The British shilling, a coin with a history that spans over a thousand years, was once a cornerstone of the British monetary system. This article takes you on a journey through the shilling’s rich history, from its early origins to its evolution and eventual abolition, revealing the captivating narrative woven into the fabric of this venerable coin.
Origins of the Shilling: The Anglo-Saxon Period
The term ‘shilling’ has roots in the Anglo-Saxon period, derived from the Old English ‘scilling’. The shilling was not a coin but a unit of account, equalling twelve pennies. The silver penny was the principal coin, and the value of goods was reckoned in terms of pennies or shillings.
The Significance of the Shilling
The term shilling was more than a simple accounting term. It represented a specific quantity of silver by weight, serving as a standard for transactions, legal agreements, and fines.
The Emergence of the Shilling Coin
The shilling emerged as a coin in the mid-16th century during the reign of King Henry VII. These early shillings, known as ‘testoons’, were made of silver. The testoon was later replaced by the more familiar coin, known as the shilling, under King Edward VI.
The Iconic ‘Milled’ Shilling
Under Queen Elizabeth I, the shilling began to be produced using a mill and screw press, replacing the older method of hand-hammering. This transition to milled coinage resulted in coins of more consistent size and shape, including the iconic milled shilling.
The Shilling Through the Ages: Evolving with the Empire
The shilling evolved considerably over the following centuries. Its design reflected the times, featuring the portraits of reigning monarchs and symbols representing Britain’s growing empire.
The Silver to Copper-Nickel Transition
Up until 1946, the shilling was a silver coin. After World War II, in response to economic pressures, the composition of the shilling was changed to cupronickel.
Decimalisation and the End of the Shilling
The biggest change in the life of the shilling came in 1971 with the introduction of decimalisation. The shilling was replaced by the five pence piece, marking the end of a coin that had been a staple of British currency for centuries.
Preserving the Memory: The Shilling in Modern Times
Despite its abolition, the shilling lives on in British slang and common parlance, serving as a nostalgic reminder of Britain’s rich numismatic history.
Collecting Shillings: A Numismatic Pursuit
For numismatists and collectors, the British shilling offers a fascinating insight into the nation’s past. With a multitude of variants in design and composition, shillings are treasured pieces of history, valuable not only for their monetary worth but also for their historical significance.
The Value of Shillings in Numismatic Collections
Within the world of numismatics, certain shillings are particularly prized. Factors that can enhance a shilling’s value include its age, rarity, condition, and historical context. For instance, shillings from the reign of Queen Victoria or those struck during important historical events may command higher prices among collectors.
The Legacy of the Shilling in British Literature and Culture
The shilling has left an indelible imprint on British culture, featuring prominently in literature, music, and everyday idioms. From classic novels to traditional songs, the shilling has been a symbol of British life and values.
Shilling Idioms and Expressions
Phrases such as ‘the shilling’s worth’ and ‘put one’s shilling in’ have been part of everyday English language, showing the cultural significance of the shilling in society. Even though the coin itself no longer circulates, these idioms persist, a testament to the enduring influence of the shilling.
The Shilling in Former British Colonies
The influence of the shilling extended far beyond Britain’s shores, with several former colonies adopting shilling-based monetary systems. Countries like Australia, New Zealand, and various nations in East Africa have all used currencies divided into shillings and pence, echoing the structure of the old British system.
The Shilling Today: East Africa
Today, the most notable user of the shilling is East Africa, where Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Somalia all have currencies named ‘shilling’. While these modern shillings have different values and designs from the original British shilling, their existence is a clear legacy of the influence of British colonial rule.
The British shilling, with its lengthy history and deep cultural roots, offers a fascinating study of how a coin can shape and reflect a nation’s identity. From its humble beginnings as an accounting term in the Anglo-Saxon era to its evolution into a coin that travelled the globe, the shilling encapsulates centuries of British history. As collectors and historians, we appreciate not just the physical coin but the remarkable journey it represents.