilling pieces, with the Bank of England design on one side, and the bust of George III on the other.


  • 1816: A re-coinage of the silver was initiated. At the time, silver was worth more in the form of bullion than currency, resulting in a shortage of circulating silver coins. The re-coinage of 1816 decided that silver should be a token coinage and legal tender up to 2 guineas. The weight of silver coins was also reduced, with 66 shillings being struck from a pound of silver.


Shilling of George III dated 1816, for the re-coinage of 1816.


  • Sterling silver (925) was used in circulating coins until 1920. In 1920, it was reduced to 500 parts silver with the remaining parts being 400 copper, 50 zinc and 50 nickel as the as the price of silver had risen to the extent that the bullion value of silver exceeded that of the face value of the coins. In 1947, silver was exchanged for cupro-nickel.


  • Maundy money: The first Maundy money ceremony took place during the reign of Charles II, where the king gave people undated, hammered silver fourpence, threepence, twopence and onepence pieces in 1662. By 1670, the king was distributing dated sets of all four coins. Maundy money has traditionally been sterling silver, apart from interruptions caused by the debasement of the coinage by Henry VIII’s reign, and again in 1920 when the general change to 500 silver across all coins took place. Following the Coinage Act of 1971, Maundy money has been restored to sterling silver.

Maundy money dated 2016

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