The Australian Numismatic Society


Jack Hepler thanking Peter Williams for his Talk.


Of the three former principal British currency denominations – pound, shilling and penny – the shilling might be considered to be the unlucky one.  It was in circulation for just under 500 years and was the youngest of the three; the other two not only came into existence well before the shilling, they also survived the trauma of currency overhaul in the 20th century.  The shilling’s history was different from those of its siblings.

Where was the shilling used.
Coins or units of currency bearing the name “shilling” or a name sounding very similar to it have existed in various countries, in various forms, for varying amounts of time.  The English/later British shilling is the champ – 488 years!

Thanks to the now-defunct British “pounds, shilling and pence”, historically the shilling was quite likely thought of primarily as a British coin, i.e. a unit of the currencies of the UK and most of the colonies in the British Empire until its break-up in the mid-20th century, and of a few of the member nations of the British Commonwealth after the pound sterling became a decimal currency in 1971.

There are a few countries which were never affiliated with Great Britain, its Empire or its Commonwealth, in which a coin or a unit of currency bearing a name similar in pronunciation to the English, later British, shilling was in existence  These are Austria (“schilling”) and the Scandinavian countries Denmark, Norway and Sweden (“skilling”)

After gaining their independence from Britain, some countries designated the shilling as the standard unit of currency, e.g. the Kenyan shilling and the Ugandan shilling, which succeeded the East African shilling after 1971.

The Origin of the Shilling

There is no conclusive evidence as to the origin of the name “shilling”.  So it is interesting to speculate!

Those of you who heard my presentation on “L.S.D”, or Pounds Shilling and Pence, 3 years ago might remember my explanation of the “Lsd” designation acquired informally and unofficially by the old British currency.

The old pound consisted of 20 shillings and a shilling consisted of 12 pence.
The “L” stood for “libra”, the Roman word for a pound weight.
The “d” almost certainly stood for “denarius”, which was the most common Roman silver coin and was roughly equal in value to a day’s pay for a laborer.
The “s” probably stood for the Imperial Roman coin “solidus”, or “solidus nummus”.(solid coin), introduced by the Emperor Constantine during his 63 year reign in the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D.  The “solidus” was also known as the “sestertius” and the “scillinga”.  In my opinion “shilling” evolved from “scillinga”.

An alternative theory is that “shilling” comes not from the Latin but from a Teutonic word “scilling” or “scylling”, derived from a Teutonic word “skil” which meant to divide.  This undoubtedly led to the Scandinavian “skilling”.  The “scilling”, or “scylling”, was not actually a coin but an accounting term used by the Anglo Saxons.  In the County of Kent, the “scilling” was equal to the value of a cow, but only of a sheep elsewhere.  The similarity between “scillinga” in Roman times and “scilling” in Anglo Saxon times, in my opinion, clearly establishes the origin of the name “shilling”.  The Roman Empire covered all of Europe and so it does not take too much imagination to conclude that the Roman and the Anglo Saxon suggested provenances are both very probably correct and in fact are in the same lineage.  It is worth noting that “scylling” is found in Anglo Saxon poems and then, some 400 years later, the poet Langland wrote of the “shilling” in his work.  But it was not until the mid-16th century that the first shilling coin was minted and so named.

Under the Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, 240 pennies (denarii) weighed one pound (Libra).  The division of the 240 pennies into 20 “scillings” occurred in the reign of William the Conqueror after 1066, the “scilling” having been worth 5 pennies during the Anglo-Saxon era.  We do not know the reason for the change but I suspect that 48 scillings equaling one pound made for cumbersome accounting – 20 was a much more user-friendly device!  The change was very successful and the shilling’s value of 12 pence continued until 1971, when it was replaced by the 5 New Pence coin and for the rest of its life alongside the new coin, the shilling continued as legal tender until 1990, when it was withdrawn from circulation.

