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Early Edwardian Farthings



In medieval times, small change in the form of halfpennies and farthings was essential for minor transactions at the market place and the fair. However, with the exception of a few very small and intermittent issues of halfpennies, coins of these denominations were not struck, they were provided by cutting pennies into halves and quarters. In fact, the origin of the name 'farthing' is the Old English word 'feorthing', meaning a fourth part. The first English farthings to be struck as coins in their own right were issued during the reign of Henry III. The quantity struck, however, must have been very small, as although a surviving writ of 1222 refers to dies for their production, the coin itself was unknown until one was found by a detectorist in 1991. The writ also refers to halfpennies, the first known specimen of which had also been found by a detectorist just two or three years earlier. A few additional coins of both denominations have subsequently been found, all as a result of the metal detecting hobby, but they remain extremely rare. The coins were struck to make the cutting of pennies unnecessary, as the long-established practice was susceptible to abuse. In this case the measure clearly failed, but, during the following reign of Edward I, a far more substantive issue of round farthings was made as part of the great recoinage of 1279. The output of the recoinage consisted predominantly of pennies, but sufficient quantities of both the smaller denominations were struck to fulfil the public need, and the practice of cutting pennies ceased.

Due to the relatively small quantity produced, and also because they tend not to occur to any significant extent in hoards, far fewer Edwardian farthings are available for study than is the case with pennies of the same period. Of those that do survive, the majority consists of coins that were lost in circulation and have been found individually, often in a worn or damaged condition. As a consequence of this, the formulation of a definitive classification has proved more difficult. The basis of the classification system most widely used today was established by the brothers H B Earle Fox and J S Shirley-Fox in their paper, Numismatic History of the Reigns of Edward I, II and III (BNJ 1909-13), but it has been considerably revised and refined by later numismatists. The Fox brothers sought to relate the farthings to corresponding groups and types of pennies, for which their paper established a chronological classification system. This approach works reasonably well for the early issues, but after completion of the great recoinage, stylistic links between the two denominations become more tenuous.

The first revision of the Fox classification was made by E J Harris, F Purvey and P Woodhead (hereafter HPW) in a series of articles entitled Notes on English Halfpence and Farthings, 1279-1660. The articles were published in Seaby's Coin and Medal Bulletin (SCMB) between April 1964 and March 1986, but coins of the period presently under consideration are covered in the issues of 1964 and 1966. The HPW revision was further refined by J J North and P Woodhead in their respective papers: The Fox Classification and Recent Refinements, and The Early Coinages of Edward III (1327-43). The two papers form part of volume 39 of the Sylloge of Coins of the British Isles (SCBI), which catalogues North's collection of Edwardian coins, and was published in 1989. This version of the classification is also the one used in the 1991 (third) edition of North's English Hammered Coinage. More recently, P and B  R Withers have formulated a new and very detailed classification of the coins, which is published in the first two volumes of their Small Change series: Farthings and Halfpennies - Edward I and II (2001) and Halfpennies and Farthings - Edward III and Richard II (2002). The Withers classification severs all links with the Fox classification, but the latter is updated, with a revised structure for grouping the coins, in Lord Stewartby's English Coins 1180-1551 (2009).

The present article uses the familiar North version of the classification (also used in the Spink Standard Catalogue) as the primary means of identification, but a table is included to show concordance between this and the other systems mentioned above. For a more detailed discussion of the criteria on which classification and dating are based, I have also included a separate section entitled Observations. This can be accessed via a link at the top of each page. To maximise clarity when describing the various versions of the Fox classification, and in tabulating concordance, I have converted the Roman numerals used by the Foxes, HPW and Stewartby into Arabic numerals, as used by North.

Many of the images used to illustrate this article are from records on the UK Detector Finds database (UKDFD). I am grateful to recorders for making them available in this way, and also to other detectorists and collectors who have independently granted permission to use their images. I also wish to thank Paul Green (Holgate Numismatics) and Brad Shepherd, who kindly granted permission to use their coin images to enable illustration of types not currently represented on the database. Some coin types are illustrated by a single image; others may be illustrated by two or more examples from a sliding gallery. In the latter case, navigation arrows will appear when the mouse-pointer is hovered over the image that is initially displayed. All images can be clicked to provide an enlarged view.

Historical background


The poor state of the circulating currency in the early years of the reign of Edward I is clear from contemporary accounts and the attention it received from the King's Council. A significant proportion of the coins will have been those struck during the previous major recoinage of 1248-1250, and thus about twenty-five years old. Normal wear and tear, however, was only one factor contributing to the situation. The operation of Gresham's Law will have resulted in the poorer specimens of all issues remaining in circulation, while the better ones were hoarded. In addition to the prevalence of worn coins, the practice of 'clipping' seems to have become a particular problem in the early 1270s, a situation for which Jews, in particular, were made scapegoats and ruthlessly persecuted. Having deliberated for some time on the question of how the coins could be improved, and how abuses could be prevented, the Council initiated steps for a new coinage at the beginning of 1279.

The great recoinage that resulted from this decision is one of the most noteworthy of the medieval period. It did not simply renew the circulating specie, but completely changed the administrative arrangements for its production, elevated coin art to a new level and introduced a range of new denominations. It also established a pattern for the design and production of English coins that was to last for more than two hundred years.

