In an exciting find for archaeologists, local historians and legal historians, a metal detectorist in the Forest of Dean (Gloucestershire) has turned up a large amount of metal clearly clipped from the edges of coins of the time of Elizabeth I to Charles I: see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-gloucestershire-34779378.
As a mere peerer at parchment and – increasingly – computerised scans of parchment, I admit to being very jealous of people who manage to find actual stuff. Still, I will add my legal historical tuppence (unclipped) worth on this interesting find.
First of all, why would somebody be cutting the edges off coins? This is something I remember hearing about as a child, when somebody explained to me the reason why some coins had a milled edge, and which has come up a number of times in my grown-up studies. Clipping of coins was a method of stealing small pieces of metal, which could be melted down by the malefactor, for use in counterfeit coins or otherwise. Coinage offences – clipping and counterfeiting – were treated with great seriousness from Anglo-Saxon times onwards. Anglo-Saxon codes include mutilatory punishments for coining offences, and there are notorious instances of executions for coin-clipping from the post-conquest period too (Jews suffered for this in particular, and especially in the reign of Edward I). [See, e.g. D.C. Skemer, ‘Edward I’s Articles of Inquest on the Jews and Coin-Clipping, 1179’, Historical Research 72 (1999) 1-26]. The reasons for such severity were: first, that there was an element of direct contempt of the monarch in the offence: coins were stamped with the royal image and should therefore not be defaced, and, secondly, the economic problems caused when coinage became debased.
Penalties remained particularly severe through the early modern period which is most relevant to this particular find. Coin clipping was declared ‘high treason by a statute in the reign of Elizabeth I [st. 5 Eliz. c. 11, 1562-3], (reinstating the position as it had been from the 1415-16 statute 4 Henry V c.6, which had been altered at the start of the reign of Mary I) showing continued central concern with this offence, and the need to try to deter people from committing it.
Since this was a form of treason, not only was death prescribed, but the death prescribed might be a particularly cruel and horrifying one: women coin-clippers were liable to sentence of death by burning. While there are examples in Hale’s Pleas of the Crown, 398, of hanging, drawing and quartering for male coin clippers, straightforward hanging, or drawing and hanging, seems to have been more usual. The Old Bailey project has a number of clipping cases from the latter part of the 17th C and thereafter, resulting in death sentences, including burning. There was certainly good reason to be fearful, if one engaged in coin-clipping.
To return to the recent find, the obvious conclusion would seem to be that somebody hid these clippings in a hurry, before they could melt them down, because they feared discovery, and, for some reason (death – whether by execution or not? matters connected to Civil War – bearing in mind that the coins include some from 1645?) they were unable to go back and dig them up. It could suggest a new crackdown on coining offences in this area in the mid 17th C (perhaps unlikely given that people were more concerned with the whole King v. Parliament thing). Or, of course, the perpetrator might simply have forgotten where he buried his treasure …
I’m looking forward to finding out more as the archaeologists get to work on these long-hidden shavings.
GS 19th November, 2015.