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Coins of conflict: The pop up mints that kept money flowing in wartime 1

a roughly cast lozenge shaped coin with a castle image and royal cipher

England, Charles I (1625-49) lozenge-shaped silver shilling siege piece, 1648, Pontefract

The Fitzwilliam Museum tells the centuries-old story of emergency currency made from gold, silver and compressed prayer books

During the English Civil War between 1644 and 1649, the Royalist stronghold of Pontefract Castle was besieged three times by Parliamentary forces led by Oliver Cromwell. It changed hands at least once before the Royalists eventually re-took it and refused to surrender even after Charles I had been executed.

Apart from the strength of the castle’s fortifications, one of the reasons the Royalists were able to hold out for so long inside the desperate citadel was that Royalist commanders used a pop up mint to make coins to pay their soldiers – and ensure their loyalty.

One of these rare makeshift coins survives today in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, which is telling the centuries old story of emergency currency made from requisitioned silver, gold and even compressed prayer books.

The 1648 dated, lozenge-shaped silver shilling from Pontefract features a crude impression of the castle on its face and the crown of Charles I on the obverse. Its edges might be sharp and it probably doesn’t angle jangle in the pocket like a conventional coin, but in times of war it kept the army paid – and in battle.

a photo of both sides of a coin with a xipher on one side and a date of 1645 on the other

England, Charles I (1625-49) silver shilling siege piece, 1645, Carlisle.

a photo of both sides of a gold coin featuring the image of Charles I on one side

England, Charles I (1625-49) gold triple unite, 1643, struck at Oxford.

a photo of both sides of a coins showing Oliver Cromwell and a sitting in Parliament

Commonwealth (1649-60) silver medal of 1650 commemorating the Battle of Dunbar.

The crude coin is one of 80 examples of currency on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum whose temporary display – Currencies of Conflict – is thought to be the first dedicated exclusively to emergency money.

Carlisle, Newark and Scarborough Castles also held out during the Civil War before eventually falling to the Parliamentarians and examples of siege coinage from all four castles appear in the display. These coins were made by craftsmen working within the fortress walls, using metal obtained from melting down objects requisitioned from the occupants of the castle and town.

“We don’t know how many emergency coins were made during these sieges but a contemporary journal entry from Carlisle suggests that £323 of shilling pieces were struck from requisitioned plate,” says curator Richard Kelleher. “They show how a micro-economy developed during times of siege.”

Although the quality and weight of the silver, and (rarely) gold, was generally good, the manufacture was often much less sophisticated. In temporary mints, pieces of metal were stamped with ‘dies’ of varied workmanship, from the crude designs at Carlisle to the accomplished work of the Newark engraver.

“In the emergency conditions of a siege, coins were sometimes diamond-shaped or hexagonal as these shapes were easier to cut to specific weights than conventionally minted coins which required the specialist machinery of the mint,” adds Kelleher.

During the medieval period, numerous mints operated across England but by 1558 the only royal mint was situated in the Tower of London. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Charles I moved his court to Oxford and established a mint in the city. A stunning gold ‘triple unite’ (a coin worth £3 – one of the largest value coins ever minted), a fine example of the workmanship of the Oxford mint, can be seen in the exhibition.

On its face it shows a finely executed bust of the king holding a sword and olive branch, while the reverse carries the Oxford Declaration: “The Protestant religion, the laws of England, and the liberty of Parliament.” Another rare coin from Oxford is a silver pound coin weighing more than 120g showing the king riding a horse over his defeated enemies.

a crudely struck oval coin

Lydia, Croesus (561-546 BC), Gold stater. Foreparts of bull and lion facing each other.

a photo of a coin showing one side depicting a siege scene and another showing a dragon and eagle

Leopold I (1658-1705), silver medal, ‘Budapest defended 1686’ by G.F. Nürnberger.

a photo showing two sides of a Dutch coin made of compressed paper

Netherlands, Leiden, paper siege piece of 5 stuivers, 1574 .

Also displayed is a silver medal, made during the short Protectorate (1653 – 1659) headed by Oliver Cromwell until his death in 1658. It commemorates the Battle of Dunbar of 1650 when Cromwell’s forces defeated an army loyal to Charles II. Its face shows the bust of Cromwell with battle scenes in the background, while the reverse shows a remarkably detailed interior view of Parliament with the speaker sitting in the centre.

Although coinage from the turmoil of the English Civil War provides the central focus, rare coins within a wider context of 2,500 years of conflict are also drawn from the Fitzwilliam’s outstanding collection.

The earliest piece is an electrum coin dating from the 6th century BC originating from the kingdom of Lydia (western Turkey) and depicting a lion and a bull in combat. The earliest reference to coinage in the literature records a payment in coin by the Lydian king for a military purpose.

A Hungarian medal, commemorating the recapture of Budapest, provides a vivid depiction of a famous siege in progress. The walls are surrounded by cavalry and infantry complete with the machinery of siege warfare – artillery pieces – which have breached the walls.

The reverse carries the image of the Imperial eagle (representing the Habsburg Empire) defending its nest from an attacking dragon which represents the threat of the Ottoman Empire.

a photo of a one mark note issued in occupied Germany during World War Two

Germany, Allied Military Currency, 1 mark, 1944 .

Much less elaborate, yet extremely fragile and rare, is a 16th-century Dutch token made from compressed prayer books. During the 1573-4 siege of Leiden the mayor requisitioned all metal, including coins, for the manufacture of weapons and ammunition. In return, citizens were given token coins made from hymnals, prayer books and bibles.

The narrative of currency and conflict is brought into the 20th century via a piece from occupied Ghent in the First World War made of card and the paper currencies of the Second World War, issued currency by the Allies for liberated areas of Italy and France, and for occupied Germany.

Currencies of Conflict: siege and emergency money from antiquity to WWII is at the Fitzwilliam Museum until February 23 2018. Admission is free.

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The Fitzwilliam Museum

Cambridge, Cambridgeshire

From Egyptian coffins to Impressionist masterpieces – the Fitzwilliam Museum's world-class collections of art and antiquities span centuries and civilizations.

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