en Espaņol    Home     Index / Map     Olympics        Magic Penny Learning Notes: Coins

'A Brief History of the Penny'


The name penny is derived from the Anglo-Saxon penig and has a root similar to the German pfennig. The penny was the unit of currency introduced into Britain probably in the reign of Offa (circa 757 AD). Although the present abbreviation for penny is p (introduced in 1971 to distinguish the new decimalised penny) the previous abbreviation was the symbol d possibly after the Roman denarius, which was the first coinage in regular use in England, or alternatively to indicate that it had 1/12th (duodecimal) of the value of a shilling.

When the penny coinage was introduced it consisted of flans of silver which were hammered between two dies. By law the value of the coin corresponded to the weight of silver but often pennies were not worth their face value either because of dishonest minting or the fraudulent practice of clipping small parts off the edge of the coins. As the value of silver rose over the years by the time William the Conqueror (William I, 1066-1087) ascended the throne there was a pressing need for smaller denomination coins and pennies were legally cut into halves and quarters (thus producing halfpennies and fourthpennies or farthings). The penny was the most important denomination coin in circulation in England up to the reign of Edward III (1327-1377) and has been produced in every reign up to the present day.

The penny appears in many every-day expressions such as 'penny dreadful', 'penny wise', 'pennyworth' etc. and in great literature, e.g. "My penny of observation" (Shakespeare, 'Love's Labour's Lost', iii,1) and "A penny for your thoughts" (Heywood, 'Dialogue', part II,4).

The silver twopence was introduced in the reign of Charles II (1660-1685). The silver pennies were by this time very small and were widely hoarded so that comparatively few were in general circulation. Charles II issued a royal Proclamation on 16th August 1672 legalising copper currency but copper pennies were not introduced until much later. Machine struck pennies were introduced about this time. Silver pennies continue to minted to this day as part of a set of four silver Maundy coins. The Maundy ceremony has its origin in the washing of the feet of the poor by eminent personages on the Thursday before Easter. In England it has survived since the 12th century in the form of the ceremonial presentation by the monarch of silver coins to selected 'poor'. The foot washing seems to have lapsed since the 15th century but the royal attendants still carry towels as part of their regalia. The number of recipients of the royal beneficence is related to the years of the sovereign's life and the ceremony takes place annually at one of the ancient cathedrals. Silver pennies are still minted for this purpose.

Sir Isaac Newton when he was in charge of the Royal Mint considered minting a copper penny in 1702 but the first were introduced in 1797, in the reign of George III (1760-1820), together with the copper twopence. To comply with the connection between the face value and the intrinsic value of the metal the twopence was exactly twice the weight of the penny. This is still the case today.

In the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) the copper penny was issued until 1860 and thereafter pennies were minted in bronze. In 1902 (at the beginning of the reign of Edward VII, 1902-1910) bronze pennies consisted of 9.4 grams of bronze composed of 95% copper, 4% tin, and 1% zinc. By the time the last bronze pennies were struck (in 1967) the composition had slightly altered to 9.4 grams of copper 97%, tin 0.5%, and zinc 2.5%.

The decimal penny and twopence coins were issued in 1968 and became legal tender on 15th February 1971. The equivalent value of the new penny was 2.4 old pence and the coins consisted of 3.6 grams of bronze. By 1992 the intrinsic value of the metal exceeded the face value and new coins were struck from mild steel electroplated with copper. It is these pennies that have magnetic properties and are included in the Magic Penny set. The coins show on the obverse the crowned profile portrait of Queen Elizabeth II with the abbreviated Latin inscription: ELIZABETH II D G REG F D ( Elizabeth II by the Grace of God Queen and Defender of the Faith) and the year of issue. The twopenny coins show on the reverse side the badge of the Prince of Wales consisting of three ostrich plumes within a coronet with a ribbon bearing the German motto: ICH DIEN (I serve). The reverse of the penny coins show a crowned portcullis. The portcullis motif was first used on coins issued in 1600 by Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) for international trade by the East India Company. The portcullis, a heavy grating suspended by chains to move up and down in vertical grooves as a fortified gateway, was the mint mark of the Tower Mint. The sign is probably based on the great portcullis of 'Traitor's Gate' at the Tower of London. PAR 20/4/97.

TOP       © Magic Penny Trust, 2000