O’Brien Coin Guide: Armstrong’s ‘Patent’ Irish Farthings (1660-61) for Charles II


Upon his restoration to the crown in 1660, King Charles II granted a patent to Sir Thomas Armstrong to ‘coin farthings’ for the next twenty years and all other (unofficial) farthings were to be prohibited.  

  • In 1661, two royal proclamations were issued prohibiting the issuing and use of brass or copper tokens
  • In 1662, another patent was issued granting the coining of Irish groats (four pence), threepences, half-groats (two pence), pennies and halfpennies.
    • This patent does not appear to have been acted upon, since no specimens are known
    • Sir Thomas Armstrong died in November 1662 – perhaps this is why they weren’t minted
    • Also, the Duke of Ormonde opposed this initiative – another good reason for their cancellation

Armstrong’s Irish farthings were ‘in the style of the earlier English royal farthings’ of James I (Harrington & Lennox patent farthings) and Charles I (Maltravers & Richmond patent farthings) but they were heavier and made from better produced dies.  In short, they were of much better quality and much more likely to be accepted by the people than the previous flimsy attempts at introducing small denomination coins into circulation.

A comparison of the James I and Charles I royal farthings

A comparison of the previous James I and Charles I royal farthings

What makes this (Armstrong) coin special is that it was ‘issued for use in Ireland’ whereas the earlier James I and Charles I farthings (1613-1622) were explicitly designated as ‘the only English coin not authorised for circulation in Ireland’.

  • This policy led to a chronic shortage of small change in Ireland and a profusion of over 800 different types of ‘unofficial farthings’ which mostly comprises mostly ‘under-weight’ pennies and some higher denominations.  They are known ‘farthings’ because they were usually roughly the same size + weight as a ‘regal’ copper farthing.

The Armstrong farthing is almost identical in design with the Harrington farthings previously described and from the occurrence of a capital R, on the jewelled band of the crown, on the obverse, it would appear that the dies from which it was struck were the work of the famous engraver, Thomas Rawlins.

  • Silver proofs exist for this coin but they are very rare.
The Irish Armstrong farthing legend reads as follows :- CAROLVS II D G M B                             FRA ET HIB REX which translates and expands to :- Charles II by the grace of God, King of Great Britain, France and Ireland

The Irish Armstrong farthing legend reads as follows :-
CAROLVS II D G M B FRA ET HIB REX
which translates (and expands) to :-
Charles II by the grace of God, King of Great Britain, France and Ireland

Despite Sir Thomas Armstrong being one of Ormonde’s most trusted officers during the Great Rebellion of 1641 and the subsequent over-spill of the English Civil War into Ireland from 1648 onwards, James Butler, (Earl, Marquess and Duke of Ormonde) obtained a ‘king’s letter’ from Charles II granting him sole authority to suppress all tokens in Ireland that did not have his approval.

  • Armstrong’s death in 1662 might have ‘cleared the way’ for this to happen
  • Butler’s ‘letter’ might have been to prevent his heirs from continuing their father’s potentially lucrative patent..

As such, he opposed the use of Armstrong’s farthings in Ireland.  Such an instrument is usually followed by a proclamation pertaining to a new coinage – a strong indication that Ormonde himself intended to, or had secured preliminary support to issue copper money.

Armstrong’s copper coins were struck in 1660-1, but Ormonde opposed these small pieces and few reached circulation. It is shortly after this, that the ‘mysterious’ St Patrick’s Farthings appeared … but that topic is for another day !

It is thought that these copper coins might have also circulated in the American Colonies, since one 1681 Irish halfpenny was found in the Philadelphia highway hoard.

  • They do not seem have circulated as widely as the St Patrick’s coinage, Wood’s coinage or the Voce Populi coinage – all of which are included as ‘de facto’ American colonial coins in most catalogues.

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Who was Sir Thomas Armstrong?

Sir Thomas Armstrong was an English officer of obscure origin serving in the Dutch army.  It is thought that his family were originally from Burbage, Leicestershire, in the English midlands.

