A Penny’s Worth
By: Marc Bink
Since my compatriot Pierre is writing about English coins and the laws surrounding counterfeiting and forgery, I thought I’d throw my “Penny’s Worth” into the fray and describe a story about a little man who wound up convincing a powerful Queen how great he and his newfangled technology were, only to get into trouble with an inert English labour monopoly. This story almost sounds like a product of today’s British labour strife, were it not for the typically medieval way in which it was all handled. So here is the story of Eloye Mestrelle and his little coining press, which threatened to put a lot of hammerers at the Tower Mint out of business. And these hammerers were known to hammer back when anyone infringed on what they considered to be their rights and lifestyle.
An early coining press similar to the one Mestrelle would have used,
this one is hand driven, whereas Mestrelle’s was reputed to be horse driven.
Eloye Mestrelle was a Frenchman, born in Paris. He seems to have apprenticed at the French mint “Moulin de Monnais” at Versailles. It would appear that Mestrelle had already acquired a reputation for clipping and counterfeiting once he arrived in England in 1559. He managed to convince the new Queen, Elizabeth I of England, to write him a pardon for all of his offences committed prior to March 1, 1559.
So why would she do that? Queen Elizabeth wasn’t known for her compassion, she was known more for her cunning and greed. England was in the grips of a currency crisis when she came to the throne in 1558; – there were a lot of foreign coins and counterfeits circulating, and her own coffers were just about bare. She needed to gather up and recoin some of the older Edward VI and Mary coins that were still circulating. There were a lot of the even older debased Henry VIII issues still floating around as well, which by this time were wearing out so that the copper content of these coins was becoming evident. These coins were not doing much to encourage public confidence in the currency. By recalling the older issues, and using newly discovered silver sources in North America, she was able to replenish her coffers.
In order to assure public acceptance of these new issues, she needed a coin that would look good. It would appear that one Eloye Mestrelle convinced her that his coining machine would make a far better coin than her hammerers at the Tower Mint were capable of doing. He proceeded to prove it by generating a lovely set of sixpence and shilling coins in 1561. With Mestrelle’s new coin press, certain security devices could be incorporated in the coin for the first time, and quality control was assured because the coins coming off his press would be nearly identical to each other. The Queen wanted a better coin with a polished professional appearance, and Mestrelle gave it to her. These coins are referred to as “milled”, which means they come from a machine, as opposed to “hammered”, which implies the older traditional hand hammering of coins.
Mestrelle’s Shilling, circa 1561-68
The hammerers at the Tower Mint weren’t impressed. They saw their way of life disappearing if this coin press idea actually took off. These “gentlemen” had it good; but the work was hard. They would take molten silver and cast it into ingots. The moneyers would then beat the ingots flat, cut out the flans by hand, then clip, grind and hammer them to the proper weight and approximate thickness. These flans would then be placed between two dies and struck twice with a hammer. The coin’s quality depended on the man with the hammer, and if the other guy holding the moving die was steady. If either of them was “hammered” on cheap ale, as was known to be the case a lot of the time, then quality suffered. Double strikes and “blundered” coins were common. Flans were all irregular since they were hand cut. No two coins looked alike. This was the way coins had been made for close to 2000 years, and the hammerers at the Tower Mint weren’t about to change. Knowing how the British labour system works in the 21st century, it’s somehow not surprising to see that there was going to be some severe push-back whenever some new technology threatened an old way of life.
Mestrelle’s machine offered a new way to approach the art of coining. The screw coin press was invented in Germany by Marx Schwab in around 1550. Henri II of France had the machine imported to his mint, which is where Mestrelle probably learned how to use it. The press also incorporated a rolling mill, where ingots of silver could be forced into a flat sheet of uniform thickness. Then the flattened sheet would be placed into a punch mill, and uniformly sized flans would be made. The final part of the process was when the flan was placed into the coin press, and then subjected to pressure created by a counterweighted ram that was quickly screwed down into the flan. The power required to drive the counterweights down far enough to make the required impression was provided by horses. This whole process was more time consuming, but created a far superior product. In France, the Hammerer’s opposition to the screw press was such that it was quickly relegated to coining special medallions and small tokens or jetons. This is probably when Mestrelle left for England.
Standard hammered Shilling, no date, 1st coinage, Tower Mint.
Mestrelle started working in England in 1560, and kept 12 men employed. His mint ran for about 8 years, cranking out thousands of milled coins. He made a Half-Pound, Crown, and Half-Crown in gold, and the Shilling, Sixpence, Groat, Threepence, Half groat, and Three farthings in silver. All of these milled coins are beautiful and well made, and are some of the prettiest coins produced during that era. He could not compete with the hammerers in production numbers, they beat out far more in coins than Mestrelle ever could, but Mestrelle’s milled coinage was far and above the best with regard to minting quality.
