From the time of Charlemagne until the 12th century, the silver currency of England was made from the highest purity silver available. Unfortunately there were drawbacks to minting currency of Fine Silver, notably the level of wear it suffered, and the ease with which coins could be "clipped", or trimmed by those dealing in the currency.
In the 12th century a new standard for English coinage was established by Henry II, the Sterling Silver standard of metal -- 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper used in coinage. This was a harder wearing alloy, yet it was still a rather high grade of silver. It went some way to discouraging the practice of "clipping", though this practice was further discouraged and largely eliminated with the introduction of the milled edge we see on coins today.
In 1920, the silver content of all British coins was reduced from 92.5% to 50%, with a portion of the remainder consisting of manganese, which caused the coins to tarnish to a very dark color after they had been in circulation for a significant period. Silver was eliminated altogether in 1948.
History of the Penny
The penny was originally one 'pennyweight' of silver. A pennyweight is a unit of mass which is the same as 1.555 grams, or 1/240th of a troy pound. So, a penny was literally, as well as monetarily, 1/240th of a troy pound of sterling silver. The weight of this coin was instituted by Charlemagne, and the purity of 92.5% silver (sterling silver) was instituted by Henry II in 1158 with the "Tealby Penny" -- a hammered coin. At this time the standard unit of currency in England was the penny.
The mediaeval penny would have been the equivalent of around 1s 6d in value in 1915. British government sources suggest that prices have risen over 61 fold since 1914, so a mediaeval sterling silver penny might be worth around £4.50 today, and a farthing (a quarter penny) would have the value of slightly more than today's pound. Inflation has eroded currency value by that much.
For further detail on the history of the penny, see Penny
The old British system of money, which evolved from mediaeval times, used a selection of coins known as guineas, pounds, Crownss, Half-Crowns, shillings, thruppence, pennies, halfpennies and farthingss. Other currency units included a sovereign and the groat.
Denominations of pre-decimal coins and their years of production
- Note that the value of some coins fluctuated at different times in their history, particularly in the reigns of James I and Charles I. The value of a Guinea fluctated between 20 and 30 shillings before being fixed at 21 shillings in December 1717.
- Note that these are denominations of British, or earlier English, coins -- Scottish coins had different values.
Note: * = denomination issued for use in the colonies, usually in Ceylon, Malta, or the West Indies, but normally counted as part of the British coinage.
- Five Guineas (originally 100/-, later 105/-) 1668-1753.
- Five Pounds (100/-) (Gold) 1826-1990.
- Triple Unite (60/-) 1642-1644.
- Fifty Shillings (50/-) 1656.
- Two Guineas (42/-) 1664-1753.
- Two Pounds (40/-) 1823-1937.
- Rose Ryal (30/-) 1604-1625.
- Guinea (21/-) 1663-1799, 1813
- Broad (20/-) 1656.
- Sovereign (20/-) 1489-1604; 1817-1914, since 1914 a bullion coin.
- Laurel (20/-) 1619-1644?
- Unite (20/-) 1604-1619; 1649-1662.
- Spur Ryal (15/-) 1604-1625.
- Half Guinea (10/6) 1669-1813.
- Half Sovereign (10/-) 1544-1553; 1603-1604; 1817-1937, since 1980 a bullion coin.
- Double Crown (10/-) 1604-1619; 1625-1662.
- Halfpound (10/-) 1559-1602; 1642-4
- Half Unite (10/-) 1642-3.
- Half Laurel (10/-)) 1619-1625.
- Rose Noble or Ryal (10/-, 15/- from 1553) 1464-1470, 1487, 1553-1603.
- Third Guinea (7/-) 1797-1813.
- Noble (6/8, raised to 8/4 in 1464) 1344-1464.
- Angel (6/8) 1461-1643.
- Florin or Double Leopard (6/-) 1344. Demonetised within 1 year.
- Quarter Guinea (5/3) 1718, 1762.
- Crown (5/-) 1526-1965
- Crown of the Rose (4/6) 1526-1547.
- Double Florin (4/-), 1887-1890.
- Half Noble (3/4, increased to 4/2 in 1464); minted 1346-1438.
- Half Angel (3/4, later 5/6), 1470-1619.
- Half Florin or Leopard (3/-) 1344. Extremely rare.
- Half Crown (2/6), 1526-1969.
- Quarter Angel (2/-), 1547-1600. Gold.
- Florin (2/-), 1848-1970, circulated until 1993 as the old Ten Pence coin.
- Twenty Pence (1/8 - 2/-) 1257-1265. Gold. Undervalued for its metal content and extremely rare!
- Quarter Noble (1/8), 1344-1470.
- Quarter Florin or Helm (1/6), 1344. Gold coin demonetised within 1 year.
- Shilling (1/-), 1502-1970, circulated until 1990 as the old Five Pence coin.
- Sixpence (6d), 1547-1970
- Groat (4d) 1279-1662, 1836-1862
- Threepence (3d), 1547-1970
- Half Groat (2d), 1351-1662
- Twopence (2d), silver (inc. Maundy) 1668- current; copper 1797-1798.
- Three Halfpence (1.5d), 1561-1582, 1834-1870 *
- Penny (1d), 757-1970
- Three Farthings (0.75d), 1561-1582.
- Halfpenny (0.5d), 1272-1969
- Farthing (0.25d), c. 1200-1960
- Half Farthing (0.125d), 1828-1868 *
- Third Farthing (0.08333d) 1827-1913 *
- Quarter Farthing (0.0625d), 1839-1868 *
- Scottish coin Bawbee (0.5d), 1539-1697
Note that the mediaeval florin, half florin, and quarter florin were gold coins intended to circulate in Europe as well as in England and were valued as much more than the Victorian and later florin and double florin. The mediaeval florins were withdrawn within a year because they contained insufficient gold for their face value and thus were unacceptable to merchants.
All British coins produced since 1662 have been milled, i.e. produced by machine; the first milled coins were produced during the reign of Elizabeth I and periodically during the reigns of James I and Charles I, but there was opposition to mechanisation from the moneyers who ensured that most coins continued to be produced by hammering.
In mediaeval times, the