The Testoon

There was in fact a coin in circulation prior to the minting of the first shilling.  It was the “testoon”, which had a value of 12 pence.  It was first issued in the Kingdom of England in 1502 in the reign of Henry VII (1485-1509).  It was issued in very small quantities and the fact that there were only 3 known dies for this issue clearly shows that the coins were not minted for general circulation. 

The next issues of the testoon occurred between 1544 and 1551, during the last 3 years of Henry VIII’s reign and the first 4 years of the 6 year reign of his son, Edward VI.  Like all coins minted at this time, the testoons were made of very poor base silver and are known as base testoons.  But they have one claim to fame: they, along with the half sovereign, were the first English coins to be marked with the year of issue, in Roman numerals; possibly the first year was 1548 (MDXLVIII). 

And the coin was named “shilling”, replacing the designation “testoon”, for the first time during this reign.

In 1551, the silver standard was restored, from about 0.250 silver to 0.925 “sterling” silver and the shilling was minted in large quantities in fine silver.

Meanwhile, in the Kingdom of Scotland during the reign of Mary 1, Queen of Scots (also known as Mary Stuart), the testoon and half-testoon were introduced to the Scottish coinage in 1553 and 1555 respectively.

The Shilling

The English Shilling

Edward VI was anxious that he should not be succeeded by his elder half-sister, Mary, a Catholic, and named Lady Jane Grey in his will to succeed him on the throne.  Her reign in 1551 had lasted just 9 days when she was deposed by Mary 1, who enjoyed strong popular support.  (The coincidence of two Marys ruling the two neighboring countries at the same time caused confusion, hence the naming of the Scot as “Mary, Queen of Scots”.)

No shillings were minted in now-Protestant England between 1551 and 1554 when Mary, who was Catholic, married Philip of Spain; however Irish shillings with her portrait were minted in 1553 and 1554 before the marriage.  After the marriage some shillings were issued with busts of Mary and Philip facing each other, possibly in an attempt to boost his popularity as a Catholic. 

Mary also tried to convert England back to the Roman church and in the process burned many Protestants at the stake as heretics.  Her marriage was one of political convenience, however, and Philip returned to Spain before she died in 1558.  30 years later, as King of Spain, he launched the ill-fated Spanish Armada against England, which was soundly defeated by the English navy under Sir Francis Drake.

Elizabeth 1, Mary’s half-sister, ascended the throne in 1558.  She restored the Protestant Church and ruled England for the next 45 years, a period of stability that saw England rise to great power and influence. 

One of the first events of her reign was the counter-marking of Edward VI shillings to revalue them to their true worth.  Shillings counter-marked with a portcullis were revalued to fourpence halfpenny and those with a greyhound countermark to twopence farthing.  These coins are very rare.

A major recoinage was undertaken in Elizabeth’s reign and thousands of silver coins were produced.  The shilling was no exception, with the date removed from the design, although the mintmark can be used to reveal the year.  No shillings were issued between 1562 and 1582 but the next issue in 1552-53 was very large and, as a result, a fair number are to be found in collections.

The reign of Mary, Queen of Scots converges with that of Elizabeth, leading to the subsequent union of England and Scotland.  Mary was the only surviving legitimate child of King James V of Scotland.  She was 6 days old when her father died and she was crowned nine months later. In 1558, she married Francis, Dauphin of France, who ascended the French throne as King Francis II in 1559, and Mary became queen consort of France until she was widowed on 5 December 1560. Mary then returned to Scotland.  Four years later, she married her first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Their union was unhappy and in February 1567, there was a huge explosion at their house, and Darnley was found dead, apparently strangled, in the garden.

She soon married the 4th Earl of Bothwell, who was almost certainly her lover and generally believed to be Darnley's murderer. Following an uprising against the couple, Queen Mary was imprisoned and forced to abdicate in favor of her one-year-old son, King James VI. After an unsuccessful attempt to regain the throne, Mary fled to England seeking the protection of her first cousni- once-removed, Elizabeth. Mary had previously claimed Elizabeth's throne as her own and was considered the legitimate sovereign of England by many English Catholics. Perceiving her as a threat, Elizabeth had her arrested. After 19 years in custody in a number of castles and manor houses in England, she was tried and executed in the Tower of London for treason for her alleged involvement in three plots to assassinate Elizabeth.

Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, died childless in 1603 and was succeeded by Mary, Queen of Scots’ son. James VI of Scotland as James 1 of England, marking the end of Tudor rule and the beginning of the Stuart dynasty on the English throne.

As far as the coinage goes, there was very little change during James’s 22 year reign but the shillings had a “XII” mark of value in front of the king’s bust on the face of the coin.  Some shillings were struck in Welsh silver with a plume above the shield on the reverse.

Charles I succeeded his father in 1625.  He had a tumultuous reign, mainly as a result of his fervent belief in his own absolute authority, the Divine Right of Kings.  He found himself embroiled in several wars, the main ones being 2 Civil Wars against Parliament.  After the second civil war he was executed in 1649.  England came under the rule for 11 years of  the Commonwealth with Oliver Cromwell calling himself the Lord Protector.  The flamboyant society of Charles’s reign was replaced by the austerity of the Puritans.

During the reign of Charles I there was a wide range of styles and mints for the official coinage – 76 according to the Coincraft catalog – but there were also some unusual provisional issues made from plates and other silverware in cities and towns that were under siege during the civil wars.

The Commonwealth years saw shillings minted in considerable quantities; the Cromwell coin is more common than others.  Cromwell had led the revolution that resulted in the Charles I being deposed and executed – he was the leader of the anti-Royalist forces.  The obverse of the Cromwell coin has Cromwell’s bust sporting a laurel wreath, a la Roman Emperor.  The reverse has Cromwell’s personal cost-of-arms with a crown above it – strange that as a fervent anti-monarchist he would have condoned a crown over his image.

Cromwell died in 1659 and after a short, failed attempt by his son, Richard, to continue the Commonwealth, the monarchy was restored in 1660 when Charles II took back the throne which, theoretically, he inherited upon the death of his father in 1649.  During his reign milled shillings began to be produced in very large numbers, although collecting the series is complicated by the wide range of provenance marks and dates, the former indicating the origin of the metal used for the coins.

James II, a Catholic, became king upon the death of Charles in 1685.  He made strenuous efforts to restore Catholicism but became so unpopular that a group of Protestants invited his daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, to depose James.  They arrived from Holland in 1688 and James abdicated and fled. No changes were made to the coinage between 1685 and 1688.

William and Mary were warmly welcomed as Joint Sovereigns of England, Scotland and Ireland (Mary was heir to the throne and Protestant).  Coins, including shillings, minted during their reign show their conjoined busts on the obverse, and have the date around the center of the coin on the reverse, with the intertwined initials W and M between the shields.  Mary died in 1694, however, and William continued to rule for the next 7 years until his death in 1701 as William III.  In what must still be one of the classic errors in coin and stamp production, the coins issued in 1696 bore the date 1669.  During this reign several provincial mints (i.e. other than the Tower, Southwark or London) were in use, and their coins are indicated by a letter under the bust.

One of the provisions of the Bill of Rights, enacted in 1689, was that only Protestants henceforth could ascend the throne, to prevent the restoration of Catholicism, and declaring that in the event that Mary died childless, upon the death of William, the throne should pass to her sister, Anne.  As it turned out, William and Mary had no children.

Anne succeeded William upon his death in 1701.   There was one minting of coins during her reign that is curious.  In 1704, coins issued by the Edinburgh mint, had a plain reverse. By 1700, all of Anne’s children had died, leaving her as the sole Stuart heir to the throne.  Anxious to subvert any attempt by James II and his supporters (the Jacobites) to reclaim the throne, Parliament passed the Act of Settlement in 1701, before William died, establishing that if Anne bore no more children, she would be succeeded by William’s nearest Protestant relation.  That individual was the Electress Sophie of Hanover in Germany, who died before Anne; her grandson, George, was next in line.

