The Anglo-Irish Coinage of Elizabeth I

Christopher Comber


The Anglo-Irish coins of the first Queen Elizabeth are not a pretty sight. Probably because of this, their study has been neglected over the years. Indeed, it is tempting to dismiss them as divisible into three distinct coinages and leave it at that - but I cannot let the reader off that lightly!

The availability of suitable study material is limited. The issues were relatively small and their survival rate poor. The British Museum's holdings are relatively modest, as are those at the National Museum of Ireland. I soon realised that the largest holdings were at the Ulster Museum, where all of Raymond Carlyon-Britton's Anglo-Irish coins are housed. A distinguished past member of the British Numismatic Society who died in 1960, RC-B's Anglo-Irish cabinet totalled more than 1,500 coins acquired by the Ulster Museum in 1962. Frustratingly, RC-B's Elizabethan Irish total less than 100 pieces - but there are some significant coins amongst this total, and I am obliged to Robert Heslip for his help in providing details and photographs.

To put things into perspective, some outline of the economic history of 16th century Ireland is necessary. The Irish economy was primitive and under-developed, and consequently the people had little need for vast quantities of money. What circulating coin there was in Ireland came from two main sources - England and the continent, mixed with some Scottish and (obviously) with some coin struck in Ireland itself. Foreign trade was healthy, particularly with Spain, and this even continued when England and Spain were at war during the late 1580s. Consequently, a considerable amount of Spanish silver circulated in Ireland: this is proven by the existence of Spanish coin in Irish finds, as recorded by Michael Dolley in his 1970 article published in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology entitled The Pattern of Elizabethan Coin Hoards from Ireland. The English coin which found its way to Ireland, and the Irish coin specifically made for circulation there, were really sent for the purpose of financing English government in Ireland. I am indebted to Dr. Christopher Challis and his 1971 article in the British Numismatic Journal entitled The Tudor Coinage for Ireland for this revelation, which certainly goes a long way to explain the haphazard commissions for Irish coinage during the late Tudor times (they rarely coincide with those of English issues) and the apparent but unfortunately still only approximate large orders. The currency was therefore for law and order, and not related to a need for spending money.

With this background information in mind, we can look at the coins and what happened to them with a greater understanding. The harp first became a feature on Anglo-Irish coins early in 1536, with the introduction of Henry VIII's coinage of groats and their halves. This coinage was 10oz fine instead of the standard 11oz 2dwts and the commission referred to the coins as 6d and 3d Irish. So the Irish currency was being manipulated for fiscal purposes: various debasements followed during Henry VIII's reign, and adjustments were made to the ratio of Irish to English.

From these first coins featuring the famous harp reverse there was no stylistic evolution through to the reign under consideration because there was a gap of around ten years between the Henry VIII harp groats and the Irish issues of Mary. However, the fine and rare Mary shillings of 1553, and the even rarer groats, designed and engraved by Derrick Anthony with John Lawrence as under-graver, did serve as prototype patterns for the 1555 base issues of Philip and Mary. Here, the crowned harp punch was later used on Elizabeth's base shillings struck during 1559.

The First Base Issue

The first base issue of Elizabeth was struck following three commissions which were directed to Sir Edmund Peckham, High Treasurer, and Thomas Stanley, Comptroller at the Nether Mint in the Tower. These three commissions were dated 17th February, 1st May, and 16th June 1559, and requested that a total of £20,000 sterling in base English money should be converted into £40,000 value of even baser Irish monies. Shillings and groats were the denominations ordered, and the mint mark was a rose, which mark had been used since 1556 on the base harp groats of Philip and Mary.

Above is a Philip and Mary groat (on the left) and an Elizabeth groat showing the re-use of the rose mint mark and, more interestingly, a die flaw on the left hand side of the crown. This flaw first manifested itself late in 1555 and was never repaired or replaced. It is a curious aside to note that the base shillings and groats of Philip and Mary struck especially for Ireland contain no reference to the Irish title in the legend. The issues of Philip and Mary and Elizabeth's first issue shared many common punches - some long after their shelf-life had expired. It was stressed that the first issue Elizabeth shillings and groats - harp monies as they were called - should be current in Ireland but not elsewhere. The weights were 144 grains for the shilling and 48 grains for the groat, the same as that for Philip and Mary, although many extant specimens exceed these weights, and there is great variance even in relatively unworn specimens. The dimensions too were the same as the earlier pieces, with the shilling struck on a 33mm flan and the groat on a 25.5mm flan. The "fineness" (if that is the appropriate word) was 3oz fine silver and 9oz alloy, and the issue was contemporary with the English issues bearing mint mark lis. They share common features, especially letter punches and the portrait puncheon, and both are devoid of a beaded inner circle.

