Dr Murray Andrews of the University of Worcester provides a guide to the coins used for the short-lived Commonwealth of England, when there was no monarchy
On a cold winter’s afternoon on 30 January 1649 King Charles I was beheaded outside the Banqueting House at the Palace of Whitehall. This gruesome spectacle, watched by a packed crowd of onlookers (figure 1), came as a turning point after six harsh years of
Civil War, a conflict that saw brother fight brother in defence of King or Parliament. With Charles’ execution, Parliament had literally claimed a royalist scalp, and was able to reform the state as it saw fit. And reform it did: by the end of May 1649, the House of Commons had abolished the monarchy and House of Lords, and had declared itself the supreme authority of a new sovereign republic, the Commonwealth of England.
In the eleven years until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the Commonwealth oversaw some of the most radical political transformations in English history. Piece by piece, key pillars of the old English state were remodelled or dismantled in the name of the parliamentarian ‘Good Old Cause’. The coinage was no exception: long a symbol of royal power, it too was transformed under the Commonwealth, and the many thousands of coins kept in museums and private collections offer glimpses into the history of this remarkable ‘English revolution’.
All change at the Mint
Control of the coinage was a priority of the Commonwealth regime in early 1649. During the Civil War, Parliament held on to the Mint at the Tower of London, but made the unusual decision to continue striking coins bearing traditional royal designs. Shillings struck at the Tower in 1645, for example (figure 2), bore a portrait bust of Charles I, circumscribed by the Latin legend CAROLVS D G MAG BRI FRA ET HIB REX, ‘Charles, by the grace of God, King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland’. The reverses, meanwhile, depicted a quartered shield bearing the royal arms, surrounded by the Latin legend CHRISTO AVSPICE REGNO, ‘I reign with Christ as my protector’. The maintenance of a
Dr Murray Andrews of the University of Worcester provides a guide to the coins used during the short-lived Commonwealth of England, when the nation existed without a monarchy following the Second English Civil War and the trial and execution of Charles I
royal coinage during this period could be viewed as a pragmatic compromise, a canny decision made before the outcome of the war had been decided. But it also reflected a deliberate political strategy adopted by parliamentarian loyalists. Throughout the 1640s, many presented their cause as a fight ‘for King and Parliament’, casting the King as the unwilling pup-pet of ‘evil councillors’.
Whatever their basis, by 1649 these arrangements no longer matched political reality: the new republican government demanded a coinage of its own. On 13 February, barely a fortnight after Charles’ execution, Parliament established a committee to reassess the Mint’s activities. Its tasks were twofold: on the one hand, it would consider the regulation of the Mint, while on the other it would prepare dies for a new Commonwealth coinage. In this spirit, the committee spent the summer of 1649 examining Mint staff, dispensing of those who held any royalist sentiments. Some ‘old hands’ found themselves out of a job; among their number were the clerk of the irons, Thomas Swallow, the engraver Edward Wade, and the weigher Hamond Franklin.
Men granted offices at the Mint by patents from Charles I – for example, the comptroller Henry Cogan, and the assay masters Andrew Palmer and Thomas Woodward – were dispossessed in a similar fashion. The vacant posts were filled by new men, many of whom had backed Parliament during the war. The office of master-worker, for example, went to Aaron Guerdain, a doctor from Jersey who had advocated for Parliament during the 1640s. Other posts went to military men. The new comptroller, Thomas Barnardson, had supplied Parliament’s New Model Army with a regiment of foot soldiers during the siege of Colchester in 1648; the new teller and weigher, Henry Dumaresq, had commanded Jersey’s parliamentarian militia during the 1640s.
The coins of the Commonwealth
In the autumn of 1649 Parliament ordered the Mint to issue new coins in the name of the Commonwealth. The coinage was bimetallic, and comprised a range of denominations in high-value gold (the unite, double-crown, and crown) as well as mid to low-value silver (the crown, halfcrown, shilling, sixpence, halfgroat, penny, and halfpenny). The designs of these coins differed radically from their royal predecessors (figures 3-4). On the obverse, the royal bust was replaced by a shield emblazoned with the Cross of St George, sat within a wreath formed of a palm and olive branch. The reverses, meanwhile, depicted paired shields emblazoned with the Cross of St George and the Harp of Ireland. These changes of design were profoundly symbolic: England had rejected a royal coinage in favour of a national coinage, which would circulate in all those areas under English control.
But change was not limited to imagery. Latin legends were replaced by English legends: on the obverse, THE
COMMONWEALTH OF ENGLAND, and on the reverse GOD WITH VS. This was a calculated move designed to appeal to the Commonwealth’s protestant backers. For many English protestants, particularly dissenters like the Levellers, Puritans, and Quakers, the official use of Latin was an unwelcome relic of ‘superstitious Popery’. Its replacement by a Godly message in plain English therefore symbolised the rejection of Catholicism, and a commitment to a ‘correct’ protestant outlook.
