Museum Musings – January 2021

This is first in a new series about PAS finds in the West Berkshire Museum. From time to time finds submitted to the PAS are acquired by museums either through the treasure process, temporary loans or donations.

Running until October 2022 the museum currently has a hoards exhibition on display, some of which were found by metal detectorists.

One of these is a probable purse spill of James VI of Scotland/I of England. The coins were identified as:

Eighth Scottish Coinage (1601-4)
1. Gold sword and sceptre piece (AD1601)
Second English Coinage (AD1604-19)
2. Gold unite tower (AD1612-130
Third Coinage (AD1619-25)
3. Gold laurel thistle (AD1621-3)

Copyright: The Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY 2.0 – BERK-C479A1  Gold sword and sceptre piece

The Scottish coin was worth 120 shillings Scots when issued, equivalent to 10 shillings sterling; the two English coins were each worth £1 sterling (20-shillings) when issued. Due to shifting gold prices, however, the value of the Second Coinage unite had been enhanced to 22-shillings in 1612 and the laurel was introduced at a lower weight to provide a £1 coin again. The Scottish coin’s value would have been similarly raised in England to 11-shillings.

These coins would have been in currency together and, with a face-value in the years around 1620 of £2 13s, represent a considerable sum of money at the time, equivalent to several months’ income for an ordinary labourer or artisan.

Copyright: The Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY 2.0 – BERK-C479A1  Gold sword and sceptre piece

In 1620 this had the equivalent purchasing power of £348.53 in 2017 (according to the national archive). This would have been 52 days wages for the average skilled tradesman.

According to price lists for emigrants to New England in 1630 the total cost here is £30 1s 14d. So not quite enough to emigrate to America. At a market in Southampton in 1625, 10s could buy “The like feather bed for two together by the week.” So these three coins could pay for 5 weeks with 3s change.

Copyright: The Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY 2.0 – BERK-C479A1  Gold unite tower 

However, we need to consider the value of the pound during this time. In AD1600 the equivalent value today would have been £365.37. By 1630 this had dropped to £323.70int

In the early to mid-17th century the Dutch-Portuguese War, nicknamed the Spice War, because of the commodities at its centre, reveals how sought after and expensive spices were. As an example, the Dutch had a monopoly on the production of nutmeg on its two native islands and were able to make a 7500% profit on them. So you wouldn’t get much change from this purse. From the early 17th century there was a high demand for plants and pices used in medicines as the demand and cost for medical services boomed. For example, Scammony, a plant from the eastern Mediterranean, cost 160d per lb (13s 4s). In today’s terms, that is about £70. So compared with the prices for everyday items and services, it was extremely expensive.

The Price Revolution from the 15th – 17th centuries saw huge inflation. New sources of precious metals from the New World and German mines mean an influx of coinage. With population growth after the Black Death there were more people to feed and clothe and therefore a higher demand. These and other factors lead to that purse of £2 13s losing significant buying power in the 17th century.

Copyright: The Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY 2.0 – BERK-C479A1  Gold laurel thistle

James also suffered financial problems throughout his reign. He inherited a debt of £400,000 from Elizabeth I and he himself is said to have been extravagant in his spending. However, it can be argued that the lack of money and attempts to reform royal finances, such as The Great Contract of 1610, shaped James fiscal policies and lead to clashes with parliament.

Another monetary problem of the 17th century was the lack of small change. The production of copper farthings had stopped due to the Civil War and with growing trade in the 17th century small change was needed locally. Local authorities and traders began to issue their own coinage and while not government sanctioned these coins were traded and accepted. 

In Berkshire the Borough of Newbury issued tokens dated to 1657 with the image of what could be Donnington Castle on the reverse. These didn’t travel far, but this one made it to the Isle of Wight.

Copyright: The Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY 2.0 – IOW-2B99DC

This Post-Medieval copper-alloy halfpenny trade token dating AD 1669, issued by Richard Weston, for his business in Ilsley, Berkshire. This token depicts a set of scales but his trade is unclear.

Copyright: The Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY 2.0 – PUBLIC-9C64F7

Further reading:

Pauline Croft’s book on King James is a good introduction.

For a more detailed analysis there is John Cramsie’s Kingship and Crown Finance under James IV and I, 1603 – 1625.

On trade tokens, William Boyne’s Trade tokens issued in the seventeenth century in England, Wales, and Ireland catalogue details hundreds known.

You can also find out more about trade tokens on the PAS guide