A Brief History of the Penny

As the modern era of a cashless society rolls relentlessly onwards and due to inflation the value of it ever decreasing, the Bank of England Governor Mark Carney has raised the prospect that like the half pence in the 1980’s the Penny be removed from circulation.  The fact that the banking chief claims to rarely see them whilst I see plenty of them daily is probably more a reflection of his over-inflated salary than anything else but then again I still regularly write cheques.

Money is always changing and coins have always come and gone out of circulation and in some countries the Penny has already met it’s banking maker in the sky.  However their are few coins more iconic than the British Penny.

Though there were obviously currencies in these islands beforehand, the roots of the English penny go back to Roman times.  In fact before decimalisation in 1971, the abbreviation for penny was “d.” and this stood for Denarius, which was originally a Roman silver coin.

The first mention of Britannia

The first mention and depiction of Britannia on a Roman Didrachm coin during the reign of Claudius I

After the Romans decided to withdraw from Britain to protect places closer to Rome around  about 411 A.D., Britain fell into what is slightly misleadingly known as the Dark Ages during which relatively few coins were struck. Those coins which were struck were mainly imitations of earlier, mainly Roman issues.

The splendidly titled Frankish King Pepin the Short introduced a new good quality of silver deniers in mainland Europe around 755AD and similar coins were also introduced into England, probably by King Offa, shortly afterwards. Both the deniers, and the English pennies, were of a similar diameter, and weighed about 20 grains (about 1.3 grams or 0.05 ounces) and were of high grade silver. The French word denier shows its obvious derivation from the Latin denarius. For the next 500 years, the silver penny was the main, almost the only, English coin type issued though King Offa did also introduce another coin based on the Denarious, a gold Dinar which was copied from the Arab Dinar of Caliph Al-Mansur as well as a gold penny which is thought to have been worth about 20 pence.

The English silver penny was struck to extremely high standards for the time and rapidly became famous throughout Europe. Not only were its size and weight imitated, but also its designs, portraits and inscriptions. It served as the model for the coins of Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Germany and Poland. The first coins produced for Poland by Boguslav the Mighty carried the name of Ethelred I, King of England.

Such is the lasting influence of the penny that, although the USA declared independence from Britain in 1776, and adopted a decimal currency, largely as a gesture of independence, Americans rather curiously still refer to their one cent coin as a penny!     Even now, the Royal Mint produces  money for around 70 foreign countries around the world.

As for the word Penny which doesn’t obviously have Latin origins, it is possible it originates from an Anglo-Saxon man called Penda who was King of West Mercia.  It is also possible that  the name comes from the pans into which molten metal was poured from crucibles to produced coin castings and blanks.  Such origins  are even more obvious in Germany where the German word “pfanne” meaning pan is very similar to the German word “pfennig” meaning penny. Penge, penninge, pande, and penig are other early north European words with similar meanings.

Once the Romans had left the scene, many of the Anglo-Saxon pennies featured a cross as part of the reverse side of the coin to illustrate the fact the population was devoutly Christian.   It was in 978 King Eadgar’s pennies introduced the King’s head as the main obverse design, a feature which had been common on many Roman issues. A head still survives to this day in the designs of the coins of most countries, so that the “obverse” or main side of coins is commonly referred to as the “head” of the coin.

In the reign of Ethelred II, the cross was extended to the edge of the coin, largely as a counter-measure against clipping or filing the edges. Clipping or filing the edges of coins was a huge problem 1000 years ago.  The coins being made from silver and so worth their weight in (Sterling) silver, dubious minded individuals would often trim the edges of coins.  Trim the edge of 100 silver coins and you have 100 scraps of silver that you can melt down and created 10 new coins from whilst leaving the honest trader out of pocket. By having the cross extend right to the edge of the coin, it was more obvious if the coin had been tampered with.

King Henry III Long Cross

King Henry III Long Cross coin


This fraud protect continued for centuries until bad King Charles I during whose reign coinage was struck with a beaded circle around the edge of the coin and eventually milled coinage was introduced. , when a beaded circle was used for a similar purpose and this tactic is still very much in use today.

From the tenth century, the weight of a silver penny had been increased to 22.5 grains. A “pennyweight” is 24 grains. It is possible that the difference could have been due to seignorage, or the profit charged by the mint, which would therefore have worked out at 15 pence, equivalent to 6.25%. According to other sources, when silver pennies were first introduced into England, their weight was 24 grains, which would have made a penny’s weight a pennyweight.

The terms “sterling” and “pound sterling”, seem to have acquired their meaning over a period of time, and from several convergent sources. The first mention is that of “sterilensis” in 1078, and by the thirteenth century the term sterling had appeared. Mintmarks on pennies included a star and a starling, both of which have been argued to be the source of the word sterling. Easterlings were early merchants and money-changers, and this may have contributed to the use of the word sterling. The Germanic word “ster” means strong or stout, and is probably the strongest influence in the use of the word sterling to mean strong, pure, stable, reliable, or excellent, and reflects the high esteem in which the English silver coinage was regarded. The term “pound sterling” was used throughout Europe during the Middle Ages.

As time went by, the weight of the penny was reducedIn 1344 the weight of a penny was reduced from over 20 grains to 18 grains, in 1412 to 15 grains, and in 1464 was further reduced to 12 grains. In 1816 the coinage underwent a major change, and weight of a silver penny was reduced to about 7.27 grains, and the maundy pennies which are still issued each year continue at the same weight.

The first copper pennies were issued in 1797, and were produced by Matthew Boulton and James Watt, at their Soho, Birmingham works, using steam powered coining presses. These coins weighed one ounce, and contained their full intrinsic value of copper. They were so substantial that they soon became known as “cartwheel” pennies, twopences were also issued, and at two ounces each even better fit the cartwheel description.
The size and weight were reduced slightly for the next issues of 1806 and 1807, and copper pennies continued to be produced from 1825 during the reign of George IV, William IV, and Victoria, until 1860.

It was at the time of the Soho Mint that the familiar figure of Britannia became more widespread on our coinage.



Britannia on the reverse of a current gold coin


In 1860, a new smaller bronze penny was introduced, and these were produced until 1967, with a penny dated 1970 being specially produced for inclusion in a “farewell to £.s.d” proof set bearing that date. These bronze coins are commonly but inaccurately referred to as copper.

For a brief period, from 1971 to 1982, the British penny disappeared to be replaced by the “new penny”, part of Britain’s decimalisation, and with 100 to the pound.

The design on the reverse of the decimal penny is a “Royally crowned portcullis”. This was originally a badge of Henry VII, the first of the Tudor monarchs. It was first used on coins as a mintmark on the first (gold) coinage of Henry VIII.

In 1982, it was decided that we British had adjusted sufficiently to decimalisation, the the word “new” was dropped from the “new” coins, so the penny once again bears the value “one penny”, although there are those who seem to believe it is a “one pence”!

In 1992, pennies were produced from copper plated steel partly as the price of the raw materials exceeded that of the value of the coins. It is likely that this will become a permanent change, although in some years bronze pennies have been issued also because of production problems, in supplying the steel coins in sufficient quantities.

It’s likely that the Bank of England Governor doesn’t appreciate the history of this famous old coin and as the saying goes is likely to be the type of man who knows the cost of everything but the value of nothing.  It’s one thing for us to go from paper money to plastic money but another thing all together to condemn the Penny to the history books.  Perhaps Mark Carney can send all the pennies in the vaults to me as I will find a use for them!

About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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1 Response to A Brief History of the Penny

  1. Pingback: What a rare gold coin from the Black Death can tell us about life in the 1350’s. | Stephen Liddell

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