At midnight on 15 October 2017, the old rounded version of the £1 coin will cease to be legal tender, being replaced by the 12-sided alternative, which has been in circulation since 28 March. The main reason for this replacement is security. An official website describes the new £1 coin as 'The most secure coin in the world' due to various security features which make it difficult to counterfeit. Though the nature of coinage and the organisation of the monetary system has changed dramatically since the seventeenth century, the government then also had to provide coinage that was fit for purpose and fought an almost constant battle against counterfeiting. While coinage was not discussed directly in Harrington's constitutional model, one of his critics used the analogy between minting coins and establishing a commonwealth as the basis for a satirical attack:
That then Mr. Harrington for his rare invention and extraordinary good service in minting a New Commonwealth, shall have the monopoly of coining all new Harringtons, alias brass farthings, which shall henceforth pass for the onely coin of his new copper Commonwealth, Gold and silver (which are Royal mines & metals annexed to the Imperial Crown of the Realm) being as inconsistent with his New Commonwealth, (which hath swallowed them all up) as Kingship, and therefore to be banished with it. (William Prynne, An Answer to a proposition in order to the proposing of a Commonwealth or democracy, London, 1659, p. 5).
The author of this passage was the Puritan William Prynne. He was responding directly to a work published by Harrington's friends in June 1659 and entitled: A Proposition in order to the Proposing of a Commonwealth or Democracy, which had called for the establishment of a parliamentary committee to consider whether Harrington’s proposals might be implemented. Prynne argued that before such a committee be appointed the MPs who had been excluded at Pride’s Purge in December 1648 (because they were felt to be too sympathetic to the King) should be readmitted to the House of Commons. The quote depicts what should happen if Harrington and his friends succeeded in convincing the committee. If they did not, then Prynne's proposal was more sinister. He suggested that they should attend the committee ‘with Ropes about their necks’ so that if their proposal was rejected they could be taken immediately to Tyburn to be hanged. The purpose of this negative outcome is clear enough, but to understand Prynne's joke about what would happen if Harrington and his friends did prove successful, it is necessary to know a little more about seventeenth-century coinage and the Harrington family's association with it.
Coin shortages, particularly of small denomination coins, had been a common problem from medieval times. The farthing, or quarter penny, was originally introduced in 1279, but the problem was still acute in the seventeenth century, when various solutions were attempted. These included issuing copper coins for the first time in England (they were already widely used in Scotland) and experimenting with different economic models. Various proposals for coining copper tokens were explored between 1607 and 1612, but it was with a proclamation dated 19 May 1613 that the period of experimentation properly began. With that proclamation James I reclaimed the prerogative to issue currency and outlawed all private money. The utility of farthing tokens was noted: 'whereby such small portions, and quantities of things vendible, as the necessitie, and use specially of the poorer sort of people, doth oftentimes require, may be conveniently bought, and sold without enforcing men to buy more ware than will serve for their use and occasions'. (A Proclamation for Farthing Tokens, 19 May 1613). The proclamation also suggested that the inconveniences associated with the lead tokens that had been circulating among tradesmen and their customers would be remedied by the production of these royally endorsed copper farthings. The expectation was that the measure would not only address the problems of small change and counterfeiting, but would also generate a healthy revenue for the crown. As copper tokens, the coins were not legal tender, but were 'to pass for the value of farthings ... with the liking and consent of his loving subjects'. (I am grateful to Barrie Cook of the British Museum for help in researching this section).
What, then, was the involvement of the Harringtons in all of this? As discussed in a previous blogpost, in October 1603 Sir John Harrington and his wife Anne (James Harrington's great uncle and aunt) became guardians to the young Princess Elizabeth, daughter of James I. From December of that year the princess lived with the Harringtons and they took responsibility for her household and education. This resulted in them incurring huge costs. By 1612 it is estimated that the Harringtons had accrued debts amounting to £40,000. Sir John Harrington petitioned for the right to coin copper farthings for three years to help recoup the costs. Thus, the proclamation of 19 May 1613 gave Harrington the monopoly on issuing copper farthing tokens and assigned to him £25,000 of the profits. Harrington gained the honour of having the farthings named after him - they were known as 'Haringtons' - but they did not live up to expectations. The farthings proved unpopular from the outset, with several counties refusing to take any at all and others taking only small quantities, so that the total value distributed in the first six months was barely £600 (C. Wilson Peck, English Copper, Tin and Bronze Coins in the British Museum 1558-1958, second edition, London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1964, p. 21). It also seems that they did not prevent old practices of using lead tokens and of damaging or counterfeiting the royal tokens, since on 26 October 1615 a proclamation was issued outlawing the use of lead tokens and forbidding the counterfeiting of royal tokens as well as the marking, defacing, boring and clipping of them. From the perspective of the Harrington family the farthings not only failed to produce the expected level of revenue, but they also generated other problems. Rivals for the monopoly had been vocal from the outset. Following the death, in quick succession, of both Sir John Harrington and his son, private traders again began issuing their own tokens, presuming that the powers of the patent had lapsed. However, a proclamation issued on 21 June 1614 declared the patent still to be valid and argued that it lay with Sir John’s widow, though she seems to have given it up soon after.
There is a final chapter to this tale. On 9 May 1643 it was ordered that the future republican author, James Harrington, and his merchant brother William be made overseers of the farthing office, the proceeds of which were now to be used not to pay off the family debt, but rather ‘for the Use and Benefit of the Prince Elector Palatine’, on whose behalf James Harrington worked. It is undoubtedly significant that the Prince Elector Palatine was the son and heir of Princess Elizabeth. Consequently, despite the change of focus, this can be seen as the last chapter in the story. It helps to explain why Prynne, as late as 1659, could assume that his audience would laugh at a joke directed at James Harrington that associated utopian schemes to mint commonwealths with farthings.