BLOODY MARY’S MONEY
Dr Murray Andrews examines the coinage used during the reign of Mary I and reveals a tumultuous period of British history which forever changed the nation’s attitudes to religion and money
Dr Murray Andrews examines the coinage used during the tumultuous reign of Mary I
On 6 July 1553 England’s ailing teenage monarch, Edward VI, succumbed to a respiratory disease at the Palace of Placentia in Greenwich (figure 1). For Parliament and the
Privy Council, which governed on Edward’s behalf during his minority, the death of the boy king posed a major political problem. For the past six years Edward and his councillors had ruled as zealous religious reformers, overseeing the confiscation of church property, destruction of holy images, and rejection of Catholic ritual in the name of the new Protestant faith. Yet, having died without heirs of his own, Edward’s claim to the throne would now pass by law to his half-sister, Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s eldest living daughter and a committed Catholic (figure
2). Threatened with the reversal of their entire political project, Edward’s councillors moved quickly, and on 10 July proclaimed Jane Grey – Edward’s first cousin once removed, and the daughterin-law of his chief councillor, the Duke of Northumberland – as queen of England. Mary responded in turn, and within a week had rallied an army of nearly 20,000 troops in her favour. Realising the scale of public opposition, on 19 July the Privy Council abandoned its support for Jane Grey, and proclaimed Mary Tudor as the new Mary I, queen of England.
Like that of her predecessor, Mary’s reign was both short and polarising. To her supporters, Mary was a modest and loving queen, whose five-year rule was defined by a heartfelt commitment to a popular and
traditional Catholic religion. To her detractors, however, she would forever be ‘Bloody Mary’: the queen who burned more than 280 Protestants at the stake, who lost Calais to the French, and became consort to an unpopular foreign king. The monetary aspects of Mary’s reign were no less complex, characterised on the one hand by a conservative attempt to revive a heavilydebased English currency, and on the other by a marked openness to the modernising influence of continental European coinage.
The coinage of Mary’s sole reign
Mary’s coinage began in earnest on 20 August 1553, barely a month after her accession to the English throne, when a royal indenture ordered the production of gold and silver coins bearing her image and name. By the terms of this indenture, the royal mint at the Tower of London was instructed to strike gold sovereigns, ryals, angels, and half-angels at the traditional standard of 23 carats 3½ grains, and to strike silver groats, halfgroats, and pence at the standard of 11 ounces ‘out of the fire’. This was a bold move, signalling an end to the debased ‘crown gold’ and ‘base silver’ coinages produced by her Tudor predecessors: a statement of intent from a new monarch keen to restore the English coinage to its previous esteem. Production began in September 1553, and continued for nearly a year until her marriage to Philip II in July 1554.
Coins issued during Mary’s
‘sole reign’ are uncommon, having been struck in small numbers for a short period of time. Those that have survived, however, give an impression of the self-image and political priorities of the new monarch. The gold coins, which are particularly rare, are well-executed and artistic, bearing attractive designs struck on broad flans. The obverses of the largest gold denominations offer glimpses of the young queen in her majesty: on the sovereigns, for example, an enthroned and robed Mary is shown holding the royal orb and sceptre (figure 3), her hair hanging loose over her shoulders as a symbol of purity and virginity. In the case of the smaller gold denominations, the angel and the half-angel, the traditional designs – the Archangel Michael slaying a dragon on the obverse, and a ship bearing a cross and the royal arms on the reverse – are augmented by a paired M and Tudor rose, reiterating Mary’s royal lineage and legitimacy
(figure 4). While the designs of the gold coins are varied, their legends are uniform: the obverses read ‘MARIA D G ANG FRA ET HIB REGINA’, ‘Mary, by the Grace of God, queen of England, France, and Ireland’, while the reverses read ‘A DNO FACTV
EST ISTVD ET EST MIRA IN OCUL NRIS’, ‘This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes’ (Psalms 118:23). This was an unusual Biblical quotation, chosen to celebrate Mary’s attempts to revive the Catholic traditions of later medieval England. Similar messages were conveyed by the silver coins, whose reverses read ‘VERITAS TEMPORIS FILIA’, ‘Truth is the daughter of time’
– an ancient Roman proverb adopted as Mary’s personal motto,
confirming her desire to rectify the errors of the Reformation and reconcile with the Catholic Church (figure 5).
The coinage of Philip and Mary
Much like her predecessor,
Mary was only too aware of the importance of a secure succession. During 1553 she focused her attentions on finding a husband and producing an heir, and through discussions with her cousin, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, identified a prospective suitor in Philip II, the Habsburg king of Spain. News of the potential marriage proved toxic to the Protestant nobility, who spearheaded a failed insurrection in January and February 1554. While rebel leaders and suspected sympathisers were soon rounded up, imprisoned, or executed, the reaction forced Philip and Mary to publicly agree the terms of their union: in line with an Act of Parliament, Philip would become king consort, unable to act without Mary’s consent, and only permitted to appoint Englishmen to public office. Alert to the political benefits of an Anglo-Spanish union, Philip consented to these terms, and the couple married at Winchester on 25 July 1554, just two days after their first meeting.