Since early Anglo-Saxon times, the responsibility for correct weight and fineness had been that of the moneyer, whose name was invariably included on the reverse of the coin. It is likely in earlier times that this was the man who actually struck the coin, but for many centuries before Edward I came to the throne, this was not the case. The moneyer of the later medieval period was a person of considerably higher status. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the moneyer for London, William de Turnemire, was chosen to have a major role in the administrative arrangements that were to apply to the new coinage. Under these arrangements, William was appointed master moneyer, responsible for all the king's mints, which at the time were London, Canterbury, Bristol and York (royal). The ecclesiastical mints of Bury St Edmunds, Durham and York continued to have their own independent moneyers, and the archbishop of Canterbury continued to receive the profits from three of the eight penny dies employed at the king's mint in that city. Under the new centralised arrangements, the reverses of the coins were required to carry only the name of the mint at which they were struck. The naming of the individual moneyer, a practice dating back to early Anglo-Saxon times, thus came to an end.

The greatly improved appearance of the coins, when compared with their short cross and long cross predecessors, was due to changes in die production. Prior to Edward's recoinage, dies had been produced using a limited range of punches, or 'irons' as they were called at the time. The king's face, hair and crown, for example, were made up of pellets, crescents and strokes. The dies for Edward's new coins, however, were produced from punches on which the same features had been engraved in their entirety, usually with a degree of artistic competence.

The third major change brought about by the recoinage was the introduction of three new denominations. In addition to the penny, there was the halfpenny, the farthing and the groat of four pence. The striking of round halfpennies and farthings eliminated the need to cut pennies into halves and quarters, another practice that dated back to the Anglo-Saxon period. The voided reverse cross, used on pennies for the previous one hundred years to facilitate this process, was thus no longer required, and was replaced by a plain cross.

Farthings, the subject of the present article, had first been struck in the reign of Henry III, as indicated in the Introduction, but the the quantity struck was insignificant, and virtually all requirements for small change continued to be met by cutting pennies as described above. Although the new Edwardian farthings were struck in much smaller numbers than the corresponding pennies, they were nevertheless produced in sufficient quantity to facilitate everyday transactions. They were also less susceptible to hoarding than pennies, so it is likely that the majority remained in circulation. The disparity in numbers struck would therefore have been less marked when viewed from the perspective of the general public.

The first of Edward's new farthings were issued in August 1279, at the same time as their penny counterparts, and the two denominations initially share many characteristics. However, the farthings were struck from slightly debased silver (0.765 fine in modern terms), rather than the sterling standard (0.925 fine) of the larger denominations. By altering the alloy in this way, the flans were a little larger (typically 12.5-13mm) and heavier (standard weight: 6.65 grains or 0.43g) than they otherwise would have been, while their actual silver content was maintained at one quarter that of the penny. The measure could not have been deemed worthwhile, though, as a year later it was dropped, and slightly smaller (typically 11-12mm) and lighter (standard weight: 5.51 grains or 0.36g) farthings of sterling standard silver were then struck until the reign of Edward III. Between 1280 and 1281 the recoinage operation was at its zenith with Bristol, Bury, Canterbury, Chester, Durham, Lincoln, Newcastle-on-Tyne and the royal and ecclesiastical mints of York supplementing the principal mint of London. Of these ten mints, however, farthings are known only of London, Bristol, Lincoln, Newcastle and York (royal).

The recoinage was effectively completed by the end of 1281 and the provincial mints were closed. The normal day-to-day requirements for the supply of coin were met by the major mints of London and Canterbury, and the ecclesiastical mints of Bury and Durham, but farthings were struck only at London. Even when provincial mints were again brought into service in 1300 to participate in a second recoinage, none of them struck the smaller denominations.

In contrast to the limited and intermittent striking of halfpennies during the fifty or so years following the recoinage of 1279-81, the production of farthings was more or less continuous, except for a brief period between October 1281 and May 1285, when none were struck. The annual output, with a few exceptions, varied between about one hundred thousand and one and a half million coins. When the silver fineness of the farthing was restored in 1280, and its size reduced as a consequence, the obverse type was redesigned: the beaded inner circle was removed and the legend was shortened. These measures relinquished more space for the king's head, but the changing proportions of the design gave the coins a somewhat different appearance to their halfpenny and penny counterparts. From about the turn of the 14th century, the beaded obverse inner circle was restored to the farthings, but by this time they shared few characteristics with the pennies, except, at least to some degree, the form of certain letters.

In 1335, it was decided to reduce the weight and fineness of halfpennies and farthings only, and these denominations were then struck in some considerable quantity. They are readily identifiable by the presence of a star, usually in both the obverse and reverse legends. In 1338, a mint was opened at Reading, and it joined London in the production of this coinage. The star-marked coins of Reading are rare, and at present only halfpennies are known. However, it is likely that farthings were also struck, and examples may turn up in the future. The 'star-marked' coinage continued to be struck until 1343, and farthings constituted about thirty percent of the twenty million coins that were produced. In 1344 the fineness of all denominations was restored, but the weight was reduced by about ten percent. The coins of this issue, known as the third or 'florin' coinage, are subject to separate classification and are outside the scope of the present article.

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This issue dated:

12 January 2022

(Revision History)

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