Gold Twenty-Shilling Piece of Elizabeth I,
1565-6

Gallery 37,
Heberden Coin Room,
first floor

 

Focus on the Object

This 22 carat gold coin of Elizabeth I, struck at the Royal Mint in the Tower of London in 1565, had a value of twenty shillings or one pound. At that time an unskilled labourer was paid about 6d a day, making this coin the equivalent of 40 days’ pay.

The simple design of this coin contrasts with the more elaborate styles of the period. On the front side we see a portrait of the young queen wearing the characteristic stiff ruff collar and large puff sleeves of the Tudor period. The inscription around the edge declares her as Queen of England, France and Ireland. In reality France had already been lost to the English crown and its claim to Ireland is still being disputed today. On the reverse we see the royal arms with the three lions of England and the fleur-de-lys of France.

This coin is made of 22 carat gold (917 parts in 1000). English medieval gold coinage had always been made of 23 carats and 3 grains (955/1000), but Henry VIII abandoned this high standard of purity in 1545 when he struck only 20 carats pure. This debasement of coinage caused much shame for the monarchy. Throughout Elizabeth’s reign coins of both 22 carats and 23 carats and 3 grains were produced. Although she wanted to restore the traditional purity, the extra alloy of 22 carat coins made them more hard wearing.


Obverse (front)

 


Reverse (back)