The British Shilling

In 1707 the Act of Union was negotiated between the English and the Scots, forming the Kingdom of Great Britain, a century after the Scottish King James VI became King James I of England.  As a result of this union the designation British shilling replaced the English shilling; Scotland retained its own shilling alongside the new British version.

George of Hanover was crowned George I in 1714 when Anne died, establishing the British royal dynasty that has survived to this day and will continue to do so. George I died in 1726 and was succeeded by his son, George II, who ruled until 1760.  Both kings spent more time in Germany than in England and their reigns were taken up with putting down the Jacobite rebellion.  Shillings were minted throughout these two reigns.  An oddity was the LIMA shilling, issued in 1745 and 1746.  LIMA under the king’s bust has been thought to indicate that the coin was minted from silver captured by Admiral Anson after his capture of a Spanish galleon in the port of Callao, Peru in 1743.  However this has been disputed and recently discounted and the silver used in minting the shilling, and several other denominations, was probably seized from two French privateers in the Atlantic at about the same time.

George II was succeeded by his grandson, George III in 1760.  Due to scarcity of fine silver, very few shillings were minted early in his reign. 

There are two notable rarities from this reign, however.  The first is the Northumberland Shilling of 1763. This was distributed by Hugh, Earl of Northumberland on his installation in Dublin as Viceroy of Ireland. About 150 pounds worth was minted, representing 3000 shillings, a very small mintage.

The second is the Dorrien and Magens shilling of 1798. Several London bankers had acquired about 30000 pounds worth of silver which was sent to the Mint for coining. Unfortunately the Lords of the Committee in Council declared the coins illegal, and the very great majority was melted down. The government may have been concerned that the issue would stimulate a demand for more coins which they would have been powerless to satisfy, as the price of silver was very high.

There was a large issue of shillings in 1787.  There was a small error, however: the hearts were left out of the Hanoverian shield in the early editions but the error was so small that it was not discovered and corrected for some; both types were of equal value.  The obverse of both varieties has either a dot above the king’s head, or no dot, or no dots on the obverse at all.  Only 4 are known to exist but if you can acquire one, present day value would be in the neighborhood of $150,000-$160,000!

The French Revolutionary Wars from 1792 to 1799, and the Napoleonic Wars from 1799 to 1815 led to financial instability in Britain. The shortage of silver and copper led to a shortage of coins. Paper money became legal in 1797 and local tokens were produced by companies and banks all over the country. National debt had increased 100% by the start of the 19th century  and a series of bad harvests pushed up food prices which culminated in riots in 1801 – 1802.

Corn prices halved at the end of the wars, when trade with Europe restarted. The Corn Laws of 1815 were intended to protect the price of domestic grain, but this only served to keep prices high and depressed the domestic market for manufactured goods, because people had to use all their money to buy food. Likewise, European countries which relied on exporting corn to Britain in order to buy British manufactured goods were no longer able to do so.

The government needed to find a way to stabilise the currency, and the Great Recoinage of 1816 was the first step in this process. The main aims were the re-introduction of a silver coinage and a change in the gold coinage from the Guinea valued at 21 shillings to the slightly lighter Sovereign worth 20 shillings. The value of the shilling remained unchanged at twelve pence.  The Mint was instructed to coin one troy pound ( = 5760 grains) of standard ( 0.925 fine) silver into 66 shillings. The new shillings weighed about 5.7 g and had a diameter of 24 mm., retaining these statistics for the first editions of the 5-pence coin issued between 1971 and 1990 .

After George III’s reign, the shilling continued to be minted without dramatic change, its size and weight having been firmly established in the Great Recoinage.

George IV succeeded the Mad King George III in 1820. Three types of shilling were issued during his 10-year reign.  They differed in details of design and legend.