Despite embarking on a new coinage in its own name, there is no evidence that the Commonwealth ever attempted to withdraw earlier royal coins from circulation. This had the peculiar effect of producing a currency pool in which Commonwealth coins circulated side-by-side with those of its deposed or deceased royalist predecessors. The complex monetary situation that arose is illustrated by a hoard of nearly 1,600 silver coins buried near Blackfriars Bridge, London, in c.1660 and rediscovered in the mid-1990s. Less than a quarter of the coins in this hoard were Commonwealth issues, the remainder consisting of earlier royalist coins, chiefly of Charles I.
Complexities aside, archaeological and metal-detector finds suggest that Commonwealth coins enjoyed a widespread circulation in English towns and villages during the mid-17th century. This situation could hardly please the Commonwealth’s royalist opponents, who denounced the coins as inferior products of an illegitimate regime. Ridicule was a key weapon in the royalist arsenal. One quick-witted critic, the royalist Lord Lucas, observed that the conjoined shields on the reverse of Commonwealth coins resembled a pair of breeches: ‘a fit stamp for the coin of the Rump’. Counterfeiting, however, posed a more serious threat to the coinage than any royalist jibes, and on 17 July 1649 Parliament passed an Act making the counterfeiting and clipping of coins a capital offence. These measures clearly had mixed success, for many examples of counterfeit Commonwealth coins have been uncovered in recent years (figure 5).
The coinage of the Protectorate
Throughout its existence the Commonwealth was riven by factional disputes, but none were quite as significant as those that arose in the early 1650s between Parliament and the New Model Army. Slow progress on constitutional reforms frustrated Army Grandees, including the decorated Lieutenant-General Oliver Cromwell (figure 6). Tensions between the parties came to a head in April 1653, when Parliament refused Cromwell’s demands to form a caretaker government of MPs and army representatives. Cromwell subsequently marched his troops into the House of Commons, and forcibly dissolved Parliament. In July 1653 a new ‘Parliament of Saints’ was summoned, but this was equally incapable of resolving constitutional problems, and was itself dissolved on 8 December. One week later, the army’s Council of Officers unilaterally adopted a new constitution for the Commonwealth. Known as the Instrument of Government, this constitution vested key executive powers in a single head of state: the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell.
Cromwell’s rule as Lord Protector transformed the Commonwealth from a dysfunctional parliamentary
Commonwealth coins enjoyed a widespread circulation, a situation that didn't please royalist opponents, who denounced the coins as inferior
republic into a military dictatorship, ruled by a king in all but name. The scale of the political reversal was made clear in November 1656, when the Mint’s chief engraver, Thomas Simon, was instructed to prepare dies for gold and silver coins in Cromwell’s name. The designs of these coins echoed their royalist predecessors (figure 7), depicting a laureate Cromwell on the obverse and a crowned quartered shield on the reverse. The legends, meanwhile, reverted from English to Latin: they now named OLIVAR D G R P ANG SCO ET HIB &c PRO, ‘Oliver, by the grace of God, Protector of the Republic of England, Scotland, Ireland, etc’, and proclaimed PAX QVAER-ITVR BELLO, ‘Peace through War’. The earliest of these coins, dated 1656, were struck at Drury House in 1657, using an innovative minting machine designed by the French moneyer Pierre Blondeau. Production ceased after Cromwell’s death at Whitehall on 3 September 1658, and few if any of the coins seem to have entered circulation. Authentic specimens are now desirable collectors’ pieces, and command extraordinary prices at auction.
The end of the Commonwealth coinage
On 3 September 1658 the title of Lord Protector passed to Oliver Cromwell’s eldest son, Richard. The succession was a poisoned chalice. Unlike his father, Richard Cromwell lacked military experience and supporters. Moreover, he inherited a state blighted by financial problems: by the time of his accession, the Commonwealth was in the throes of economic depression, and was saddled by debts worth £2.5m. Richard’s attempts to resolve these problems drew the ire of Parliament and Army alike, and by May 1659 he had been effectively ousted from power in a bloodless coup.
Political disputes thundered on in Richard’s wake, and in February 1660 a powerful military faction, headed by General George Monck, marched on London demanding a new political settlement. Monck and his followers believed that stability was only achievable under a restored monarchy, and to these ends worked with a strong royalist contingent in the new ‘Convention Parliament’ to secure the return of the exiled Charles
II. On 4 April 1660 Charles II issued his Declaration of Breda, pledging to pardon all those who accepted his claim to the English throne. Parliament agreed to these terms, and by 29 May the King had returned to London, ready to receive his crown.
The restoration of Charles II in 1660 signalled the end of the Commonwealth era, and sealed the fate of its coinage. On 7 September 1661, Charles II issued a proclamation withdrawing all Commonwealth coins from circulation, a policy enforced with great rigour: in many cases, holes were punched through the old coins in an act of forcible demonetisation (figure 8). Those specimens that escaped the melting pot are a material legacy of a revolutionary England, a ‘world turned upside down’.