Proceedings 71         13  October 2001         Imperial College

MONEY IN MEDIEVAL ENGLAND : THE EVIDENCE FROM COINING DIES : an illustrated  lecture by Barrie Cook, Curator of Medieval and Early Modern Coinage, The British Museum.


Dr Cook explained that the work he was about to describe had begun as an apparently straightforward job of cataloguing the small collection of (late fourteenth-century) coining dies held in the Coin Room.

However, his own work and analytical studies by colleagues had suggested a more interesting story. From the early middle ages to the early Stuart period, dies for the English hammered coinage are generally scarce. For the late middle ages, and particularly for the reign of Edward III, due to the chance of history, well over 300 dies survive with record evidence for a further 130. The dies and the documentary evidence are now to be found in the Public Record Office, the British Museum and the Royal Mint, though originally all seem to have been housed at Westminster.

Dr Cook described how, in an account of 1610 of the contents of the Fourth Treasury, then in the Cloisters of the Abbey, Arthur Agarde mentioned a "bag of cardover", containing "matters of great seacret", among these it later appeared were "some old stamps of coin" and various items which Dr Cook surmised to be paraphernalia associated with the trials of the Pyx. perhaps from the Tudor period. However, Agarde's report also recorded a find in the Second Treasury, housed "in the new Palace of Westminster over the little Gatehouse ...Iyeing in ye floor ...Sondry old stampes of Coynes, especially of E.3 time as the Rosenoble and Spurrial tc." It appears that the materials from the two Treasuries were transferred to the Pyx Chamber in Westminster Abbey in the eighteenth century, from thence through the course of a chequered history they were distributed among the three collections which now hold them. Those in the Britism Museum suffered significant loss in the Coin Room's destruction by an incendiary bomb during the Second World War. Thirty five specimens alone now survive. Medieval coins were struck from metal blanks, produced in bulk to the required size and standard. These were placed between upper (trussel) and lower (pile) dies, the lower having a spike which could be lodged or embedded in the work bench. Both dies were made up of an iron shank, comprised of three or four rods banded together, and a steel head on which the design was engraved by the die sinker using a set of punches: exact uniformity was necessarily impossible. The trussel usually carried the reverse design and, since it bore the brunt of the striking by the hammer, two or three trussels were made per pile. Probably 20-30,000 pieces could be struck from one die. It would seem that the dies in the British Museum from the Pyx Chamber date from Edward III. Where they are sufficiently well preserved, we find that they have round faces, a little wider than the coins they were intended to strike, and that the rims of the dies are bevelled and that the round face moves to a square base, passing through an octagonal phase : all characteristic features of E.3 dies. Other evidence suggested that the collection was largely from the King's Fourth Coinage (1351-77). Recent analysis by Marion Archibald and Janet Lang showed that two of the BM dies had been softened by heating, presumably by way of preparation for reuse, prior to new steel heads being fitted after which they would need to be hardened again for use. Dr Cook would argue that the nature of many other of the dies would support this conclusion. Most of the BM dies have been classified as illegible, but this may be a misleading term to use is not a question of partial defacement through use or corrosion-literally nothing is visible in most cases. Their appearance strongly suggests that the steel die caps had been deliberately removed, prised or chiselled off or even simply cut off. Moreover, certain of the trussels have had the splayed metal (resulting from repeated hammer blows) trimmed off. Taken in conjunction with the findings of Archibald and Lang these and other factors suggest something more than  routine defacement of worn-out dies. Rather, it is proposed, the dies in question represent a batch of material from the last two decades of Edward III in the process of refurbishment, abandoned for some reason. The actual condition of the dies contributes to the argument. There are four groups : six penny piles and eleven penny trussels, one halfpenny pile and sixteen trussels. There is also a single farthing trussel. Of the penny piles four had a length of approx. 115-120 mm, possibly the standard length of new piles; one, a length of 95 mm; one, a length of 75 mm. This, the shortest, and two of the , other piles have had their die face removed. These dimensions and the fact that the shortest was one of those with face removed could suggest three or, exceptionally in the case of piles, just possibly four periods of employment The penny trussels fall into three groups: 50-60 mm; 70-80 mm; approx. 