The Great Debasement and Its Aftermath

  • Stephen Deng
Part of the Early Modern Cultural Studies book series (EMCSS)

Abstract

Between 1544 and 1551 Henry VIII and Edward VI systematically debased the currency—replaced precious metal content of coins with base metals—for the sake of fiscal profit. With rapid population growth in the early sixteenth century straining the money supply, and with his military endeavors in France, Scotland, and Ireland producing fiscal pressure, Henry turned to exploitation of his coinage after he had already exhausted the bounteous resources he had acquired from the dissolution of the monasteries.1 Debasement had been common and quite severe throughout much of medieval Europe, especially in France, but it had been essentially nonexistent in England from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century. For approximately 400 years, England had maintained 92.5 percent purity for sterling, but with Henry’s debasement, the purity of coins gradually dropped to 75 percent, then to 50 percent, to 33 percent, and finally to 25 percent. A 1551 issue under Edward VI contained only 17 percent of the silver contained in pre-debasement issues.2 As a result, the earlier prestige of English coin, which at times had been the envy of northern Europe, quickly disintegrated over a brief period.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London: Verso, 1979), 124. Debasement technically refers only to reduction in fineness, but the term is commonly used to describe any reduction in precious metal content of coins (fineness or weight).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Nicholas Mayhew, Sterling: The History of a Currency (New York: Wiley, 1999), 46. There were other minor incidents when rulers allowed lower-quality coins to pass. See, for example, Henry VII’s proclamations ordering subjects to continue using “small, thin, and old pence” as long as “they be silver and whole,” as well as cracked coins and clipped coins with at least half the scripture remaining. TRP, 1:47, 1:60–61, 1:70–74.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    There had been an early example of debasement in 1048 under Edward the Confessor; see Glyn Davies, A History of Money: From Ancient Times to the Present Day (Cardiff: U of Wales P, 2002), 134. But the effects of the rare earlier English debasements paled in comparison to Henry’s debasement.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    See Carlo M. Cipolla, “Currency Depreciation in Medieval Europe,” Economic History Review, 2nd series 15.3 (1963): 419. David Glassner declares that the “history of money virtually coincides with a history of the debasement, depreciation, and devaluation of the currency by the state.” “An Evolutionary Theory of the State Monopoly over Money,” Money and the Nation-State, ed. Kevin Dowd and Richard H. Timberlake, Jr. (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1998), 21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 5.
    Peter Spufford, Money and Its Use in Medieval Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988), 289, 307. For ancient precedents of debasement and depreciation during times of war, see Glassner, “Evolutionary,” 26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 11.
    George C. Brooke, English Coins (London: Methuen, 1950), 175.Google Scholar
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    Machyn, The Diary of Henry Machyn, ed. John Gough Nichols (London, 1848), 122.Google Scholar
  8. 23.
    Quoted in John Craig, The Mint (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1953), 110.Google Scholar
  9. 24.
    See Mary Dewar, “Introduction,” A Discourse of the Common Weal of This Realm of England, ed. Mary Dewar (Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1969), xx.Google Scholar
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    Heywood, John Heywoodes Woorkes (London, 1562), sig. Zlv, sig. AA3r.Google Scholar
  11. 31.
    Davies, History, 200. See Sandra Fischer’s entry for “nose” in Econolingua: A Glossary of Coins and Economic Language in Renaissance Drama (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1985), 99.Google Scholar
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    Camden, Remains Concerning Britain, ed. R. D. Dunn (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1984), sig. Bb3v.Google Scholar
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    Challis, The Tudor Coinage (New York: Manchester UP, 1978), 120; TED, 2:196.Google Scholar
  14. 38.
    Quoted in Norman L. Jones, “William Cecil and the Making of Economic Policy in the 1560s and Early 1570s,” Political Thought and the Tudor Commonwealth: Deep Structure, Discourse and Disguise, ed. Paul A. Fideler and T. F. Mayer (London: Routledge, 1992), 170.Google Scholar
  15. 39.
    Clinton W. Potter, Jr., “Images of Majesty: Money as Propaganda in Elizabethan England,” Money: Lure, Lore, and Literature, ed. John-Louis DiGaetani (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1994), 72.Google Scholar
  16. 42.
    Cotton, Speech, 25; Joan Thirsk and J. P. Cooper, eds., Seventeenth-Century Economic Documents (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972), 599; Mayhew, Sterling, 56. For more on Elizabeth’s restoration of the coin, see TRP, 2:8, 2:51–52, and 2:67–68.Google Scholar
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    Jack Weatherford, The History of Money (New York: Three Rivers, 1997), 53.Google Scholar
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    Sargent and Velde, The Big Problem of Small Change (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2002); Brooke, English Coins, 218.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. 52.
    Ibid., 209–10. James’s copper farthings, like Henry’s debased coinage, induced widespread counterfeiting of tokens. See Malcolm Gaskill, Crime and Mentalities in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000), 126, 163.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 61.
    H. R. Trevor-Roper, “George Buchanan and the Ancient Constitution,” The English Historical Review, supplement 3 (1966): 14.Google Scholar
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    Buchanan, A History of Scotland, trans. James Aikman (Glasgow, 1827), 2:602–03.Google Scholar

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© Stephen Deng 2011

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  • Stephen Deng

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