Two portrait punches are used on the Irish shilling. Above can be seen the first bust designated 1a by Brown and Comber in their 1988 British Numismatic Journal article entitled The Portrait Puncheons of Elizabeth I. This is known on a very few specimens of the English mint mark lis coins, so it is possible that this bust was originally for use on the Irish issue.

The job of striking £40,000 value, as set out in the three commissions, was probably completed by August 1559 - about two thirds of which had been ordered in the first commission, and were struck by the middle of April 1559. The mintage can only be estimated as the pyx trial results do not survive. The estimate is 400,000 shillings and 1.2 million groats.

The more plentiful groat shares the same portrait punch 1f as the contemporary English issue bearing mint mark lis. Less care was taken with the hurried production of the base Irish issues. Interestingly, the reverse mis-spelling, omitting the V in ADIVTOREM, first appears on a Philip and Mary groat dated 1557, and is carried on into the Elizabethan groats, and one or two dies of the shilling as seen here.

Earlier in the article I mentioned the use of punches from the previous reign. There was also the use of common punches on different denominations. Shown here is the common use of the crowned E punches on a shilling and groat of Elizabeth's first base issue and the common crowned R punches on the same coins.

The ratio between English and Irish was 3 to 4, so the Irish groat and shilling started their life as equivalent to threepence and ninepence respectively. English base money yielded twice its face value when melted and coined into even baser Irish money, so it was an attractive proposition to mint Irish currency. The intention, however, was to create a very short-lived coinage to be called in for melting down in a year or so, along with the Philip and Mary base issues. By 11th July 1561 the values were decreased to 5¼d and 1¾d respectively for the shilling and groat. Some had obviously been successfully called to the melting pot as part of the great recoinage of 1560-1, but a large proportion did remain in circulation for quite a time at these diminished values. Evidence from fifteen well scattered hoards shows the existence of base coin (mainly groats) from this first issue buried or lost alongside the base groats of Philip and Mary.

Late in 1560 there were attempts to revive interest in reopening the Dublin Mint. The last product of that establishment was the now very rare base shilling of Edward VI dated 1552 bearing the mint mark harp, some of which are known to have been countermarked with a seated greyhound behind the king's head (as in the example shown above) during the great recoinage of 1560. It was thus revalued to 2¼d in England, but shillings countermarked with a greyhound were current in Ireland for 3½d.

Second Issue 1561

The fine issue dated 1561 is the most notable, and the most recognisable, of the Anglo-Irish Elizabethan issues. The famous three harps upon an indented crowned shield must be regarded as one of Derrick Anthony's most successful productions. The pleasing symmetry looks equally good on the shilling and the groat. This reverse was chosen as the cover design for Anthony Doyle and Patrick Finn's famous "Green Book" catalogue of Irish coins published in 1969.

However, this issue was very small and shrouded in some controversy and mystery. While correspondence was being exchanged between the Queen, Cecil, and the Lieutenant of Ireland, with regard to the possible reopening of the Dublin Mint for the striking of these pieces, a commission was granted to Peckham and Stanley at the Nether Mint in the Tower dated 26th March 1561, ordering the striking of shillings and groats at 11oz fine. The Exchequer accounts show that between 1st and 30th April 1561 2,997 lbs troy were struck producing £11,988 worth of coin. These were then sent to Ireland as a fait accompli during May 1561. Quite simply, it was cheaper to produce money for Ireland in London rather than locally at (say) Dublin, despite the addition of transport costs and the risks of loss during transit - actually, those costs are estimated by Challis at no more than 5% of the face value of any given shipment.

The 1561 fine shilling was struck on a 30mm diameter flan with a prescribed weight of 72 grains, and the groat on a 22mm flan weighing 24 grains, these weights being one quarter less than the English equivalents - and indeed the coins were rated at ninepence and threepence in England, but at least they had an official value here.

