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The Romance of the English Shilling

From 1504 to 1971, writes James O. Mays, the shilling has had a dramatic history.

Historians have long held that a nation’s story is dramatically reflected by its coinage. Certainly this is true of the English shilling, which, first minted in Tudor times, is now destined to make its exit with the recent introduction of Britain’s decimal currency.

From the Anglo-Saxon period, the shilling was used as a money of account; and by 1504, when Henry VII finally minted the coin - it was first called the testoon - the shilling value was already well incorporated into everyday life.

One of the first recorded mentions of the shilling as a money of account occurs in the Anglo-Saxon poem Widsith: ‘The King of the Goths... gave me a ring of six hundred pieces of pure gold reckoned by scyllings’.

The value of the Saxon shilling was five pence1; and it was not until the reign of Edward VI that the coins were inscribed with their twelve-penny symbol - XII.

In the Domesday Book, the shilling is frequently mentioned along with pounds and gold marks; and the employment of the theoretical shilling continued right into the fourteenth century, when, for some inexplicable reason, it began to vanish from the records as a money of account.

Not only did Henry VII create the new coin, but he stamped it with his own image. Earlier English sovereigns had been quite content to impose a standardized effigy upon the coinage of the realm. But Henry’s ‘testoon’ (probably so-called after the Italian testone) as well as certain other coins bear the first recognizable portrait of an English monarch.

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