An Introduction to Early Milled Coins [Stamp and Coin Mart, September 2009, Page 130, 131]
In the late 16th century, coin clipping was a crime that carried the death penalty, yet still thousands of people did it, until a new invention brought neater coins and revolutionised English currency. By Brett Hammond of TimeLine Originals
If you only recently acquired your first hammered silver (or gold should your pocket go a little deeper) I'm sure you heeded the advice given by every coin dealer and beginner's guide on the importance of grading. Everyone prefers an aesthetically pleasing coin to admire in the comfort of a favourite armchair. So you probably spent a fraction more than you intended, just to make sure your new acquisition came up to vf rather than f-grade; or even ef rather than a grade lower.
We all do it - seasoned dealers as much as greenhorns with mostly empty spaces in their shiny new cabinets. Yet if the truth is told, our prized collections; our well-stocked dealer's trays; our superbly photographed on-line pages, look nothing like the money that passed from hand-to-hand in market-places and alehouses during the days when Good Queen Bess, or Richard the Lionheart, or Edward, Hammer of the Scots sat on England's throne. If I could conjure myself back in time and buy fresh stock directly from the purses and hands of the medieval men and women who used hammered silver money in their day-to-day transactions, I'd probably shake my head and return empty-handed. (Correction, I'd spend the money on buying items for TimeLine Originals' antiquities departments.)
Similarly, if it were possible to bring to my table at the next coin fair I attend, a burgher from the market-place of a 17th century English town, he would gaze in wonder at the condition of the hammered guineas, crowns, half-crowns, shillings, sixpences, groats, pennies, even the copper tokens from his era that we usually have on offer. Our f-grade specimens would look to him like newly minted money that he saw no more than two or three times in his life back in his own century. The majority of coins that passed from hand-to-hand then were in abysmal condition due to edge clipping and to over-long circulation. Here's a summary of a contemporary description of the state of affairs from debates by the government of the day:
The exporting of good silver from our country has assumed so serious an aspect that both Houses have applied themselves to it in earnest... Yet the only practical result of their deliberations has been a new penal law to prevent clipping. It was enacted that every person who informed against a clipper should be entitled to a reward of forty pounds; that every clipper who informed against two clippers should be entitled to a pardon; and that whoever should be found in possession of silver filings or parings from coins should be burned in the cheek with a red-hot iron... Sanctions against clipping have included capital punishment and have been rigorously enforced: instances of condemnation to death followed by execution have occurred by the dozen. In a single morning seven men were hanged and a woman burnt ...
Yet clipping continued, often regarded by those who wielded the clippers as a means of clawing back heavy taxes rather than as a deed of outright criminality. Clearly the answer for government and crown lay in minting coins that offered no, or very few, opportunities for removing metal. An invention for making coins by machine had in fact been perfected in Germany as far back as the 1540s. The French used a version of it in the 1550s until traditional mint workers, fearful for their jobs, rioted and persuaded the French king to fall back on old methods. One of the machine's operators, Eloye Mestrelle, slipped away from Paris and made his way to England and the Tower Mint, where he offered to build and to demonstrate one of the newfangled screw presses.
It had a fixed lower die and an upper die that screwed downward under the power of a harnessed horse. As the dies closed they squeezed rather than struck a metal blank to leave their impressions. The resulting coins were far superior to hand-hammered pieces, though the Frenchman was ten times slower at pressing finished coins than the hammer-swingers were at striking them. His press made the attractive and symmetrical shillings and sixpences of Elizabeth I from 1651; their roundness offering no scope for clipping. These coins became known as mill money; not because they had milled edges as we understand the term today, but because in the 16th century milled meant machine-made; also because the horse-driven contraption looked very like the horse-mills then in use on farms and elsewhere for a variety of horse-powered tasks.
In 1572 it was a powerful guild of London mint workers who combined to have the Frenchman dismissed. It is tempting to think that perhaps they were also somehow implicated in Mestrelle's final downfall: he was arrested in 1578 on a counterfeiting charge. A guilty verdict led swiftly to his execution at the end of a rope.
Machinery did not finally replace traditional hammer men at the Tower Mint until 1662. Meanwhile the scourge of clipping continued. The turmoil of the English Civil War, during which many coins were hurriedly struck at provincial mints, resulted in huge numbers of oddly-shaped pieces that proved a great temptation to those with shears in the dead of night. Nevertheless a few milled coins were produced, notably by Frenchman, Nicholas Briot, who was employed by the king from 1631-1639 to press crowns, half-crowns, shillings, sixpences, half-groats and pennies, though far too few to satisfy demand. In fact, Briot also issued hammered coins for the monarch. In the immediate post-war period another Frenchman with a coin mill ( Pierre Blondeau) worked briefly for Oliver Cromwell during 1656-1658, turning out some neat pieces depicting Cromwell as Lord Protector. But it was not until the restoration of the monarchy and accession of Charles II (1660-1685) that milled coin production began to gather pace. His reign witnessed several denominations produced in their last hammered versions and their first milled versions. And by that time mills efficient enough to be worked by human muscle power rather than by horses were in use. But hand-struck coins circulated alongside them, as did millions of old and badly worn coins from previous reigns.
Three further reigns - James II, William & Mary, William III - witnessed yet more clipping and far too little milled money in circulation to meet demand. It remained crucial for anyone handling coins in a market-place to own a set of scales and to use them for almost every transaction. Who could possibly have any confidence in hammered coins which, by 1695, had felt their edges shaved to the point where the average sixpence or shilling had lost 40-50% of the silver content it possessed when first struck?
Two years into William III's reign (1696) the government finally screwed up its courage and called in all hammered silver. Temporary mints equipped with presses were set up at Bristol, Chester, Exeter, Norwich and York to cope with the mammoth task of re-coining the realm. A few unclipped coins were allowed through the net - those that had almost miraculously kept their full weight while in circulation. But they were all officially marked with a central pierced hole; and they soon found their way into the melting pot as the entire nation began to enjoy the feel of milled money in its pockets and purses.
by Brett Hammond
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