In the Tudor period there were two ways of making coins: hammering and milling, a newer method that was introduced in the reign of Elizabeth I.
Hammered coins were made by placing a flat, round, blank piece of metal between two dies which were then struck with a hammer. The man who struck the coins was called a moneyer. Hammered coins were never perfectly round and could be clipped easily. Forgers would collect clippings from lots of coins, melt them down and forge new coins. The punishments for being found guilty of forging coins included the removal of fingers, hands or ears!
Under Elizabeth I, the method of milling coins was introduced to England from France. Coins produced in this way were called mill money. The metal used to make the coins was flattened into a strip by heavy rollers which were powered by a wind or horse-driven mill. Coin blanks were then cut from the strip and stamped by dies in a press. It was also at this time that coins began to show their date of issue.
Milled coins were of better quality than hammered ones because they were more regular in shape. Coins are still produced in this way today, albeit sans horses and wind.
There were more denominations of coins minted in Elizabethan times than there have been at any other time in history. Altogether twenty different coins were in use, all made of gold or of silver.
As you see, there are gold coins on display. Gold coins came in different varieties:
2 shillings and 6 pence
2 shillings and 6 pence
Half pound sovereign
The basic denominations were pounds,shillings and pence. The written abbreviation for pound is £, for shilling is s, and for penny/pence is d. (Pence, not pennies, is the plural of penny).
12 pence make 1 shilling
12d = 1s
(1s = 5p nowadays)
20 shillings make 1 pound
20s = £1
Shakespeare makes numerous references to money and coins throughout his works. In the comedy The Merchant of Venice (1596), The Moroccan Prince makes reference to a specific coin:
[…] They have in England
A coin that bears the figure of an angel
Stamped in gold (2.7).
Another fascinating usage of the term ‘coin’ appears in the tragedy Julius Caesar (1599). Brutus and Cassius are trying to lead an army together, but they keep fighting. In this passage, Brutus accuses Cassius of failing to send him money, which he urgently needs to pay his soldiers:
[…] I did send to you
For certain sums of gold, which you denied me:
For I can raise no money by vile means:
By heaven, I had rather coin my heart,
And drop my blood for drachmas, than to wring
From the hard hands of peasants their vile trash
By any indirection: I did send
To you for gold to pay my legions,
Which you denied me: was that done like Cassius? (4.2).
drachmas = a type of money or currency
peasants = farmers, or poor people
indirection = devious means
legions = companies of soldiers
Here Brutus demonstrates his nobility by claiming that money ought to be properly sourced rather than taken by force from the already impoverished people. He would rather sacrifice his own heart and blood to raise gold in an honourable fashion.
Can you find references to coins and money in the plays or poems with which you are familiar?
This is an image of the Charter of King Edward I from 1291 which grants specific property rights to the monks at Stoneleigh Abbey, near Stratford-upon-Avon. The green wax seal impression is attached to the parchment document by a silk cord.
Seals were used by monarchs, clergymen, aristocracy and merchants throughout Europe in the Elizabethan period to authorise important documents. Family or private seals were also commonly used to finalise and seal letters.
For important documents, security was the main concern. Without a seal, a document was neither complete nor safe from prying eyes. Documents were either tied together with ribbon and sealed, or a strip of paper was cut from the letter and sealed onto the rest of the document. For a document to be official, it had to be sealed.
Seals had distinctive features so that they could not be easily forged. They often had initials, a motto, or a heraldic design. The seal moulds were made from copper, bronze and sometimes lead, stone or slate. The seals could be attached to wooden or metal handles, or to rings and pendants. To use the seal, hot wax was poured onto the document and impressed with the seal. Royal seals, such as the one used by Edward I, were impressed onto both sides of the wax. It is mistakenly believed that the Magna Carta (1215) was signed by King John. In actual fact, the document was sealed by him, thereby authorising the charter. Edward I, whose seal you see here, was the grandson of King John.
Shakespeare’s characters often speak of sealing bonds and letters, and are able to recognise from whom a document has been sent by scanning the seal impression. In the comedy The Merchant of Venice, the Jewish moneylender Shylock refers to the sanctity of his bond or contract which has been made official by a seal. Shylock has lent a large sum to Antonio, a Venetian merchant. The bond (the document they have both signed) says that if Antonio fails to pay back his debt, he must give Shylock a pound of his own flesh. At this point in the play, Antonio is bankrupt and there is a court case, in which Shylock demands the pound of flesh. Antonio’s friend Graziano has just railed (i.e. shouted abuse) at Shylock. This is Shylock’s response:
Till thou canst rail the seal from off my bond,
Thou but offend’st thy lungs to speak so loud:
Repair thy wit, good youth, or it will fall
To cureless ruin. I stand here for law.
(The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1)
In the last two lines, Shylock compares Graziano’s wit to a damaged house, saying that it will fall down if he doesn’t repair it: If Graziano doesn’t make an effort to think of more intelligent comments now, he will become more and more stupid as time goes by. By referring to the seal on his bond, Shylock is affirming the irrevocable and official status of seals on documents.
Curiously, Shakespeare employed the image of the familial seal in his comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Hermia is in love with Lysander. Her father wants her to marry Demetrius instead, and complains to Duke Theseus that his daughter is disobedient. According to the law, if Hermia refuses to follow her father’s wishes, he may kill her. Theseus responds by suggesting that Hermia is like a ‘form in wax’ which has been ‘imprinted’ by her father. Here, Shakespeare refers directly to the seal and its impression into warm wax:
What say you, Hermia? Be advised, fair maid:
To you your father should be as a god;
One that composed your beauties, yea, and one
To whom you are but as a form in wax
By him imprinted and within his power
To leave the figure or disfigure it.
Demetrius is a worthy gentleman.
( A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 1, Scene 1)
composed = made, put together
yea = yes
figure = the image left on wax once you have pressed a seal onto it
disfigure = wipe out, make ugly