William III, Isaac Newton, and the End of Hammered Coinage

Why so many mints issuing coinage during the reign of William III? 

The answer to this question begins with events of a few years earlier.

The “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 saw an end to the conflicted reign of James II. Little more than a month after William’s November 5, 1688 landing on English soil James set off across the Thames, abdicating as he tossed the Great Seal of the Realm into the river.

In February 1689 William was proclaimed as joint sovereign with Mary, James’s eldest daughter. One of the many issues the monarchs faced was the problem of lack of a reliable currency. Capital punishment for clipping and counterfeiting was not severe enough to stop what was a cottage industry of devaluation by clipping. In 1695, for example, officers of the Exchequer found in weighing 500 bags of old coin, that a face value weight that should be over 221,000 ounces actually weighed less than 114,000 ounces, a bit over half the proper total. (Oman, p 339).

There was a milled coinage at the time. Under Charles II, milled coinage was introduced with the hope that firm edges would prevent clipping. It did work to the extent that the new coins were hoarded and exported but the reduced value hammered coinage continued to plague commerce.

Isaac Newton, recognized as a great and creative genius, still had a post at Trinity College where as a scholar who had achieved greatness he now found himself in his early 50’s “underemployed” (Levenson) and apparently underappreciated.

In 1695 William Lowndes the Secretary of the Treasury included Newton among British leaders he asked for help solving the shortage of silver coins. Not only was there the problem of disparity between the face value of milled coinage and clipped or counterfeit hammered coinage because of the silver lost to clipping, there was an outflow of English silver to the Continent. Silver would buy more gold on the continent than in England. 

In 1696 Newton was made warden of the Mint, a post that paid £600 per year and provided him with a good income. In 1699 he was promoted to Master of the Mint and his annual salary was more than doubled.

Newton recognized that what was happening to the coinage—hoarding and exporting—was a rational response to the circumstances, not unlike modern tax reformers have to reckon with the fact that any policy will be explored by rational people to find a maximum advantage. Case in point: The bricked-up windows one can still see on walking tours of London were a response to the 1696 tax on windows passed to pay for this coinage reform. 

Newton was among those who believed that the answer was to call in all the old silver coinage, melt it down and issue milled coinage. The December 19, 1695 Proclamation made all hammered money non-current as of February 1697. Until then, the Crown would accept all the old money at its face value, clipped or not. In order to make it easier and to effectively reach the entire population, mints were set up at Bristol, Chester, Exeter, Norwich and York in addition to London. By the end of 1695 the mints were all operating. The dies seem to have all come from London made by Roettier’s staff. Crowns and Maundy money were produced only in London but halfcrowns, shillings and sixpence were produced by all the mints with the initial letter of the mint name added to the die just beneath the portrait.

The window tax lasted a long time. It was finally repealed in 1851. Coinage continued to pose problems—lacks of small change, insufficient bullion—but not clipping. And Newton continued as Master of the Mint until his death in 1727.

 

Recommended references:

Levenson, T. Newton and the Counterfeiter; the Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist.  A 2009 publication available online for a fraction of its issue cost (ca $11 plus shipping)

Oman, C. The Coinage of England. A 1931 publication also available online.  (ca $16 plus shipping)

 

E-Auction 23 features coinage of William III

Monday, October 9, 2017

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