Mestrelle’s little piece of paradise started to come apart in 1568. His brother, Philip, was arrested for making 4 counterfeit crowns, and Eloye was implicated along with him. Philip was hanged the next year, and Eloye was again issued a pardon from the Queen. But something had changed; his coins weren’t quite as nice any more and his quality control was starting to slip. It looks like one of the consequences of the trial was that some of Mestrelle’s equipment was confiscated. So his next issue was not quite as good as the last had been, and to make matters worse, a different mint master was installed into the Tower Mint after the old mint master had died. This new master was motivated by economy and the statusquo, and wanted little to do with Mestrelle and his expensive milling machine. Mestrelle was forced to try and justify his machine by pitting it against the hammerers. As it turned out, it took an hour for Mestrelle and his men to make 22 blank flans, and in the same time the hammerers cranked out 280. This was enough for the mint master, and Mestrelle’s machine was put out of business. It seems that quality was irrelevant. He did get to stay at the Tower mint though, so they didn’t quite throw him out into the street.
By 1572 Mestrelle had fallen on hard times. He had been barred from the mint, and the mint had stolen his patents for his machine. He was effectively out of work, and had no chance to find any new employment. He was unable to pay his debts, and was effectively bankrupt. So what is an unemployed moneyer to do? Simple; – make counterfeits. And this he did, getting nailed almost instantly. It was almost like “they” put him up to it. He was charged at the Norfolk Assizes in 1577, his house and goods were seized, and his family and widowed mother tossed out into the street. In order to save his life he tried to implicate others, but this time the Crown wasn’t hearing it. They’d had enough of him. The fact that he was a Frenchman didn’t help his case either. The English hatred for anything French bordered on hysteria, so another dead Frenchman wouldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings. The Tower Mint was happy to be rid of him too. Eloye Mestrelle was hanged in 1578.
So what happened to his machine? It had fallen into disuse, and was eventually lost. All throughout Europe the screw press was taking over, first in Germany, where some of the finest and most elaborate coins were being struck in the form of Thalers. The English Crown didn’t seem to care, and the Tower Mint people were happy that way. Money was money, a temporary commodity where quality was irrelevant. The only people who were really happy about the status-quo were the clippers and counterfeiters, who went on unabated.
Mestrelle’s sixpence, dated 1562
In 1633 another transplanted Frenchman tried to make the Tower Mint see the light. Nicholas Briot was appointed the chief Engraver at the Royal Mint in 1633 after coming over from France, where he had tried to convince the French Crown to change over to a coin press. All he got for it in France was a fraud accusation that got him sacked at the Paris Mint. With a death sentence hanging over his head, he fled to England. He tried to interest the Crown and the Tower Mint in machined coins like Mestrelle had some seventy years earlier. Briot was moderately successful, making some beautiful gold issues and some silver issues between 1633 and 1638. (Briot’s coinage will be covered in a different article; it was a large and varied issue.) He too, wound up fighting against the hammerers, and lost. However he kept his head; – he had seen the writing on the wall, and converted over to making a hammered issue as well as his milled issues. Briot got caught up in the English Civil War, and was forced to stop coining after the Tower Mint was placed under the jurisdiction of Parliament in 1641. That meant another nauseating Frenchman had to be driven from English shores on pain of death, so in 1641 Briot fled. It seems that all was forgiven in France, because Briot successfully headed for home. He died in France in 1646 but not before he had his machine in the Tower Mint dismantled in 1639-40 and sent to his brother Isaac in France, piece by piece.
Eventually the French saw the light, and they too started making milled coins. By 1663, English coinage was looking primitive as compared to others in Europe. During the Commonwealth regime the Tower Mint hauled out a copy of Mestrelle’s press and banged off a few crowns as trial pieces. With the Restoration came final change, as English goods were once again available for sale in the rest of Europe. English coinage needed to be brought up to date. The hated Commonwealth issues were hastily withdrawn and obliterated, which created a huge demand for small change. A new coinage featuring the effigy of the King was needed in a hurry so the hammers were brought out for one last groat issue. After which, the hammerers were then placed on notice; this groat was going to be their last issue. The Tower mint finally started making groats and sixpences with an improved version of Mestrelle’s original screw press.
The new milled coinage finally had some new security devices such as reeded edges and full round flans incorporated into them. As a result the practice of clipping disappeared almost overnight. Counterfeiting became difficult; the new coinage was finely engraved and better struck than anything the hammerers had made previously.
It had taken over a hundred years, but in the end, Mestrelle was vindicated and his process finally won out. The English Crown never did issue him a posthumous pardon, or recognized his contributions. His coinage is still referred to as the “Elizabethan Milled Issue” and not by his name, like Briot’s coinage was a few years later. Mestrelle’s milled coinage is considered some of the best of the age, is still highly desirable, and commands high prices whenever a piece comes up. While it’s likely that Mestrelle produced thousands of these coins, they are fairly scarce today. Average prices for some of the more common sixpence varieties run between 95 to 400 Pounds (approx. $275.00 to $900.00 CDN) depended on condition, while the shillings start at around 500 Pounds ($1125.00 CDN). Their hammered counterparts out-number them in quantity at least two to one, and are generally half the price. Not bad for a guy who is otherwise regarded as a mere foot-note in English numismatic history!
Previously published in the ENS “The Planchet” Magazine Vol-56 Issue-09