The obverse legends were specially drafted to include the full Irish title of HIBERNIE - several varieties are known of both denominations, so several dies were used. Above can be seen an English half-groat of mint mark cross crosslet, with an Irish groat using the common bust punch 1g, and a contemporary English shilling of mint mark martlet and the Irish shilling using the common bust punch 3c. These fine silver Irish coins were well designed, well struck, and acceptable at the pyx, so it is a mystery why the government would issue no more the £12,000 face value of them. The coins were tested at the pyx trial of 24th October 1561, when £9.0s.12d in harp shillings and groats were found acceptable at the prescribed 11oz fine. The English recoinage issues made at the same time were 11oz 2dwt fine. Based on the pyx amount, the rough mintage split is 215,000 in shillings and a mere 72,000 groats - so one can see how scarce the groats are, and this is reflected in the price of decent specimens. Six of the shillings have been recorded from four finds (one cannot call them hoards) in Ireland, and no groats have been found.

Although the object of this second coinage was to effect a reformation of the existing Irish currency, the small quantity produced was obviously inadequate for the purpose, and the base monies still circulated freely along with foreign coin. No further Irish coins, fine or base, were struck for the next forty years.

Late in 1593, the rising under Tyrone commenced, which would last until the end of the reign. The cost of Elizabeth's expenditure in Ireland then rose from about £25-30,000 per annum to almost £200,000 for each of the years at war. As at the beginning of the reign in earlier troubles, the means of financing English troops in Ireland was causing a problem, so in December 1600 a suggestion was put forward to decry all Irish monies, whether sterling or base, and replace them with a proposed new debased coinage which would only be current in Ireland.

Third Issue, 1601-1603

Under an indenture dated 2nd February 1601 with Sir Richard Martin and Richard his son, master workers at the Tower, five denominations of Irish money were ordered. These were shilling, half-shilling, and quarter shilling in debased silver of 2oz 18dwts fine, and two small Irish moneys "without silver" to be current as one penny Irish and one half-penny Irish. The coins of both metals are without the Queen's portrait, and a similarity may be noted with the fine silver issues for the East India Company - foreign coin ordered and struck only one month earlier in January 1601.

Charles Anthony was the Chief Engraver at the time but the under-graver, John Rutlinger, was probably responsible for these five Irish pieces, as his fee per annum was in excess of Anthony's. The shilling of this third base issue was much lighter and smaller than this same denomination of the first issue struck at the beginning of the reign. The third issue shilling was prescribed at 92.9 grains previously - a reduction in excess of one third. The flan size had reduced to 30mm from 33mm diameter previously. Very few, if any, of the third issue silver coins have been recorded as being at or over the prescribed weight, and many of the quarter shilling threepences have chipped flans, probably in striking.

All the third issue pieces bear the common reverse design of a crowned harp with the POSVI DEVM ADIVTOREM MEVM legend. The sixpence, on a 25mm diameter flan, and the quarter shilling threepence on a 19½mm flan, are added to the Irish currency for the first time, but the most novel feature of the 1601 indenture is the introduction of copper pence and half-pence. For the first time the Tower Mint struck an official coinage in base metal.

I am indebted to the immediate Past President of the BNS, Graham Dyer, for providing the above picture of a trial plate from the Royal Mint Museum. The indenture mentions trial pieces for each of the denominations, but this is the only apparent survivor. It is a stamp of the reverse of the three penny die, erroneously described as the sixpence Irish on the illustration in Dr. Watson's 1962 publication on Ancient Trial Plates. Despite the poor appearance of the coinage and the hasty workmanship , it seems clear that considerable thought and effort went into the design for their production, as evidenced by this trial plate.

The copper pieces were dated 1601 and 1602 on the reverse, and they serve to date the undated base silver coins bearing the same mint marks. This picture clearly shows the different admixes of metals used to produce the copper pieces. There was 192 pence in each pound weight; thus the pence were 30 grains and the half-pence 15 grains each. The half-pence was small, on a 16½mm diameter flan, and the penny is on a 19½mm diameter flan, as is the threepence. Indeed, the penny and the threepence share many common punches. The only difference is that the copper penny has the royal cypher ER flanking the shield on the obverse, and the date divided by the harp on the reverse.