The production of a joint coinage for Philip and Mary began in December 1554 with a large issue of silver shillings (figure 6) and sixpences, perhaps using a fresh consignment of New World silver – some twenty cartloads, worth £50,000 – that had arrived at the Tower mint under Spanish guard in October of that year. Clearly influenced by continental coinage (figure 7), these coins employed novel modern designs depicting the couple in the manner of Renaissance royalty. On the obverse the twin busts of Philip and Mary face one another, the king bareheaded and cuirassed and the queen clad in her finery, her hair covered in a fashionable French hood. The portraits on the shillings bear a particularly close resemblance to the work of the Italian medallist Jacopo da Trezzo, who visited the English court during Mary’s reign and may have designed the coins himself. The legends surrounding the portraits changed over time: the earliest issues in 1554 read ‘PHILIP ET MARIA D G R ANG FR NEAP PR HISP’, ‘Philip and Mary, by the Grace of God, king and queen of England, France, and Naples, Prince and Princess of Spain’, but this was soon abandoned for the astute ‘PHILIP ET MARIA D G REX ET REGINA AN’, ‘Philip and Mary, by the Grace of God, king and queen of England’. The reverses, meanwhile, display an elaborate crowned shield, bearing the twinned arms of the Habsburg and English monarchs, surrounded by the legend ‘POSVIMVS
DEVM ADIVOTREM NOSTRVN’, a plural form of the traditional ‘I have made God my helper’. From 1557 these elegant coins were joined by new issues of angels, half-angels, groats, halfgroats, and pence, which married traditional designs with a new legend: ‘PHILIP ET MARIA D G REX ET REG’, ‘Philip and Mary, by the Grace of God, king and queen’ (figure 8). Gold coins were struck far more sparingly than silver coins during Philip and Mary’s joint reign, reflecting a possible bullion shortage, and are highly sought-after by collectors.
The coins in circulation
Despite Mary’s efforts to re-introduce high quality gold and silver coins to England, the debased money of her predecessors dominated the domestic currency throughout her reign. Several measures were taken to reduce the proportion of base coin in circulation, although these had mixed effects. During the joint reign of Philip and Mary, £13,020 in base testoons and halfgroats were withdrawn from circulation and recoined at the Tower into base ‘Rose pence’ (figure 9). Though intended for circulation in Ireland, some found their way back to England, forcing the queen to issue a proclamation on 16 September 1556 explicitly banning them from domestic circulation. From 1554, meanwhile, royal proclamations permitted the free circulation of some fine continental coins, including gold crowns, ducats, and cruzados, as well as silver reals and half-reals. Reals and half-reals were particularly common in Mary’s England, and many examples have been found by archaeologists and metal-detectorists in recent years (figure 10). By the middle of her reign Mary was making serious plans for a systematic recoinage, and empowered a Privy Council committee to explore the question in June 1556, although nothing was implemented until after her death in 1558.
The English currency during Mary’s reign was therefore a patchwork of fine and base coins, most of them made in England but a significant minority made overseas. While many of these coins served as money, spent or saved in economic transactions, some were used in different ways. One groat of Mary found in the River Thames, for example, has been deliberately folded into a triangle (figure 11), an unusual practice reflecting the revival of traditional Catholic customs in Mary’s reign: before the Protestant Reformation it was not unusual for English Christians to deliberately bend or fold coins in the hope of receiving miraculous assistance from the saints.
Assessing Mary’s numismatic legacy
The final years of Mary’s reign were politically damaging. Military losses overseas, coupled with bad harvests and epidemic disease at home, left a significant dent in her popularity, and her inability to produce an heir reignited the problems of the royal succession. After a prolonged illness, Mary died at St James’s Palace on 17 November 1558, paving the way for the accession of her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth. While Elizabeth undid many of Mary’s cultural and religious reforms, her monetary policies built largely on Marian foundations: the successful Elizabethan silver recoinage of 1560-1 owed much to the careful planning of Mary’s Privy Council, and it might have taken the Tower mint much longer to experiment with continental minting technology had it not experimented with continental designs during Mary’s joint reign. While some of the novelties of Mary’s coinage were abandoned by her successor, the coins themselves continued to circulate long after both of their deaths. Examples of Mary’s silver coins are sometimes found in hoards buried during the English Civil Wars of 1642-51, and two hoards of clippings found at Alderwasley in Derbyshire suggest that some even remained in circulation on the eve of the Great Silver Recoinage of 1696. Though she only reigned for a few years, Mary left a numismatic legacy of considerable importance.