William IV ruled from 1830 until 1837 and only one shilling type was minted during this time.  The 3 in the date usually has a flat top, but some (but not all) proofs have a round top. Therefore the presence of a round top means the coin IS a proof, but a flat top does not necessarily mean it is a circulation issue coin.

Victoria was 18 years old when she succeeded to the throne in 1837, ruling until 1901.  There are three main types of Victorian shilling, and each of these has sub-types, some of which are scarce.

The Young Head was issued from 1838 until 1887 in 8 different versions.  The bust on the obverse shows the queen’s maturing face across the half century.

The Jubilee Head was minted first in 1887 to mark the 50th anniversary of Victoria’s reign.  The head in the 1889-1892 coins is larger than the head in the 1887-1889 coins.

The Old Head shilling, coined between 1893 and 1901, shows the veiled head

Edward VII was already well past middle age when he succeeded his mother.  He had a colorful and somewhat scandalous life as the Prince Regent.  By contrast his 9 year reign was quite quiet.  The reverse design for all Edward VII shillings shows a lion rampant on a crown, a design carried on unchanged by George V.

Shillings issued under George V between 1911 and 1919 retained the Edward VII reverse design

In 1920 the silver content was reduced from 92.5% to 50% because of a dramatic rise in the price of silver. This second type was issued from 1920 to 1926. Problems with the alloy because of poor appearance after wear meant a slight change in the alloying additions in 1922 and again in 1927.

In 1927 a new reverse design was issued in proof sets, and then uniquely the 1927 shilling in the new design was issued for circulation. The lion’s posture over the crown was changed from an elongated sideways-stretched depiction to a prouder, more alert one, with the lion facing to the front from a similar sideways stance.  This type continued until 1936, the end of George’s reign.

 A pattern shilling of Edward VIII does exist but it was never put in circulation, since he abdicated before coronation to marry Wallis Simpson.

The shilling issues of George VI and Elizabeth II are unusual in that two different designs were issued each year (except 1952), an English (sic: British) and a Scottish version. They were not distributed solely in the relevant countries, but circulated equally alongside each other.

The English shilling of George VI has the lion standing left on a large crown, while on the Scottish shilling the lion is facing, holding a sword & scepter flanked by St Andrews Cross and a thistle.

In 1947 the metal used in the minting of the shilling was changed to cupronickel in 1947, the year in which the British Indian Empire dissolved into the independent republic of India and the dominion of Pakistan, which meant that in 1949 “IND IMP” were removed from all British coins.

Because of the high demand for nickel in the Korean War, no 1952 shillings were issued, although extremely rare proofs of the English version do exist.

Elizabeth II succeeded her father in 1952.  The English shilling of Elizabeth II has three 'leopards' facing left, in a shield, while the Scottish shilling has a rampant lion.

The last regular issue shillings were minted in 1966. Two years later the new five-pence piece with identical dimensions began to be issued prior to decimalization in 1971, although proof shillings dated 1970 were issued later.

Shillings and 5p coins circulated together until the end of 1990, when they were superseded by a new smaller 5p coin. Thus ended the 488 year history of the shilling.

The shilling in the vernacular

The British have coined nicknames for some of their currency denominations.  The pound carries the name “quid”, the old sixpence coin “tanner”, and the shilling was no exception, glorying in the nickname “bob”.  How “bob” came into being is not known.  There are theories that say it recognizes Sir Robert Walpole, the first British prime Minister to hold the title, or Sir Reobert Peel, founder of the first police force in London, who gave his nickname to the London “bobbie”.

The shilling also appears in phrases and uses that have no direct reference to coinage, such as “to be cut off with a shilling” which meant to be disinherited with only one shilling bequeathed to you;  and “to take the King’s shilling” - the press gangs of the Royal Navy, when forcefully “recruiting” would place a shilling under their victims’ glass-bottom beer tankards in the taverns, which meant when you saw it you knew you had been recruited and had better pick up the shilling and come quietly!

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23rd June 2012