British Silver Coins 1662-1946

Until it was superseded in 1971 by a decimal pound of 100 pence, the traditional pound sterling was valued at 240 pence.  This awkward figure resulted in numerous and peculiar divisions arrived at over many generations.  The basic silver coin of England was the 12-pence piece or shilling, of which 20 were equal to a pound.  Other fractional silver coins included the sixpence, the fourpence or groat, the threepence, the twopence and the penny.  Being intended primarily for the Royal Maundy service at Easter, the silver penny, twopence and fourpence were rarely coined for circulation.  Multiples of the shilling included the silver two shillings or florin, the 30-pence piece or halfcrown, the four-shilling piece or double florin, coined only briefly during the reign of Victoria (1837-1901), and the dollar-sized crown of five shillings.  At one time or another, all of these coins were a part of the “milled,” or machine-made coinage which became the standard after 1662.

The death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658 and the downfall of his Parliamentary Commonwealth led to the restoration of the Stuart Monarchy in the person of King Charles II.  Ascending the throne in 1660, his reign lasted until 1685 and coincided with the complete adoption of milled coinage, though a number of hand-struck, hammered pieces were produced during its first two years. The first issue of milled silver coins consisted of crowns dated 1662 and half crowns and shillings dated 1663.  The penny, twopence, threepence and fourpence were initially coined without dates.  These were dated from 1670 onward, though twopence pieces bearing the date 1668 are also known.  The sixpence came last in 1674.  All of these denominations were produced extensively, with only a few gaps in sequence.

The short and ill-fated reign of James II (1685-88) saw the same denominations coined, though there are a few gaps in the date sequence.  As with the coinage of Charles II, the reverse of each coin from sixpence through crown features the heraldic shields of England, Scotland, Ireland and France.  The lesser pieces, unlike those of Charles which featured interlocking letters C, are dominated by their value in Roman numerals topped with a crown.

The Bloodless Revolution of 1688 brought William of Orange to the throne in joint rule with his wife Mary, eldest daughter of James II, a  partnership which lasted until her premature death of smallpox in 1694.  Both monarchs appear on the silver coinage, their busts overlapping.  All of the denominations issued during the previous two reigns were continued, though again coinage was not complete for each year.

William III continued to rule alone until he too succumbed from pneumonia  in 1702 following a fall from his horse. The coins bearing his portrait  are collected as a separate series altogether, though the reverse types are generally similar to previous issues for both reigns.  For the lesser silver pieces, penny through fourpence, modern numerals have been substituted for the Roman ones of James II.

With no direct heir, succession of the throne went to Anne (1702-14), younger daughter of James II and Anne Hyde. Her reign witnessed the unification of England and Scotland as the United Kingdom in 1707, and this change of status is reflected in her coinage.  The same silver denominations were again issued with very similar devices. Though their coinage was sporadic and incomplete, numerous varieties resulted.  The scepters found on the reverses of earlier issues were omitted and the star of the Garter added at center.

Anne, too, expired without an heir.  The prospect of civil war loomed, as Stuart proponents sought to make Prince James Francis Edward the new king.  By the 1701 Act of Settlement, however, the English throne was to pass to the reigning Prince Elector of Hanover in Germany, a purely political arrangement with little popular support.  As a result, the new ruler of Great Britain was George I (1714-27), who showed little interest in this foreign country.  His silver coinage continued the same denominations, but only the shilling was produced with much regularity.  The reverse types are very similar to previous reigns, though the arms of the Duchy of Brunswick and Luneberg and the king’s German titles are included.

The reign of his son and successor, George II (1727-60), resulted in only spasmodic coinage of silver, though at one time or another all of the current silver values were issued.  These included crown, halfcrown, shilling, sixpence, fourpence, threepence, twopence and penny.  The reverse types and legends were quite similar to those of George I.

Easily the most famous of the Hanoverian kings of Great Britain was George III (1760-1820).  This long reign witnessed his descent into madness and Britain’s first great territorial loss, the 13 American colonies.  The grandson of George II, he was the first of the Hanoverians to be born in Britain, and he thought of himself as English.  During the early years of his reign, very little silver was coined, as this metal was undervalued and didn’t circulate.  Aside from the four Maundy coins, only shillings and sixpence were struck, and these nearly all in 1787 alone.  A semi-official, token coinage in silver was produced for the Bank of England from 1804 to 1816, and this resulted in some very peculiar denominations.  The only substantial coinage of silver during this reign consisted of crowns, halfcrowns, shillings, sixpence and Maundy coins produced at a new lower weight from 1816 to 1820.  A new reverse was used which featured the national arms, surrounded by the Garter and surmounted by a crown.  The five-shillings or crown piece portrayed St. George slaying a dragon.

George IV succeeded his father officially in 1820, though because of the King’s insanity, he had served as regent since 1811.  His coinage included all of the usual denominations, though there were sequential gaps.  While the larger silver coins featured the arms with or without Garter, the shilling portrayed a lion passant atop a crown.  The four Maundy coins continued with a crowned numeral.

George’s brother succeeded him in 1830 and ruled as William IV (1830-37).  His coinage was similarly sporadic, the crown and halfcrown bearing on their reverses a shield on mantle design.  The shilling and sixpence each featured their value spelled out within a crowned wreath.  In addition to the usual Maundy coinage, a circulating fourpence was coined briefly with a seated Britannia reverse.  Circulating coins valued at threepence and 1-1/2 pence were issued for colonial use only.

The reign of Victoria (1837-1901), niece of William IV, was long enough to prompt four portraits showing her as the young Queen of 18, as a Teutonic princess, again on her golden jubilee, and finally as the elderly widow.  The reverse types are too varied to describe in full, though they borrowed heavily from their predecessors.  Those used with the Old Head coinage after 1893 were more distinctive.  Aside from the traditional denominations, new coins included the two-shilling piece, or florin, and the four-shilling coin or double florin.

Edward VII (1901-10) succeeded his mother when he was already quite advanced in years.  His short reign was marked by fairly steady coinage of all silver pieces save for the crown, which was issued only in 1902 as a commemorative.  This practice largely continues to the present day.  The florin is the only distinctive coin, with its standing figure of Britannia.

The second son of Edward VII, George V (1910-36) was an enormously popular ruler whose 25th anniversary on the throne was celebrated with a crown in 1935.  Crowns of the regular type were issued 1927-34 and again in 1936. All other silver coins were minted quite steadily, as well.  Their designs borrowed heavily from earlier types until 1927, when all were updated.  Economic conditions led to abandonment of the .925 silver standard, which was reduced to .500 fine in 1920.

The brief reign of George’s eldest son, the reluctant Edward VIII (1936), produced no coins for domestic circulation. He was quickly succeeded by his startled brother, who nevertheless served with much acclaim as George VI (1936-52).  His coinage was quite regular, and it introduced modern designs that represented a radical departure from previous reigns.  Included were both English and Scottish versions of the shilling, a tribute to his Queen-consort’s ancestry.  Britain’s enormous wartime debt to the United States of America prompted the abandonment of silver for circulating coinage after 1946, though it has since been utilized periodically for commemorative pieces.  These are sold at a premium to coin collectors.

From the NGC Photo Proof Series. Copyright © 2001 The Numismatic Guaranty Corporation.  All rights reserved.