In 1969 the Rev. Gerry Rice of County Meath purchased a copper piece of mint mark star on a penny sized flan, but devoid of the ER on the obverse and a date on the reverse. It was sold to him as a half-penny, but that was the one coin it quite clearly was not. The piece was slightly clipped and somewhat worn, but weighed 34½ grains, which was some 4½ grains in excess of the prescribed weight for the penny, although several pennies are known to have exceed 30 grains - the highest weight I have recorded is 36 grains for one with mint mark star. The significance of Rev. Rice's coin is whether it is a penny without the date and royal cypher, or a possible trial or pattern for a threepence in copper. Henry Symonds, in his 1917 Numismatic Chronicle paper entitled The Elizabethan Coinages for Ireland may have published a possible clue some fifty years before the discovery of Rice's coin. Symonds documents the work of two brothers, Edward and Thomas Hayes, who were known to be experimenting in the mint after 17th April 1601 (the star mint mark was used after 20th May) and better still, Symonds quotes from an undated letter from Thomas Hayes (placed in 1602 in the Calendar records) which proposed a new scheme for the Irish coinage, possibly including a threepence in copper. It does seem coincidental for the piece to be devoid of vital features on both sides. Strangely, Michael Dolley, in an article on Rice's coin in Spink's Numismatic Circular for May 1970, omits reference to the Hayes documents, but argues correctly for the piece being an undated, hitherto unpublished, penny and the subsequent catalogues refer to the coin. Simply, it is a penny struck in the correct metal using the threepenny puncheons.

The sequence of mint marks is clearly established by documentary evidence, which is confirmed by examining the dated copper pieces. The trefoil was first, and in use from the date of the indenture, 2nd February 1601, until the pyx trial of 20th May 1601. In three and a half months, a staggering 26,307 lbs weight was struck in "white Irish" money, as this base silver was euphemistically called. On 28th April 1601 an order was placed for £49,000 value in silver and £1,000 in copper. The new coins were shipped out quickly to Ireland, where in May they were proclaimed.

The reason for this coinage was to deny good silver to the rebels in the north of Ireland so they would not have anything with which to buy arms from abroad. The idea was to flood Ireland with base money and get everything else out of circulation. The money was exchangeable almost at par - 21 shillings Irish for 20 shillings English, which could be converted back in London at 19 shillings English for 20 shillings Irish. It was, therefore, intended to be a token currency, but one which could only be redeemed in England - only base coin was allowed in Ireland - all existing coin was to be exchanged for the new at the rates quoted, and exchanges were set up in several cities in Ireland. It is not entirely clear as to what coins were circulating in Ireland at the time. Hoards contain mostly English coin, but there was a lot of base coin in use (which would not be hoarded) and it is no surprise that much of the existing base coin was brought in to exchange for the new legal tender base coin, but not much sterling.

Following the pyx of 20th May 1601, the mint mark was changed to star. Some coins exist with mint mark star over trefoil on either or both sides, so the change of mark would have been relatively immediate. In the autumn of 1601 a hapless Spanish ship carrying £5,200 value in silver coin was captured in the channel, and this silver was used for the Irish coinage (presumably mint mark star pieces) but much more silver than this was needed for the whole project. We know the total troy weight poundages for each mint mark used, and we are aware of the indenture order requiring that in each 12 lbs weight of silver monies 7 lbs were to be in shillings, 4 lbs in sixpences, and 1 lb in threepences so, if one assumes that the mint workers kept to the order, and we further assume uniform production throughout, then the figures are accurate.

On 24th May 1602 the star pieces were pyxed, and the mint mark changed to martlet. There is no evidence of any overmarking between martlet and star and that, coupled with the fact that several different punches are used exclusively on the martlet pieces, leads me to the conclusion that there might have been a break in production of at least a few weeks during the middle of 1602. Also, it might be significant to note that no star copper pieces bear the date 1602, yet the mark was still in use for two months into the new year - the datal figure should have changed after 25th March.

