A Brief History of Coins and Coin production

Coins

Lydian gold stater with lions head
Lydian gold stater with lions head

The earliest accredited coins were made in he 7th century BC in Lydia (congruent with Turkey's modern provinces of Izmir and Manisa). These were small blobs of electrum, (a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver), and were decorated on one side only with the forepart of a bull, a lion or both; later a secondary design was added to the reverse. These images were impressed on the alloy by using a simple punch hit with a hammer.

Gold stater of Philip II of Macedon
Gold stater of Philip II of Macedon

Although these early coins were basic the benefits to trade were obvious, and the idea quickly spread from the kingdom of Lydia throughout Greece and then to the Roman world and Europe.

Cast Potin coin from the Thames Valley
Cast Potin coin from the Thames Valley

In Britain the first coins were produced in about 100 BC. The early struck coins were copied from gold staters of Philip II of Macedon. Some of these earliest British coins were cast in an alloy of bronze and tin known as Potin, but this method only lasted a few years when they were replaced by die struck coins. The cast coins were produced by the Durotrigian tribe in the west country and by the tribes living along the Thames valley. Different types of coin in gold, silver, bronze and potin were made by many of the Celtic tribes of Britain.

Denarius of Antoninus Pius
Denarius of Antoninus Pius

The Roman administration of Britain soon put a stop to the production of coins by the local tribes and imported Roman imperial coinage from the continent. The first Roman coin struck in Britain was issued by the Emperor Antoninus Pius in 155 AD. British coins continued to be issued by subsequent Roman emperors until possibly the reign of Magnus Maximus, 383 - 388 AD. As the Roman administration in Britain came to an end in 410, no further official British coinage was produced until about 620 AD. But at some time during the period 300 AD onwards crude copies of Roman coins, known today as barbarous radiates, were produced in great quantities.

Following the upheavals and collapse of Roman administration and the invasion and settlement of England by the Anglo-Saxons, coinage once again began to be produced in England in the form of gold thrymsas and silver sceats from 620 -765. However from 765 - 900 the production of sceats was confined to Northumbria where they became progressively debased from silver to small bronze coins known today as Stycas.

The penny was introduced in 765 AD and became the standard coin in England until 1279. The first round halfpenny was made around the year 883 and continued in production almost continually until 973 when, after the currency reform carried out by King Edgar, any halfpence required were made by cutting a penny in half.

The Viking king Guthram copied coins of Alfred the Great and established Viking coin production in the Danelaw - that part of England which was under Viking rule. The Vikings introduced the concept of the manufacture of coinage into Ireland around the year 1000 and then from there into the Isle of Man.

Anglo-Saxon coins were produced from just a small number of mints in the time of King Alfred. This was to increase gradually. In 973 King Edgar reformed the currency, producing only the silver penny with the king's head on one side (the obverse) and a cross on the reverse. It was from this time that the practice of cutting coins into halves and quarters began, using the cross on the reverse as a guide. By law, from this time, the mint signature and the name of the moneyer had to appear on every coin - previously this was at the discretion of the individual moneyers who made their own dies. The process of die cutting now became centralised and dies were sent out to the individual mints from a central die-cutting workshop. Later, five regional centres were established. By the reign of Aethelred II (978 - 1016) mints could be found in up to 90 different towns and cities.

The Norman conquest initially had no effect on the number of mints and moneyers producing coins, though towards the end of the reign of William I some new mints were established in Wales. The number of mints declined gradually during the period between the reigns of Henry I and Henry III (from 1100 to 1272), by the end of whose reign only 4 mints were operating.