100mm suggesting four periods of use. The sixteen halfpenny trussels, also, are divided into three groups as to length: 55-65 mm; 75-80 mm; 95-100mrn and the evidence here, too suggests four periods of use. From documentary evidence, it seems that the standard weight for a new, halfpenny die, pile or trussel, was approx 1 Ib. the largest full penny dies in the BM collection weigh 134 and 11/4 Ib, respectively. As to the manner in which the trussel was held in place over the pile, anchored by its spike in the work~nch, Dr Cook felt that medieval depictions of moneyers at work holding the dies in one hand and the the hammer in the other, may be artistic licence and, given the shortness of the trussels, some form of tongs or loose collar was more probable. The BM dies may be the remains of a batch abandoned or lost sight of in the course of refurbishment, some time in the last two decades of Edward Ill's reign. They suggest that die makers valued their products, recycling the shanks as much as possible-trimming the splayed ends of the trussels and cutting back the die heads of piles and trussels preparatory to replacing with new sunk dies as already described. That the reuse of old dies was of long standing is suggested by the fact that the Fitz-Otto lineage of hereditary die engravers had the return of old and broken dies confirmed as their perquisite in 1265. About 1300 the "Treatise on the New Money" notes that one of the die keepers had "the duty to deface ( defo1111are ) the worn out dies ( cuneos usitatos) so that they might not be used again, and to keep in his hands all the old dies (ueteres cuneos)..." to the use of the Fitz-Otto heirs. This seems a perfectly clear distinction between those old dies considered unusable and other, similar dies deemed to be reusable. But it was the warden of the mint who was ultimately responsible for all mint equipment and the interests of the hereditary engraver lapsed for ever with the impeachment of Lord Latimer, last of the Fitz-Otto heirs, in the Good Parliament of 1376. The staff of the mint would have included a smith whose responsibilities presumably included softening and trimming reusable dies for the sinker. In the contemporary Venetian mint. smith and sinker were responsible, under supervision, for maintaining a specified backlog of reusable dies. Thus the BM dies could well represent a batch set aside until required before being somehow lost sight of. How this might have occurred was necessarily a matter for speculation, impossible of proof. The disappearance of the hereditary engravership in 1376, with the impeachment of Lord Latimer, may have encouraged a change in the mint's organisation, though the late fourteenth century was also a time of considerable disruption in the wardenship. There were six incumbents between 1376 and 1400, some of whom were heavily involved in the politics of the day. Richard Lyons, appointed 1375, broke the tradition of career civil servants in the post, being a financial agent and broker. He was held by contemporaries to be one of the corrupt and malign influences at the court of the ageing Edward III. He was impeached along with Lord Latimer in 1376. In April of that year, three days before the opening of the Parliament. Lyons and a John Leycestre were commissioned to investigate "all falsities and deceptions committed in the king's money and the cunea of the same within the Tower ." Leycestre, assauer at the mint since 1374 was closely associated with one Adam Bury who was to be accused of keeping bullion in his own house for his own profit. Both were joined with Latimer and Lyons in the impeachment. Seven days after the death of the King in 21 June 1377 die keeper John de Salesbury was instructed to deliver all dies in the Tower to the new warden of the mint. 'Strange things may have happened during these years, either during Lyons's tenure of office as warden of the mint. or following his sudden removal from office', commented Dr Cook. At all events, Lyons would be murdered during the Peasants' Revolt. Despite its initially unpromising appearance, the British Museum collection of dies had proved an invaluable resource for the study of medieval minting techniques. This digest of his talk is compiled from notes made during the lecture and from the offprint of Dr Cook's article "Coining Dies in Late Medieval England with a Catalogue of the British Museum Collection" reprinted from The Numismatic Chronicle 160 (2000). In a letter Dr Cook tells me that subsequent to delivering the talk he has read anew study on the Venetian mint which reports documentary evidence for the reuse of dies in the fourteenth century "in the way I have surmised from the objects themselves from the London mint. which is wonderful" He adds, self deprecatingly, "it is easy to excite a numismatist"! Even so I reckon he is to be congratulated.

Digest prepared by Geoffrey Hindley, Programme Secretary '-