Seventeenth-century Britain – like many other societies throughout history – often suffered from an acute shortage of small change. Today, in an era of plentiful banknotes and coinage – not to mention debit and credit cards and online payments – this problem may be difficult to understand. But to people trying to carry out transactions when there was simply not enough low-value currency to go around it was a very real issue.
The everyday official currency of Elizabethan and Stuart England consisted of silver denominations of various sizes. Some, such as the shilling and sixpence, were of a reasonable size but the smallest coins were very small indeed. The tiny halfpennies were not only easily lost but also awkward to produce and this led to a reluctance on the part of the Tower mint to produce them in large numbers. This in turn led to a shortage of the small denominations that were most needed when carrying out everyday transactions involving low-value coins.
From the Elizabethan period to the early seventeenth century this difficulty was remedied by importing vast numbers of jettons produced in the German city of Nuremberg to serve as a low-value token currency. Jettons were not made of silver but of copper alloy and initially manufactured as counters for reckoning up sums of money. However, they were of a usable size and well produced, perfectly suited to alleviate the currency shortage.
The anonymous jetton issues of the sixteenth century were replaced in the second half of the century by types naming the masters who produced them. These ‘signed’ jettons, in particular those of Hans Krauwinckel II struck from 1586 until 1635 (see below), occur in huge numbers and must have been used as an unofficial token currency, most probably as token farthings. They may have been ordered direct by traders in England or brought back by the barrel load by enterprising individuals who made the journey to Nuremberg themselves.
The use of these jettons as small change probably provided the impetus for the production of Britain’s Royal farthings. James I, seeing the opportunity of making a profit, began to issue patents for individuals to manufacture Royal farthings, small discs of metal with a negligible intrinsic value but which were officially valued at a farthing. The earlier Harington and Lennox issues were struck on small discs of sheet metal and easily forged. They were much smaller than the Nuremberg jettons and not popular with the public, hardly surprising given their tiny intrinsic value.
Charles I continued to issue patents and, in 1636, rose farthings were introduced. These were smaller but thicker and with a brass plug to make forgery more difficult. Unpopular as they may have been, these farthings are found in enormous numbers and undoubtedly alleviated the shortage of small change. However, the patents to produce them were withdrawn early in the English Civil War and so the country found itself once again short of low-value money.
Thus, by the execution of Charles I in 1649, England found itself in the throes of another currency crisis and, once again, the production of small value copper coins became an urgent necessity. This time it was not the city of Nuremberg that provided the answer or the holders of Royal Patents. The traders themselves and the corporations of the towns and cities of the kingdom furnished the solution. Quite simply they had their own money – or, more correctly, token money – produced.