Edward I reformed the mints and coins radically in 1279, putting all the mints under the control of one new official: The Master of the Mints. This position was filled by Sir William de Turnemire. During the reign of Edward I many old mints, and some new re-opened, allbeit briefly, to flood the country with the new coinage. In addition to the penny, round halfpence and farthings were stuck in great numbers to negate the old practice of cutting the coins into halves and quarters and the practice fell, very quickly, into decline. A new denomination of 4d was introduced, the groat or 'great piece'. This was the largest silver denomination produced in England until the introduction of the silver testoon or shilling in the reign of Henry VII. New die cutters were employed from the continent and a new style of coinage was produced, known as the Stirling issue, one that was to remain virtually unchanged until the Tudors.

Coins from the reign of Edward I, 1272-1307AD.  Left-to-right, Groat (greatpiece, 4d), Penny (1d), Halfpenny (½d) and Farthing(¼d)
Coins from the reign of Edward I, 1272-1307AD. Left-to-right, Groat (greatpiece, 4d), Penny (1d), Halfpenny (½d) and Farthing(¼d)

The Dies

The early dies were cut in either bronze or iron, and the designs were engraved into the die surface. The lower die (known as a pile) usually having the more complex design (usually the head) whilst the upper die (also known as the trussel) had the simpler reverse or tails.

A set of Roman hinged dies
A set of Roman hinged dies

During the Roman period a new innovation was tried: hinged coin dies which were pairs of dies joined together in a similar manner to tongs. This method continued into the Byzantine period but the concept seems to be confined to the Roman world.

The designs were cut into the die faces using either graving tools or simple punches such as a wedge, line, curve, dot or ring (annulet) These simple elements could be used to produce all the different letters and design elements on the die.

Lower die from 10th century York
Lower die from 10th century York

Anglo-Saxon dies were made from iron (steel) and were the traditional separate dies with the lower die set into a large wooden block (probably a section of tree trunk) and the upper die positioned by hand and hit with a hammer. The upper dies wore down quickly due to the action of hitting them with the hammer. A set of dies (two trussels and one pile) should produce on average £100 struck coin, that is 24,000 pennies.

The shape of the dies during the Anglo-Saxon period seems fairly standardised. Either round or square in cross section, but with parallel sides allowing the use of a 'striking collar' (used as a guide for the dies not the coin blank). This enables production of a well-struck coin, as is born out by the surviving specimens of coins from the period.

Later, during the Norman period the shape of the dies altered from parallel sided to tapered. These dies are easier to manufacture but the coins produced from this type of die tend to be poorly struck because a guide collar cannot be used with them. This is borne out by the lamentable condition of the copious surviving specimens of Angevin and early Plantagenet coins.

Coin dies from the reign of Edward I, 1272-1307AD
Coin dies from the reign of Edward I, 1272-1307AD

With the introduction of the groat and the halfgroat, these larger coins required greater striking pressure and thus greater wear to the trussel so the die sets for the larger denominations was three trussels to every pile. During the later medieval period the simple lettering and portraiture of the earlier period was replaced by the introduction, in the reign of Edward I, of complex punches, using single punchs to make one letter or portrait. By the reign of Henry VII (1485 - 1509) a realistic portrait of the king was being produced and by this time also the principal of producing a master matrix from which the working dies were made in total.

Blanks

Clay moulds for making Celtic coin blanks
Clay moulds for making Celtic coin blanks

The value of a coin depended upon its weight and metal content. It was important to achieve a consistent thickness of coin and thus a uniformity of weight. In early times coin blanks were cast in clay moulds to produce relatively uniform beads of metal which would be struck on the coin dies.

Trimming coins struck from square blanks
Trimming coins struck from square blanks

In Saxon England the introduction of the penny necessitated the manufacture of thin coin blanks probably cut from thin silver sheet. Sometimes the sheet was cut into square blanks larger than the diameter of the coin and the coin cut out after striking. These would be struck on the dies and the coin cut out afterwards. This method would result in a greatly reduced die life. As the dies were expensive to produce then the procedure of cutting the blanks into a round disk prior to striking was preferable. Presumably a simple tool or cutter similar to a modern wad punch would have been used to cut the discs from thin sheet beaten out by hand on an anvil.