In spite of the infusion of new coins as witnessed by these figures, the sterling was still not finding its way to the exchanges, and so on 9th June 1602 a second proclamation was issued increasing the rate to 22 shillings Irish for 20 shillings English but, more importantly, requiring that any old money brought in for exchange should be 20% sterling, bullion, or gold! Still the good silver remained out in the field, so on 24th January 1603 a third proclamation required that 40% of the old money brought in should be of good silver, and the number of exchanges reduced.

In a similar fashion I have apportioned the mintages for the copper pence and halves over the three mint marks used. The documentary evidence ties in with the probable result of the only pyx trial. Unfortunately the results of that trial are lost, but the figures I have recreated seem the only satisfactory answer based upon the fact that the 1602 half-penny of mint mark martlet is now by far the rarest of the copper pieces.

Elizabeth died on 24th March 1603. Prior to this, during January and February 1603, Mountjoy was negotiating terms with Tyrone to end the rebellion. A week after the Queen's death, Tyrone had surrendered and had received a pardon with his life and liberty. With the war over, the need for this token currency would soon disappear. In an ideal world it would have been exchanged at the 22 shillings for 20 shillings rate for money of good silver, but this was far from an ideal world. In fact, fiscally, things were to get even more complicated. James I had succeeded Elizabeth and had envisaged a monetary union taking place in Ireland as well as Scotland and England. However, there was a discrepancy between the standard proclaimed at the beginning of James I's reign and that to which the coins were actually struck. It is quite probable that the confusion was deliberate - it is worth remembering that when James VI of Scotland came to the English throne he brought with him a very considerable experience of the problem of debasement.

The real standard of the Irish shillings and sixpences of James I was 11oz 2dwts fine and identical to his English counterparts, but by devaluing the third issue base silver Elizabethan shilling to fourpence and the lesser denominations in proportion on 11th October 1603, and then by saying that his new silver Irish coins were no more than 9oz fine, the Elizabethan base issue was subtly undervalued. With the war over, it was essential to get Mountjoy's demoralised troops disbanded and out of Ireland as soon as possible. This fictitious premium would have gone a long way in making the base money attractive to Mountjoy's soldiers: the final settlement of their long overdue wages would have been paid in base coin bearing mint mark martlet.

Earlier, in 1602, Edward Hayes had proposed harp shillings of fine silver worth ninepence sterling. This issue of James I Irish was indeed valued at ninepence in England. The Hayes brothers played a considerable part both in the negotiation for, and the production of, the coinage for Ireland during the last two years of Elizabeth's reign and the earlier years of James, although it is difficult if not impossible now to define the changes which were the result of their obvious but unofficial influence.

On 22nd January 1605, a second devaluation occurred, decrying the base Elizabethan shillings to threepence. At this rate, it was advantageous to return the base coin to the melting pot as bullion, and by this time merchants and silversmiths alike must have been aware of the true standard of the new James I pieces. The soldiers had been paid and the monies spent. For some while longer, the pretence of the 9oz standard was maintained, but with the proclamation of a new exchange rate on 11th November 1606, when the production of the "harps" probably ended, the deceit was becoming transparent. Minting of the James I Irish issue had definitely ceased before 31st March 1607, and on 19th May 1607 a proclamation declared full monetary union and complete exchangeability of English and Irish. The base silver of Elizabeth's third issue had disappeared from circulation almost as quickly as they had been issued.

I can find only one reference to a "small hoard" of base silver coin of this third issue. A shilling of mint mark trefoil was offered in the July 1976 issue of Seaby's Coin and Medal Bulletin, with a footnote that it was from a small heard found at Westmeath. Regrettably, I have been unable to trace any further references to the find, or other coins from it. All three silver denominations, especially the threepence, are rare today, and although they are singularly unattractive, especially the poor threepence, they normally command high prices both at auction and in dealers trays. It was an interesting, if ill-conceived, coinage.

The copper pennies and halfpennies met less of an abrupt end. Although they were technically tokens, they met a very real need for small change and aroused relatively little opposition, although some initial criticism might be inferred from the fact that what seems to have been the earliest pieces of mint mark trefoil appear to have been struck to a slightly lighter weight standard. The coppers were allowed to continue at their original rate, the sole restriction being a limit on the number that might be tendered in any one payment. In all, they probably continued in circulation at least until 1613, when the Royal copper farthings for James I arrived as small change in Ireland, and were proclaimed current in both kingdoms.