Money and Coins in Wales

Medieval to Modern Times


     
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Money in Medieval Wales

Did any of the native rulers of Wales issue their own coins and how does the experience of Wales compare with that of other Celtic countries?

There is a half a chapter on numismatics in the book by Ian Jack:

Jack, R. Ian. Medieval Wales. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1972.
ISBN 0 340 12694 9.

Jack has a couple of pages on the coin struck for Hywel Dda in the 10th century and briefly discusses claims that other Welsh princes issued coins. The only one of these that Jack attaches much credence to is a report by Edward Lhuyd in 1698 that the Bishop of Bangor told him that one of his relations had possessed a coin issued by Llewelyn ab Iorwerth, or Llywelyn the Great, (who became Prince of Gwynedd in about 1197 and extended his rule over much of the rest of Wales in the next two decades, his reign ending with his death in 1240). Lhyud said that the Bishop (whose knowledge of Old Welsh was claimed by Lhyud himself to be even greater than his own) had shown the coin to many of his acquaintances who confirmed his story.

Lhuyd's account seems to imply that the coin had unfortunately been lost by the time he was told the story. Jack is much more sceptical of claims for coin production by other Welsh princes and concludes his discussion of the minting activities of native princes thus: "the evidence amounts to one virtually certain coin, one very doubtful coin of a doubtful prince, one well-attested lost piece of Llywelyn the Great and some lost triangular curiosities. With Norman and Angevin mintings in Wales, the evidence, though still uncomfortably scanty, is much more circumstantial." (page 201). English coins may have circulated in Wales to some extent before the conquest, but even as late as the 14th century payment in cattle was still very common. (See Davies, R.R. The age of conquest: Wales 1063-1415. Oxford: O.U.P.,1987).

This use of cattle was by no means peculiar to Wales. They were one of the most widely use forms of primitive money. Glyn Davies in his History of Money quotes linguistic evidence to show just how ancient and widespread the association between cattle and money was. The English words "capital", "chattels" and "cattle" have a common root. Similarly "pecuniary" comes from the Latin word for cattle "pecus" while in Welsh (the author's mother tongue) the word "da" used as an adjective means "good" but used as a noun means both "cattle" and "goods".

Independent Welsh minting never amounted to very much. Of course Norman and English rulers established mints in various parts of Wales. Later the regional mints were later closed down but in 1637 a branch of the Tower Mint was established at Aberystwyth Castle. Its main purpose was to handle locally mined supplies of silver during a decade when the London mint was busy coining vast amounts of silver brought from Spain.

It should also be noted that although the native Welsh rulers did not go in for minting in a substantial way their Celtic forebears, at least in the part of Britain that subsequently became England, were considerably more active, as is shown in a book, by my father Glyn Davies, on the history of money which has a short section on the significance of Celtic coinage.

Davies, Glyn. A history of money from ancient times to the present day, 3rd ed. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2002. 720 pages. Paperback: ISBN 0 7083 1717 0. Hardback: ISBN 0 7083 1773 1.

It seems that independent Welsh minting never amounted to very much. Of course Norman and English rulers established mints in various parts of Wales and since the English conquest the history of money in Wales has been inextricably bound up with English history in general. Nevertheless Wales did have an important part to play in the development of token coinage and drovers banks in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution.

Coins, Tokens and Banknotes in Wales

From the Industrial Revolution onwards

Towards the end of the 18th century the coinage of Britain was in a deplorable state and the shortage of silver and copper coins was of a crippling severity. Although the production of counterfeit coins was illegal, and punishable by death, it was not illegal to produce tokens with other designs which could be used instead of coins.

The first great era of token production during the Industrial Revolution began in 1787 with the issue by the Anglesey Copper Company, using the high-quality ore from its local Parys mine, of a very attractive Druid Penny which could be exchanged for official coin at full value, if so desired, at any one of its shops or offices. Soon practically every town in Britain was producing its own tokens. By the turn of the century the total supply and velocity of circulation of tokens, foreign coins and other substitutes very probably exceeded those of the official coin of the realm.

The token manufacturers were not the only ones who supplied the currency necessary for commercial activity. Numerous country banks were created in different parts of Britain, including Wales. One such example was the Black Ox Bank set up by David Jones of Llandovery in 1799 with its notes aptly depicting the Welsh Black breed of cattle. This was one of a number of drovers' banks set up in mid-Wales. The drovers' regular and growing trade with London's Smithfield market became a convenient and relatively secure way of transmitting bills of exchange readily discountable in London. In Aberystwyth in 1762, the same year a customs office opened in the town, a bank called Banc y Llong (the Ship Bank) was founded, followed by a bank known as the the Black Sheep Bank because of the picture of a sheep on its notes.

At that time it was normal for banks to issue their own notes. That was true not only in Britain but also in other countries and it did create problems for business people and the general public. A good example of this was the situation in the United States where by 1859, in order to distinguish between genuine and counterfeit notes, shopkeepers had to consult a directory, Hodges Genuine Bank Notes of America that listed 9,916 types of notes issued by 1,365 banks. Some notes were accepted only at a discount since some banks were weaker or were lesser-known and trusted than others.

The Bank Charter Act in 1844 was intended, among other things, was intended to phase note issuing by private banks in England and Wales. That was a long, drawn out process. In 1880 there were still 157 note-issuing banks in England and Wales. By 1900 there were 106 banks but only 55 were still issuing notes. The last commercial note-issuing bank in England and Wales was Fox, Fowler & Co. of Wellington, Somerset. It was taken over by Lloyds in 1921 and since then only the Bank of England has issued banknotes. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, however, some banks have continued to issue their own notes.

The best-known banker in Wales in the 20th century was Sir Julian Hodge who died in July 2004. The obituary at the Julian Hodge Bank website describes how he was inspired by an old Welsh banknote.

"He said his destiny was decided in 1940 while he was employed by the Great Western Railway Company and was given a Bank of Newport note dated April 20, 1821, by a man whom he had helped with a loan of 25. The man was later killed in the battle of El Alamein."

"It made him question why so much finance was controlled from outside Wales. He then set about wresting some of that control from the City of London institutions and creating a financial services industry within Wales."

However, despite the notable efforts of individuals such as Julian Hodge, and his 18th and 19th century predecessors, the role played by the Welsh in banking history has been greatly overshadowed by that their fellow Celts - the Scots - have played in the development of banking, as befits the homeland of Adam Smith. The significance of the Scottish contributions to the development of banking during the period 1695-1789, e.g. the invention of the concept of the overdraft, is discussed on pages 271-278 of Glyn Davies' History of Money.

The Royal Mint in Llantrisant

Since the 1960s the Welsh capital, Cardiff, has grown in importance as a financial centre and since the move of the Royal Mint to Llantrisant in 1968 Wales has produced coins not only for the whole of Britain but also for many other countries. For example by the financial year 1981/2 the Royal Mint was producing coins for no fewer than 57 overseas countries.

One notable commemorative coin issued by the Royal Mint commemorates a significant date in the history not only of Wales but also the whole world - the 200th anniversary of the invention of the steam train. It was designed by Richard Trevithick and made its first journey from Penydarren in Merthyr Tydfil to Abercynon on 21st February 1804.


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Roy Davies - Last updated 25 May 2005.