When we talk about the Medieval period, we are referring to the time from the Norman Conquest in AD 1066 to the rise of the House of Tudor in AD 1485. During this period, the standard unit of currency was the penny – not a penny as we would know it today, but a larger coin made of silver. A full penny was therefore rather valuable. If small change were needed, a penny was simply cut into halves or quarters.
The coins were made in a workshop known as a mint. Today all coins are produced by one mint; the Royal Mint in Llantrisant, Wales. Thanks to modern technology, this one mint can produce all the coins required – almost 90 million a week! However, in the Medieval period there were no machines and the process of making a coin was far more laborious. To meet the demand for coinage, there were multiple mints based all over the country. For example, during the reigns of William the Conqueror and his son William II, there were more than 70 mints operating in England.
The person in charge of producing coins at the mint was the moneyer. The moneyer was responsible for making sure the coins produced were of the correct weight and fineness of silver. The penalty for producing inferior coins (without the state’s permission) was severe – mutilation or in some cases execution. This was to discourage moneyers from making profit by producing underweight coins or by lowering the content of silver in each coin to make it stretch further (known as debasement). However, there were times when this was encouraged, and even official policy. For example, Henry VIII was known as “Old Copper Nose” because his coins had so little silver in them! There were several times during the Medieval period when coinage became so debased that the king was forced to reform the coinage completely.
The early coins of the Medieval period were not much different to the Anglo-Saxon coins that preceded them but eventually they developed into the classic form that is characteristic of Medieval coins: the front-facing portrait of the monarch on the obverse (“heads”) and a cross with pellets on the reverse (“tails”). In fact, some of the coins are so similar that it is difficult to tell which king is on them!
The coins have the same basic layout, shown below:
The obverse shows the portrait of the monarch, around which is writing known as the legend. The legend contains the name and titles of the monarch. The initial mark shows you where to begin when reading the legend. The legend on the reverse of the coin tells you where the coin was minted. On earlier coins, you get the name of the moneyer as well as the mint. However, in AD 1279 Edward I ruled that the names of individual moneyers would no longer appear on the coins, so coins produced after this period have the name of the city or town in which the coin was minted on them instead. The legend will either begin with CIVI (for city) or VILL (for town).
There are more than 71,000 Medieval coins recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database. You can view coins from each ruler here. Once you’ve had a look, why not download our activity sheet below and have a go at designing your own Medieval penny? You can share your results with us on Instagram by tagging @findsorguk, or on our PAS Craft Activities Board on Pinterest.