They say money talks – but if the coins displayed at a new exhibition could do just that, they would doubtless reveal an unknown and rather dark relationship between the Royal Mint and England’s Jews, writes Francine Wolfisz.
Coins and Kings, which opened to the public last week, is housed within the original Royal Mint at the Tower of London, where the nation’s coins were forged for more than 500 years.
Visitors can explore pivotal moments from the history of the Mint, including when Henry VIII made the foolhardy decision to raise more money by debasing his silver coins – a move that seriously harmed the economy – as well as Isaac Newton’s efforts to rid London of counterfeiters, when he served as Warden of the Mint.
Other fascinating exhibits on display include a stunning Halfpound coin from the reign of Elizabeth I and a beautiful Charles II Petition Crown, which engraver Thomas Simon presented to the king in the hopes of getting commissioned.
But there is also a section dedicated to the time of Edward I, who expelled the Jews from England in 1290 -primarily because of money – says curator Megan Gooch.
“For a long while, Jews were banned from a number of trades, but usury was one of the main areas they were able to work in, because it was a practice forbidden to Christians” she explains. “In the best of times, banks and lenders are not popular, but as more people became indebted to them, anti-Jewish feeling began to rise.”
Alongside this, Edward I launched a crackdown on the illegal practice of coin clipping, which involved shaving the rim of existing coins, melting the metal and then forging new coins.
While many were arrested and consequently tried for coin clipping, the worst punishments of all were reserved for the Jews. In 1279, he ordered the arrest of all the heads of Jewish households in England and had around 300 of them executed.
Gooch adds: “Undoubtedly coin clipping was rife in this time, because we have many examples of coins that were indeed chipped away at.
“But it was not an exclusively Jewish crime and the punishments given were extremely disproportionate. While Christians would be imprisoned, Jews often faced the harshest punishment of death.”
And if someone was executed, the King would gain all their property so there was also a financial advantage to convicting a Jew for this crime.
The final blow for the Jews came with the Edict of Expulsion in 1290, through which Edward I made further financial gains by appropriating more Jewish property.
But as one display shows, the King didn’t quite take all the money. Among the cases are a collection of tiny long cross silver pennies made during the reign of Edward’s predecessor, King Henry III.
They were among a massive hoard of coins found underneath a house of a medieval home that probably once belonged to the wealthy Jewish merchant, Aaron of Colchester.
Although the fate of Aaron and his family is unknown, it is presumed he was killed or left England following the expulsion and was unable to take his wealth with him.
Gooch remarks: “It’s a mystery why the coins were left in the cellar, but good on Aaron – this was one man’s Jewish property that Edward I was not able to lay his hands on.”
The curator, who spent more than two years putting the exhibition together, adds: “I think this is a story that deserves to be told. You can’t really talk about Edward I without looking at what happened in 1278. When it comes to the Royal Mint, there is perhaps a darker tale that deserves to be more widely known.”
Coins And Kings: The Royal Mint at the Tower of London is now open to the public. Details: www.hrp.org.uk/toweroflondon or call 0844 482 7777.