  • He fought in the Thirty Years War between 1633 and 1638 in The Netherlands.
    • He held the office of Governor of Culmore Fort in 1639
      • an important strategic position linked to the garrison town of Derry
    • He was also the Quartermaster-General of the Horse from 1639 to 1640 in Ireland
      • He received a grant of land on 18 November 1642 at Corvellis, Co Dublin
      • He was MP for Co Dublin in the Irish Parliament of 1647
  • He also fought in Ireland (1643-44) under Ormonde during the Great Rebellion, who knighted him in 1644
    • Captain Armstong of Corvellis is mentioned in despatches of 1644
      • “shot three times but the bullets did him little hurt and only one pierced his skin”
    • On 29th July 1649, Colonel Thomas Armstrong and a party of skirmishers driven back from Dublin (after Col. Jones had landed in Dublin and taken it from Ormonde). A nephew of Col. Jones, who had gone over to the Royalist side, was captured during this engagement, returned to Dublin and hanged for desertion.
      • Ormonde sent one of his most reliable officers (Armstrong), to take over as Governor of Drogheda
        • Between 7-13th August 1649, Col. Jones advanced on Drogheda.
        • Ormond advanced to Tecroghan to threaten Jones’ supply lines
        • Jones returned to Dublin when Armstrong rejected his summons to surrender
        • The veteran Sir Arthur Aston was then appointed Governor of Drogheda while Ormond returned to Tecroghan to continue his attempts to recruit a new field army.
          • Presumably, he took Armstrong with him
  • On 2nd August 1649, Col. Armstrong was present at the disastrous (for Ormonde) Battle of Rathmines
    • Ormonde was not expecting an attack and had not drawn up his troops for battle
      • Col. Jones launched a surprise attack at Baggotrath and routed the Royalists
      • They fled towards their camp at Rathmines and Jones routed that too
        • Ormonde claimed he had lost less than a thousand men.
        • Jones claimed to have killed around 4,000 Royalist or Confederates + taken 2,517 prisoners
        • Ormonde also lost his entire artillery train and all his baggage and supplies
        • Ormonde withdrew his remaining troops from around Dublin, allowing Oliver Cromwell to land in the city (at Ringsend) with 15,000 veteran troops on 15 August
  • On 23rd August 1649, On 23 August the Royalists held a council of war at Drogheda, present at which were: the earls of Castlehaven and Westmeath, Sir Arthur Aston, Sir Thomas Armstrong (Quartermaster-General of Horse), Sir Robert Stewart and other Royalist leaders.
    • It was resolved that the town should be held, and four regiments were chosen for it’s defence
    • Col. Armstrong seems to have escaped because all Royalist officers present (contrary to the terms of surrender) were executed after the fall of Drogheda and their heads placed on spikes on the roads leading into Dublin
  • The Battle of Arklow took place at Glascarrig on the coast road through Arklow in during November 1649
    • English soldiers under Major Nelson left Dublin in the last days of October
      • Inchiquin prepared an ambush a little to the south of the town of Arklow
      • A log barricade was placed across the road to Wexford and 1,000 infantry men were deployed behind it
      • Nelson, however, heard a rumour that an ambush was planned and so moved his force using a more roundabout route, hoping to avoid Inchiquin’s army
      • Inchiquin realised what was happening, and swiftly moved his cavalry to intercept the New Model soldiers. Most of his infantry however could not keep up, and thus did not take part in the fighting
        • As Inchiquin’s largely mounted force came into view, the English hurriedly deployed on a beach, their backs to the sea.
        • As the Irish were ordering themselves in preparation for an attack, the 350 English horse charged, hoping to catch the enemy by surprise, but were successfully repulsed on two occasions.
          • After the second failed charge, Inchiquin launched a full cavalry assault on the horsemen.
          • Demoralised and outnumbered, the English horse fled back towards the infantry, with the Irish in pursuit.
        • The highly disciplined English infantry opened up their ranks to allow their own horse to pass through, after which the gaps in the ranks were closed once more.
          • Inchiquin’s charging cavalry now unexpectedly found that the retreating horse had disappeared, to be replaced by a mass of pike-heads and levelled musket barrels.
          • Close range musket fire tore into the Irish cavalry, throwing them into disorder and leaving the beach bloodstained. The English cavalry then counter-attacked, forcing the Irish to retreat.
      • Nelson then resumed his march into Wexford unmolested
  • Armstrong distinguished himself in the running-fight (retreat) on the sea-beach of Arklow
    • The Royalist forces under Inchiquin now retreated towards Wexford
      • Armstrong, who was wounded, was carried to Kilkenny
  • In April 1650, Sir Thomas Armstrong’s party surrendered their arms at Trim and returned to their homes
  • A reckless adventurer, he became a tireless royalist conspirator during the Interregnum
    • Armstrong was involved in the design against Chester Castle in 1655
    • He then famously carried a considerable sum of money from the Earl of Oxford to the exiled Court of King Charles II in France
    • He was twice imprisoned in the Tower of London by Cromwell
      • Not many people walked out of there back then
      • He was released on bail in 1659
  • At the Restoration in 1660 he was re-appointed as the Quartermaster-General of the Horse in Ireland
  • He was also granted a patent for coining farthings but he died shortly after (in November 1662)
    • He lived at Corvellis, in Co Dublin

He (and his wife, Anna Anderson) had three children and one of them was just as controversial and adventurous as his father.

  • Captain William Armstrong
    • He received a grant under the Act of Settlement of Bohercarron and other land in Co Limerick
    • He leased the old castle at Farney Castle, Farney Bridge, Co Tipperary (near Thurles)
    • He was Commander of a Troop of Horse with the Tipperary Militia in 1688
  • Lt.-Col. Sir Thomas Armstrong b. 1624, d. 20 Jun 1684
    • During the Interregnum Armstrong was a supporter of Charles II, participating in the plot to seize Chester Castle in 1655
      • He also played a role in carrying funds from Aubrey de Vere, 20th Earl of Oxford to Charles in exile. He was possibly imprisoned for a year on his return. In 1657
    • He married Catherine, daughter of James Pollexfen and niece of Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon.
    • Following the Restoration, he received, in February 1661, a commission with the Horse Guards.
      • In August 1675, Armstrong killed the son of one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting at a London theatre. Armstrong was pardoned on the grounds that his opponent had drawn first.
    • Armstrong served with James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth in France from 1672, fighting at the Siege of Maastricht (1673) and alongside the Dutch, in 1678. He was wounded at St Denis.
      • In 1679, he helped suppress the covenanter rising and fought at the battle of Bothwell Bridge.
      • Monmouth’s influence secured him as MP for Stafford in March 1679 to the First Exclusion Parliament.
    • He was wrongly accused of complicity in the Rye House Plot and fled to Netherlands
      • He died on 20 June 1684, when he was executed for alleged treason
      • The attainder was reversed by the Kings Bench Court, William III

Interestingly, from an Irish numismatic viewpoint, a patent was granted to him (and a Colonel George Legge) to produce Charles II’s regal halfpennies and they were minted for the years 1680, 1681, 1682, 1683 and 1684.

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