The Great Debasement and Its Aftermath

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


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.


Gold Coin Silver Coin Henry VIII Copper Coinage Sterling Silver 
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    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
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    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
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© Stephen Deng 2011

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  • Stephen Deng

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