Obverse & Reverse of 1687 James II Gold Five Guinea Piece
Hammered to Milled
Although regular English gold coinage has been in use since the time of Edward III, the hand made hammering process of minting coins meant that the quality of production, weight and purity could vary drastically. Although the magnificent looking sovereign had been introduced in 1489 during the reign of Henry VII and various gold coinages were produced for each monarch after this, the method of hammering coupled with the softness of gold as a metal meant that not only was it relatively simple to clip the coins at a time when the intrinsic metal content reflected the denominational value, but achieving a high relief on the coins that wouldn't wear over time was also a problem, as was minting coins with an edge to help prevent any illicit activity!
Despite the fact that coins of fine workmanship were produced by Eloye Mestrelle from 1561 under Elizabeth I in a screw press, the process was very slow, the machinery being produced by a horse drawn mill (hence the adoption later on of the term 'milled coinage'), which meant even though their quality was far superior, it took another century before the ancient process of hammering coins by hand was finally overtaken by the machinery of the former French engineer Pierre Blondeau. Although the limited 'pattern' coinage minted under the 'Great Emancipator' Oliver Cromwell from 1656 to 1658 showed a quality superior to the previous hammered coins, they were never mass circulated, hence their rarity. Thus their limited production probably aided their quality. When one considers the quality of some of the 'coins' minted during the Civil War then the introduction of machine made coins can be viewed as nothing less than a saving grace, though one could argue that production in many areas of industry was always going to lean this way.
Two Heads are Better than One! William & Mary's Conjoined Portrait, and Crowned Shield Reverse of 1691 Gold Five Guineas
The Five Guinea Piece
One of the most famous and sought after of all the British milled gold coins is the five-guinea piece. What is remarkable is that this particular coin had probably one of the shortest life spans of any British denominational coin, being minted for circulation for only 85 years between 1668 and 1753; yet amongst these differing issues and patterns are some of the rarest and most sought after of the British 'early milled coinage'. (A period defined from the time of the installation of Blondeau's hand powered machinery until the introduction of Matthew Boulton's steam powered press in 1790, used to mint the famous cartwheel two penny and penny pieces). Probably the most famous of these rarities is the 1703 Five Guinea 'VIGO' issue of Queen Anne, made from gold captured from Spanish galleons in the Battle of Vigo Bay in October 1702. It is claimed that fewer than 20 of these coins are in existence and they can fetch well in excess of £50,000.
How Many Shillings?
Although the five-guinea's final value of 105 shillings, or £5, 5s, seems a rather unusual value, this was never the original intention. During the reign of Charles II and before, right up to the Napoleonic wars, the denominational value of gold coins was reflected by the intrinsic gold content they contained; thus while those old enough to remember that a guinea was worth 21 shillings or £1, 1s as standard, this was not always the case. When it was first struck in 1668 the five-guinea piece was a five-pound coin, just as the guinea was a one-pound coin or 20 shillings when it became the first British machine struck gold coin in February 1663. Therefore quite sensibly and metrically, the new gold coinage, (along with the two guinea and half guinea) was current for 100s, 40s, 20s and 10s.
Five Guineas or Five Pounds?
Although the coin is officially referred to as a 'five-guinea' piece, this name was unofficial during the 17th and 18th century. As explained in the story of the guinea, the name arose, as the gold from which some of the early issues were made was imported from Guinea by the Africa Company. Their badge, which was the elephant and castle (howdah), appears as a provenance mark (confirmed by a charter that allowed this) under the bust of the reigning monarchs effigy. As the price of gold increased during the reign of Charles II, it came to be traded at a premium. It unofficially altered to £5 5s at the recoinage of 1696 but until a Royal Proclamation fixed its value in 1717, the value fluctuated much in the same way that gold bullion coins do today.
What a Relief
As previously touched upon, the process of milling allowed a greater relief or depth to the gold coinage where an edge inscription DECUS ET TUTAMEN ANNO REGNI..., meaning 'An ornament and a safeguard, in the year of the reign...' Originally this process was inscribed on the blanks before the obverse and reverse were struck, finally preventing the centuries old tendency to 'clip' coins at the edge to illegally take some of the gold. Each separate year also had the regnal year of the monarch in Latin.
Design, Engravers and Variations Too
The obverse and reverse designs of the first coins were designed by John Roettier, who continued to design the dies used during the reign of King James II. The original obverse depicts a high quality bust of the king wearing a laurel wreath, while on the reverse were four crowned cruciform shields bearing the arms of England, Scotland, France and Ireland. These shields were interspersed with four sceptres, which distinguished the coin from similar sized silver coins, avoiding fraud by gilding.
It wasn't until the reign of William and Mary that the reverse design was changed to a large crowned shield, still bearing the arms of the same four countries. It is thought this new design was the work of either James and / or Robert Roettier. After the death of Queen Mary in 1694, it was thought the new reverse design was unsuccessful and so it reverted to the original design, this time with an added shield in the centre depicting the lion of Nassau.
Charles II to George II
Because a five-guinea coin existed for every year of Charles II's reign (there are in fact 32 different varieties), they are less valuable than those of James II or William and Mary. As already mentioned, the Queen Anne VIGO five-guineas of 1703 is one of the great British gold coin rarities, yet apart from the alteration of the reverse shields following the union of England and Scotland, the design remained pretty much the same. It was with the ascension of George I to the throne that the production of the five-guinea piece started to become less frequent, and pieces for this reign are quite scarce. Yet under George II's reign, which marked the end of the denomination, the Five-Guinea is slightly more common, yet they were still only minted in 7 of his 30-years reign. Despite minor alterations, the most significant point to note about the early George II five-guineas is the appearance of the initials EIC under the king's head on some of the 1729 issues, as the gold was supplied by the East India Company.
1753 ... Going, Going Gone
The last striking of the five-guinea piece was in 1753. It may be that there was the intention to mint five-guinea pieces for George III, as the engraver Johann Tanner produced several pattern designs in 1770, 73 and 77. Being patterns, these coins are of course very rarely available to collectors, even at the finest auctions, and could be expected to fetch £100,000 should they be in FDC condition. Perhaps the War of Independence and then the Napoleonic wars halted any possibility of circulating anymore such large gold coins, and as bank notes slowly were introduced into everyday transactions, the five-guinea piece was no longer needed or viable as the gold could be used for British economic assets in a vastly changing industrially revolutionised world. Although they were still of course legal tender, their short mintage period wasn't compensated for by their continuing existence in everyday transactions. Their time as a useable coin came to an end when they were demonetised during the great re-coinage of 1816 and the guinea was replaced by the sovereign. Although the term 'guinea' was still used after 1816 to imply a value of 21 shillings, it was used only sparingly, such as in horse racing or more famously, to denote bidding in horse auctions; it's grand relation the five-guinea piece was never developed as the art of coin-making reached new levels in England in the 19th century by such forward thinking engravers as Pistrucci and Wyon