As the dies were expensive to produce then the procedure of cutting the blanks into a round disk prior to striking was preferable. Presumably a simple tool or cutter similar to a modern wad punch would have been used to cut the discs from thin sheet beaten out by hand on an anvil. This job would require a considerable degree of competence as the sheet would have to be of even thickness to ensure a consistency in the weight of the struck coin.

After cutting, the blanks would be annealed in the fire to soften them and quenched in a blanching solution, usually a dilute acid, to clean and whiten the blank in preparation for striking. During the 13th century, production of round farthings of small size (6-7 grains weight, 10 mm diameter) meant that blanks for these could be made by a process of shot casting. Molten metal was poured into a receptacle similar to a colander suspended over cold water. The droplets of metal which formed as it flowed through the colander into the water could then, because of their small size, be struck directly without any further treatment. As with the dies there was little change in the production of blanks from the 13th century until recent times. Although Leonardo da Vinci designed an automatic blank punch around 1500.

Striking the coin

Fourth century memorial showing two moneyers at work
Fourth century memorial showing two moneyers at work

This changed little from the 7th century BC until the 16th century AD. The lower die was set into an anvil or block, the blank of coinage metal placed on the lower die, the upper die positioned on top of the blank by hand and then hit with a large hammer, forcing the dies together at about 20 ton per square inch (modern mint machinery operates at 120 ton per square inch.

This method was fine for the majority of coins produced, the larger bronze and silver coins of the Greek and Roman world needing two men to produce each coin; one using a two handed sledgehammer to provide the greater force needed for the larger coin and the other person holding the upper die in place (presumably with long handed tongs). It is quite probable that the bronze blanks were struck whilst they were red hot whilst silver and gold blanks would be struck cold.

The medieval mints were generally striking only silver and gold, which would be struck cold, so the illustrations of the workers placing the blanks do not show tongs being used. Each hammerman working at the dies could, given an adequate supply of blanks, strike 2,500 coins a day.

A buisy late medieval mint.  The man in the middle is beating silver or gold into sheet, ensuring the hammerman (on the right) has plenty of blanks to strike into coin
A buisy late medieval mint. The man in the middle is beating silver or gold into sheet, ensuring the hammerman (on the right) has plenty of blanks to strike into coin

Line drawign of Mestrell's horse mill
Mestrell's horse mill

This method of coin production was fine until the reign of Elizabeth I when larger coins became economically necessary. In 1561 a Frenchman, Elois Mestrell, introduced the Horse Mill; a screw press powered by horses. This was the forerunner of the fly press and produced the first milled, or machine made, coins. This procedure was very slow, one coin every minute or so compared with one coin every six seconds with hand-struck coins.

Mestrell was dismissed from the mint in 1572 and in 1578 he was hanged for counterfeiting. By the reign of Charles I several new innovations had emerged. A fly press, rocker press and a roller press (similar to the old kitchen mangle). The coins from the rocker press were not satisfactory and the method was discontinued.

The roller press was used to strike impressions of farthings into long strips of copper alloy, which were subsequently cut out from the strip.

James I, copper-alloy farthings, struck on a long sheet by the roller press
James I, copper-alloy farthings, struck on a long sheet by the roller press

The fly press became the standard method of production until 1797, when Mathew Boulton introduced the steam powered press in his mint

In 1663 in the reign of Charles II the hammered process of coin production was finally discontinued and was superceded totally by machine made coin. A new safeguard to prevent clipping of coin was introduced; the larger coins were made with an inscription around the rim of the coin. This edge inscription read DECVS ET TUTAMEM, An ornament and a safeguard other coins were given a grained or knurled edge.

Line drawin of a hand operated rolling mill, for putting the edge impression on to coins
Hand operated rolling mill, for putting the edge impression on to coins

In 1816 the royal mint, which had been situated at the Tower of London since 1279, moved to a new site on Tower Hill at Mint Street. It is now situated in Llantrisant, South Wales.