Posts tagged ‘moneyer’

December 7, 2017

Short-changed: Scotland’s currency a Unit or Unite?

Or minting it in Aberdeen 

rob iii gold lion

Robert III gold lion

Banks have been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons, again. Can’t remember when it was otherwise. In certain parts of the country such as where I live it’s virtually impossible to find a working bank that doesn’t involve a round trip in a car that takes a good hour and a half or by bus the greater part of a day. It really is like going back more than a century.

Now it appears banks will also remove many cash machines making it all but impossible for folk in rural areas to access their own cash, never mind the difficulties all of this involves for local businesses in depositing takings at the end of each day or for community groups trying to get their hands on change for admission charges to facilities or indeed bank these safely and locally.  

Not so long ago Scotland’s influence over its money supply was greater than now with local banks and even stock exchanges dotted around the country and like now banks issued bank notes but not coins – this ended in Scotland 300 years ago.

Since the Union of 1707 Scotland’s mints along with so much else were consigned to the scrap heap thereby diminishing this nation’s ability to influence her own economy despite Article 16 of the Treaty of Union stipulating that Scotland retain its own mint –

“…a Mint shall be continued in Scotland under the same rules as the Mint in England…”

What happened to that? The Mint at Edinburgh stopped striking coins a mere two years after the Union with an issue of half crowns and shillings in 1709. In 1870 the Coinage Act transferred the nominal role of Governor of the Mint of Scotland to the English Chancellor of the Exchequer in London. Another Coinage Act, this time in 1971 finally extinguished all sign of Scotland’s distinctive currencies when the Chancellor of the Exchequer became the Master of the Mint under Edward Heath (apologies for any unwanted imagery associated with that statement.)

The mint at Aberdeen was one of the earliest Scottish mints. It began during the reign of William the Lion (1165 – 1214) and continued intermittently until the Act of Union. Despite its long existence few Aberdeen coins are extant for coins used to be melted down and the precious metal re-used for new strikes at the behest of the monarch who pocketed the difference between the higher value of old redundant coins and lesser worth replacements. Essentially this was a means of underhand taxation that benefited the monarch while anyone else caught snipping off pieces of coin for its silver value faced gruesome execution. 

We are all too familiar with being short-changed nowadays when using Scottish currency in England but you may be surprised to learn that the foundation of this has legitimate basis for people with long memories. Way back in the 12th and 13th centuries the amount of silver that went into making silver coins or sterlings was reduced from 240 pennies created from one pound of silver to 252 squeezed out by Robert the Bruce’s moneyers compared with 243 around the same time in England.

When David II was held for ransom by the English the Scots paid £40,000 to get him back using silver from which 294 pennies were extracted (and later still a pound was used to produce 352 coins) giving rise to complaints that the exchange was being carried out on the cheap. It has to be said that England did the same whenever cash was required – for example to finance military campaigns or to pay off debts – the medieval equivalent of quantitative easing. Coins were also cut in half or quartered to provide coins of lesser value used along with small value currency such as round half-pennies and farthings (which date from Alexander III.)

hammered silver penny alex iii aberdeen 1250-80

Alexander III silver penny minted in Aberdeen 1250-1280

It’s not known where Aberdeen’s mint was situated. According to one of the city’s 19th C historians, Kennedy, it was in Exchequer Row, but others disagree – in the way a bunch of historians do (worse than ferrets in a sack.) It might be mints from different periods operated in different parts of the town for there was no need for a specific building as little space was required to produce coins – they were made by hand, stamped or hammered from a die imprinted with the design of the coin. Perhaps a furnace was employed to soften pieces of metal to be cut to an appropriate size of disc and weight which were then placed between a two dies – the top one hammered to make the distinctive markings on the new coin. Mechanisation was brought in during 1637 in Scotland with the appointment of French coiner Nicholas Briot as Master of the Scottish Mint.

Naturally, control over the creation of money was tightly regulated. In 1526 the Scottish parliament decreed that –

“feigners and counterfeiters” of the king’s money should be severely punished by which was supposedly hanging, drawing and quartering.

Such a dire threat might have dissuaded some from forgery but not all and a cursory glance back in time shows just how tempting it was to try. In 1566 arrests were made in Aberdeen of individuals accused of bringing in counterfeit or black money called hardheids from Flanders and the town’s commissioners, Robert Crichton and James Millar, were ordered to carry out an investigation which resulted the following year in Andrew Murray, a burgess from Perth, and Patrick Ramsay, a burgess from Dundee, being found guilty and gruesomely executed. In 1594 Scotland’s Privy Council reiterated a ban on foreign currency to reduce the amount of foreign coins circulating, sometimes from legitimate reasons e.g. the old rose noble of England had been temporarily allowed into Aberdeen to pay for English soldiers then barracked in the town.

As I mentioned above control over currency rested with the monarch who appointed moneyers to mint coins and he or she determined the timing of new issues. Sometimes a moneyer’s name was pressed onto coins, adding to confusion over their source for coiners and moneyers were peripatetic and moved about the country following the monarch’s movements and supplied coins where necessary.

