The numismatic context of the English civil wars

by Nick

Yes, so it’s a slightly silly title. Apart from anything else, there are any number of contexts to the civil wars, and picking out one of them can often give the impression that it is somehow more important than others. I’m not trying to suggest that battles over coinage were vital above all else to the outcome of the civil wars. But I’ve kept coming across various images of civil war and Commonwealth coinage in the last few weeks, and wanted to find some way of pulling them together into a post.

Coins are interesting in that they are signifiers both of material and cultural values. Most obviously, they signify a unit of economic value; but they can also signify the political and cultural values of the body that produces them. During the English civil wars, we can see battles in both spheres between royalists and parliamentarians.

Materially, there was the ongoing struggle by both sides for control of mints and for metal to use in them. With Parliament in control of the Tower Mint, Charles’s forces set up a number of emergency mints as well as one at the court in Oxford. After the capture of Exeter in 1644, for example, Charles I was quick to appoint Sir Richard Vyvyan to set up a mint. And yet the total output of all of these mints during the civil wars was probably no more than about two or three months output from the Tower Mint. Bullion supply was a significant enabler for the two sides – it’s significant, for example, that Oliver Cromwell’s first military action was to seize the silver that Cambridge colleges were endeavouring to transport to the king. This is most often seen through a biographical lens – an example of Cromwell’s zeal for the Parliamentary cause (war hadn’t actually been formally declared at this point so he was taking a calculated risk in doing so). But it’s also interesting when viewed through a more strategic lens – as the capture of a vital resource that would otherwise go to the king.

Symbolically, however, there were also battles. Parliament continued to issue coinage from the Tower Mint bearing the king’s name and portrait – a direct reflection and reinforcement of Parliament’s argument that they fought not against the king, but to rescue him from his advisers. Royalists, on the other hand, were able to change their designs. Here is a gold triple unite struck at Oxford in 1642:

Charles is carrying a sword and palm branch – both a military king but also one of peace, the message clearly being that it is not him who has started the wars. The Latin on the front gives the standard mantra of “king of Great Britain, France and Scotland”. On the reverse you can see RELIG PROT LEG ANG LIBER PAR – “the religion of the Protestants the laws of England and the liberty of Parliament”.

With the establishment of the Commonwealth in January 1649, control of English and Welsh coinage passed firmly into Parliament’s hands. But the symbolic battle over the coinage did not stop. Very early on, the Council of State had the design of new dies for the Mint high on its list of priorities. In April, Parliament agreed the Council’s design for a new stamp for the coinage. One face would have the St George cross on a shield, with the legend “The Commonwealth of England”; the other would have the arms of the Commonwealth and the legend “God with us”. Again, you can see much about the priorities of the new regime – or at least of the coin’s backers within the Council – from the design: the text in English, no hint of monarchical iconography, and altogether a new departure from previous designs. This is in sharp distinction to many other aspects of Commonwealth symbolism, where monarchical forms and symbols were recycled.

But it wasn’t to everyone’s tastes. Sir Robert Harley, the previous Master of the Mint, refused to use the new stamp and resigned. In May the Council appointed Dr Aaron Guerden, a doctor originally from Jersey, as the new Master of the Mint.

In June 1649 Guerden he was the target of an extraordinary satirical pamphlet that claimed to be a sermon, transcribed by him, that had been preached by Oliver Cromwell before his departure for Ireland. This pamphlet is likely to be an act of ventriloquism by the royalist journalist Sam Shepherd, and part of a wider royalist campaign to smear the creator of the new coinage. Here’s what the newssheet Mercurius Pragmaticus had to say about Guerden’s appointment:

And first I find, that Doctor Gourdon must have 400.l. per annum aloud him to play the Traytor and coyne Money with the new Stamp, and if hee be a good Boy, and serve the States diligently, he will be advanced to 400.l. more in a short time, besides what he can cheat from the States which will be double his salary.

And here is the reaction from Mercurius Elencticus, another royalist newssheet:

They take their time to reward themselves and friends, with favours and gifts —- Achan Gourdon (that ugly villaine) hee [Cromwell] hath bestowed on him the Mastership of the Mint; perhaps the reason is, because hee looks with a single eye, and therefore is not so apt to steal Golden Wedges: but what neede hee, so longe as hee hath 400.l. sallary allowed him? He might have pored on his pedantisme in Gersey till hee had lost the other eye also, yet never have met with such a stipend.

Both these editions of these newssheets seem to have been produced by Shepherd. Shepherd was clear about the symbolic significance of the Commonwealth’s new coinage, and was obviously keen to disparage and dismiss it as far as he could. Meanwhile, the remnants of the royalist army in England were also engaging in a continuing symbolic battle. In the same month as the Commonwealth took power, the besiged royalist garrison at Pontefract proclaimed Charles II as king and struck coinage bearing his likeness. This despite the fact it would have been next to useless in terms of its material purpose to those under siege – symbolically, it was far from useless.

And then of course there’s the coinage of the Protectorate – but that’s another story, and perhaps the subject of another post.