Early Edwardian Halfpennies (1279-1344) by Rod Blunt

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The great recoinage of Edward I was initiated in the early months of 1279, and new pennies were first issued from the exchanges in August of that year. No halfpennies, however, were struck during the initial period of operation, and the first issue of this denomination took place one year later in August 1280. The scale on which the two denominations were produced was very different. By the end of 1281, around 82.5 million pennies had been struck at London, whereas the figure for halfpennies was only about 2.4 million. Between 1281 and 1335, the figures contrast even more markedly. In this period, approximately 240 million pennies were struck, and just 1.7 million halfpennies, a ratio of about 140:1. This imbalance was partially redressed between 1335 and 1343, when no pennies were struck at London, but almost 14 million halfpennies were issued.

Due to the relatively small output, and also because they tend not to occur to any significant extent in hoards, far fewer Edwardian halfpennies 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 problematic. 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 halfpennies 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 links between the two denominations become progressively more tenuous, and shortly after the turn of the 14th century they cease altogether. By this time, halfpennies were being struck intermittently and in such small numbers that crown punches used to make dies for halfpennies of Edward I were still able to be used more than thirty years later to make dies for halfpennies of Edward III.

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 some minor adjustments to North's version - 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. Where the classification appears to be at odds with the latest information, I have noted the fact in the description of the illustrated type, and explained the reasons in a separate section entitled Observations and rationale. This can be accessed via a link at the bottom 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. I also wish to thank Clive Knipe of www.HistoricCoinage.com, who kindly granted permission to use images from his website. 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.

Halfpennies, the subject of the present article, had first been struck in Anglo-Saxon times, and rare examples survive from the reigns of Henry I and Henry III. However, all of these pre-Edwardian halfpennies were struck in miniscule quantities, and virtually all requirements for small change were met by cutting pennies as described above. Although the new Edwardian halfpennies were struck in much smaller numbers than the corresponding pennies (see Introduction above), they were nevertheless produced in sufficient quantity to facilitate trade. 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.

As stated in the introduction, the first halfpennies were issued in August 1280, by which time pennies of the type we now know as Group 3 were in production. The two denominations share many characteristics at this stage, and the earliest halfpennies are therefore assigned to this group. 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, halfpennies 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 halfpennies 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. This situation prevailed until 1338, when a mint was opened at Reading, which joined London in the production of debased halfpennies of Edward III, as described below.

The production of halfpennies at London during the fifty or so years following the recoinage of 1279-81 was limited and intermittent. For the earlier part of this period, the halfpennies can be related to corresponding types of pennies, and coins of Groups 4, 6, 7 and 8, and the primary phase of Group 10, are identified in this way. From about 1305, however, there ceases to be any typological correspondence between the two denominations. For the period between 1305 and 1335, when pennies of the secondary phase of Group 10 and the subsequent issues of Groups 11 to 15 were being struck, all halfpennies are regarded as constituents of a single group, which is designated Group 10-11.

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. The coins of this issue are readily identifiable by the presence of a star, usually in both the obverse and reverse legends. This 'star-marked' issue continued to be struck until 1343. 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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Grueber, H A Handbook of the Coins of Great Britain and Ireland in the British Museum, 2nd Edition, 1970
Harris, E J, Purvey, F and Woodhead, P SCMB: Notes on English Halfpence and Farthings, 1279-1660, 1964
Harris, E J and Woodhead, P SCMB: Notes on English Halfpence and Farthings, 1279-1660, 1966
North, J J BNJ 35: The Broughton Hoard, 1966
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Stewartby, Lord English Coins, 1180-1551, 2009
Sutherland, C H V English Coinage, 600-1900, 1973
Withers, Paul and Bente R The Galata Guide to the Pennies of Edward I and II and the Coins of the Mint of Berwick-upon-Tweed, 2006
Withers, Paul and Bente R Small Change - I: The Farthings and Halfpennies of Edward I and II, 2001
Withers, Paul and Bente R Small Change - II: The Halfpennies and Farthings of Edward III and Richard II, 2002
Withers, Paul and Bente R Small Change - VI: Anglo-Irish Coins, John - Edward VI, 2004
Woodhead, P and Stewart, I BNJ 35: The Renfrew Treasure Trove 1963, 1966

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