Bucks, bank, wad, dough, lucre – whatever your preferred term for it – money makes the world go round. But what is its history here in Britain?
'Money was first used in Western Turkey around 3,400 BC but began to be exchanged in the UK around 2,000 years ago,’ explains Dr Kevin Clancy, Director of The Royal Mint Museum. The ancient Brits were familiar with money before they started making it, having traded with the Continent, where coins were already widely exchanged. But the first British-made coins were struck in the South of England – the country was tribal back then, and so were the currencies, with each region having their own local-issuer.
First british-made coins (a Celtic stater) - Courtesy of The Royal Mint Museum
And then came the Romans. Following the grand conquest, which began back in AD 43 under Emperor Claudius, local coins were removed and a uniform Roman imperial currency swept the country. And when the Romans left, so did their coinage. Incredibly, coins were not really used extensively from this point up until early Anglo Saxon times, when a new indigenous coinage began to emerge. This may seem shocking, but as Dr Clancy points out: ‘We must bear in mind that money was often used seasonally, or when there was a reason for exchanging, such as harvest or market time.’
Roman imperial currency in AD 43 - Courtesy of The Royal Mint Museum
So when did The Royal Mint begin making money? During the time of King Alfred the Great, who can be linked to the modern Royal Family, unlike competing monarchs ruling other areas of the country at the time. King Alfred’s mint was making coins in London inscribed Londinium from the end of the 9th Century. And this is when The Royal Mint was born. Several centuries pass and the Mint continues to evolve, before the operation sets up shop in the Tower of London at the end of the 13th Century.
King Alfred's silver penny - Courtesy of The Royal Mint Museum
So that’s how the Mint came about – but, what about the money itself? How has that evolved? ‘Back in King Alfred’s reign, there was one denomination of coinage, which was the silver penny,’ explains Clancy. ‘It was a system based on a pound weight of silver being cut into 240 bits.’ And the evolution continued: Gold coinage began circulating in Britain around the middle of the 14th Century and, as trade with the continent increased, so did the need for different currencies. At this point a few new denominations appear: four penny pieces, two penny pieces and six shillings and eight pence (a gold noble). They must have needed substantial coin purses back then…
‘But the idea of pounds shillings and pence, doesn’t really exist until Henry the VII’s reign,’ says Clancy.
Henry VII Sovereign - Courtesy of The Royal Mint Museum
And what about bank notes? The Bank of England began issuing notes in 1694 and through the 18th Century the banking system and the use of paper currency evolves into what the basis of the modern day system.
Although there has been huge transformation, coins haven’t really changed that much. ‘If you put an ancient coin from Western Turkey next to a modern coin, there is little to choose between them,’ says Clancy.
But the way in which coins are made has changed hugely. ‘They used to be made by hand, like a blacksmith’s shop type operation’ he says. The Royal Mint’s machines can now strike 800 or more coins a minute, and these coins are made from sophisticated plated materials, the authenticity of which can be detected by electronic signatures. Notes are also produced using advanced dyes, to prevent counterfeiting.
Minting in Medieval times and minting today - Courtesy of The Royal Mint Museum
Although making money remains the Mint’s primary focus (they have also made medals, right back since the Battle of Waterloo), the operation has recently diversified into making Bullion coins, and is discussing dipping it’s toe in the exciting, but volatile, world of Bitcoin. So what, we ask next, is the future of money? Read the next article in our Money Series to find out.
Making Bullion coins - Courtesy of The Royal Mint Museum
And, no matter what your currency, why not have a look at our article on the geography of wallets to find out which Ettinger style your nation prefers.