Scotland’s own currency, silver pennies, first appeared in the 12th century during the reign of David I. Before then all sorts of currencies were used for trading including Roman, Northumbrian, Viking and Anglo-Saxon which explain why exposed money hoards have often included money from different parts, for example two hoards of Roman silver denari found in 1966 at Birnie, near Elgin in Moray (pronounced Murray as in Andy not moray as in the eel) inside wee leather purses which had been placed in a pot lined with bracken. A couple of centuries ago several purses and bags of money were discovered in Aberdeen which dated from the time of Mary Queen of Scots and these coins carried both her name and that of her husband Francis, Dauphin of France.

mary and francis testoon

Mary and Francis testoon

It was in 1136 then that Scotland’s first coins were minted – in England, or rather that disputed territory of Carlisle. The town had been taken by the Scottish King David and as there were silver mines there along with a mint he put both to good use and had a number of silver coins struck. These first issues looked remarkably like English money but over time Scotland’s currencies grew distinctive. By the reign of James III (1460 – 1488) instead of showing a nominal portrait to represent the monarch Scottish coins featured realistic regal portraits and were by now more comparable with French coinage than English – a hint at the close relationship between Scotland and France. Those from the reign of James III also featured Scotland’s heraldic emblems of the thistle and the wonderful unicorn. The golds were called riders and the silvers were placks.

2017-12-07_14-30-03

Find the unicorn

Edinburgh has long been Scotland’s financial centre and unsurprisingly an important supplier of Scottish currency although it wasn’t until 1527 that a specific building was designated for the mint. Edinburgh was also the last place in Scotland to mint coins after the Union of Parliaments. The Union of Scotland and England was marked by striking a new coin which interestingly acquired similar but different names north and south of the border – known as a unit in Scotland and as a unite in England (make what you will of the subtext of these names.) The unit was silver and worth £12 Scots or £1 sterling (English) and from the time of the Union Scottish currency had to fit in with England’s; both silver and copper.

Aberdeen minted coins were of a slightly more recent vintage than Edinburgh’s but as parliament followed the king around Scotland with the mint in his wake Aberdeen became a centre of production for several years from 1342 when plague ravaged the country encouraging the nobility to head north in hope of escaping it.  

Whenever mention is made of Scotland’s former currencies it’s usually the groat or bawbee which are recalled but there were many other coins circulating here across the centuries including the plack, bodle, pistole, crown, demi-lion, ducat or bonnet, merk or mark, unicorn, half-unicorn, dollar, farthing and ryal as well as half-groats, half-pennies, and half almost anything – produced by cutting a coin in two. Of course not every coin was minted at each new strike and not every mint from the Borders to Inverness produced a range of coinage.

As trade increased so did constraints on currency. Parliament imposed limitations on the movement of money leaving the country. Such a tax in 1331 was set at one shilling in the pound and provided Aberdeen with over £8 duty taken from £160 of its currency which had moved away that year.    

While there are not many extant Aberdeen minted coins some remain. Several turned up in a silver hoard of 12,000 coins unearthed in a 3-legged bronze pot in 1886 in the city’s Upperkirkgate, at Ross’s Court. Most of these 13th and 14th century coins were English pennies along with a number of French Mary Queen of Scots testoons and 113 pennies from the reign of Alexander III but as to where they were minted there is no record and no hint on the coins.

On the subject of things missing several coins from that cache, sixty-two of them, were bought by Queen Victoria including twelve early ones produced under Alexander III, a couple from the time of Robert the Bruce and two from John Balliol’s pretendy reign – they have since disappeared along with several handed over to both the National Collection of Antiquities in Edinburgh and the British Museum. The bulk of the hoard, around 10,000 coins, was returned to Aberdeen city and the University of Aberdeen but again a portion of these have also disappeared.

Aberdeen coins showed the king’s crowned head on the front except for those dating from Alexander III’s time which show an encircled head containing the king’s name and title. The reverse features a long double and single cross with stars, pellets and so on in the angles – and the mint name in a circle. In the case of the groats and half-groats an outer circle included the motto Dominvs Protector Mevs et Liberator Mevs (the protector and liberator) or contractions of it. On the Alexander III penny the coin includes the name of the moneyer, John of Aberdeen (no, not THAT one!)

David II was the first monarch to have groats and half groats minted, the latter marked Vila Aberdon indicating they were struck in Aberdeen. A Robert III groat reads Villa de Aberdein. A rare James II half groat from the Aberdeen hoard has Villa Aberden. Another variation denoting Aberdeen in James III and IV groats is the legend Villa de Abrde. Coins carrying HA were also Aberdeen mints signifying an occasional spelling of Aberdeen as Habirden.

As British banking staggers from crisis to crisis and the ordinary people of this country are the ones to shoulder the burden of bankers’ incompetency and criminality and at a time financial experts warn that the state of the UK banking system is worse than useless for its ability to ride out another storm the likelihood of which is extremely high it is surely time to return to more localised fiscal controls – not dependent on the whims of a monarch but a national bank of Scotland issuing 21st century currency, perhaps the unit.