O’Brien Coin Guide: The ‘Anonymous’ St Patrick’s Halfpennies


The St Patrick Halfpenny is thought to have been a ‘milled coin’ minted in the 17th century for use in Ireland, although there is evidence that later versions were minted in the American Colonies. Two sizes are available to collectors – large and small.  Contrary to popular belief, the smaller coin is not a farthing because it does not adhere to the 2:1 standard whereby the weight of two farthings is equal to one halfpenny.

Both reverse designs show King David kneeling playing a harp while gazing up at the royal crown of England. One peculiarity of the harp is that it bears a semi-nude winged female figure on the pillar, a feature which became common on English coins beginning in the second quarter of the 17th century.

Undated St. Patrick's Farthing. Copper. Nothing under king. Choice Extremely Fine. 91.1 gns. FLOREAT :REX: obverse. QVIESCAT PLEBS. reverse. A very attractive piece, with deep rich mahogany coloring that is usually not seen on these. Brass splash present, faded but very well centered. Obverse slightly off center to upper left; reverse slightly off to top. Some light marks, the top of the obverse and reverse a bit rough and seemingly dented

Undated St. Patrick’s Farthing. Copper. Nothing under king. FLOREAT :REX: obverse. A very attractive piece, with deep rich mahogany coloring that is usually not seen on these. Brass splash present, faded but very well centered. Obverse slightly off center to upper left; reverse slightly off to top.

  • The legend on the obverse reads FLOREAT REX (May the King Flourish)

The obverse of the smaller copper halfpenny shows Saint Patrick dressed in bishop’s garments wearing a mitre and holding a double-cross crozier. He is depicted dispelling the serpents from Ireland that are portrayed as various aquatic beasts, some are fabulous. In the background is purportedly St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

Undated St. Patrick's copper Farthing. QVIESCAT PLEBS. reverse.

Undated St. Patrick’s copper Farthing. QVIESCAT PLEBS. reverse.

  • The legend reads QUIESCAT PLEBS (May the People Be at Peace)

The obverse of the larger copper halfpenny shows St Patrick is seen preaching to a crowd gathered round him. To his right is a shield with devices of several towers usually interpreted as three, suggesting the city shield of Dublin.

Undated St. Patrick's Halfpenny. Small Letters ECCE GREX reverse

Undated St. Patrick’s Halfpenny. Small Letters ECCE GREX reverse

  • The legend reads ECCE GREX (Behold the Flock)

The majority of these St Patrick halfpennies are copper coins with a splash of brass minted in two sizes, large and small. The splash of brass on the obverse of the copper coins is intended to create the illusion that the royal crown that King David glances at is made of gold.

  • Several known specimens exist in silver and one in gold
  • The silver and gold specimens are minted on the smaller copper dies
    • There are also reports of pewter and lead specimens
Undated St. Patrick's Farthing. Gold. About Uncirculated, or thereabouts. 184.9 gns. No nimbus. FLOREAT REX obverse. QVIESCAT PLEBS reverse. This is the only example recorded - a unique coin.

Undated St. Patrick’s Farthing. Gold. About Uncirculated, or thereabouts. 184.9 gns. No nimbus. FLOREAT REX obverse. QVIESCAT PLEBS reverse. This is the only example recorded – a unique coin.

Undated St. Patrick's Farthing. Silver. Nice Choice Extremely Fine. 98.1 gns. No nimbus. FLOREAT REX obverse. QVIESCAT PLEBS reverse

Undated St. Patrick’s Farthing. Silver. Nice Choice Extremely Fine. 98.1 gns. No nimbus. FLOREAT REX obverse. QVIESCAT PLEBS reverse. Unlike the gold example above, silver coins are not unique – albeit they are still quite rare !

The smaller planchet coin seem to have been much more extensively minted as over 120 die varieties are reported to exist!  Such a massive die production would clearly have kept the mint in operation for at least two to three years. Not only were these smaller sized coins easier to mint but they were also more profitable.

  • Mossman has calculated that based on the cost of operations and supplies the minting of the large planchet 135.7 grain halfpenny left the minters a profit of 49.1%. By switching to the smaller planchet 92.3 grain halfpenny minting profits were increased to 119.1%.
  • Mossman went on to suggest that “the minter’s enthusiasm for the smaller planchet coins led them to produce the gold and silver presentation copies of these coins for distribution to influential officials in return for their support of the weight and size reduction of the coin”

What are they?

Up until recently, most people described this series as the St Patrick’s halfpennies and farthings. Recently, in 2009, John N. Lupia published an article in the C4 Newsletter outlining ‘new documentary evidence’ that shows both the small and large copper coins are halfpence.

This aside, were they coins intended to circulate, or were they ‘politically-motivated’ issues given to loyal subjects of the exiled king (Charles II), or were they ‘gifts’ from the Church to parishioners?  Some people suggest they were used as pay to Royalist soldiers in exile or ‘in waiting’ for the return of the king – an unlikely scenario, since copper coins do not win wars (silver and gold does).

  • Charles II’s successor (James II) used ‘brass tokens’ as a ‘fiat currency’ to pay his troops (at a future date)

They were certainly used as a form of payment (de facto currency) in the Isle of Man and in New Jersey, so in these places they were used as coins – whatever about their original intended purpose.  In Ireland, at the time, almost anything passed as coinage since there was a proliferation of ‘unofficial’ farthing-sized coins and tokens being used, so again, whatever their original intended purpose, they were used as coinage in Ireland.

When were they minted?

Since there are no dates on these coins, it is difficult to ascertain precisely when they were minted.

  • Proposed dates for these coins have been 1641–1642; 1646–1660; 1667–1669; 1672–1674 and/or 1688–1690

One theory is that the tokens were minted in Dublin around the period 1674-1675 – an unlikely scenario given that the king had recently (1672 and 1674) issued proclamations forbidding the production of ‘unofficial’ tokens

This theory is based on the fact that a single smaller size coin was found in a hoard of 273 coins recovered from the yacht Mary which sank on March 24, 1675, on its way from Dublin to Chester. From this it is certain the production of these ‘smaller’ halfpenny coins date to at least 1675. I would be of the opinion that this coin was minted before the proclamation of 1672 (Making Current the Royal Farthings and Halfpennys and Forbidding the Use of All Others).

  • John N. Lupia (in his article in the C4 Newsletter) suggests
    • that the small issue was minted 1646–1660 (while Charles II was in exile)
    • and the larger from 1688–1690 (during the reign of James II)

Who minted them?

The St Patrick’s Halfpennies are certainly anonymous but who could have, or might have minted them?

  • Was it Charles II in exile, or one of his supporters?
  • Was it the Catholic Church?
  • St Patrick is the patron saint of the Church of Ireland – could have been them?
  • or, perhaps, someone a bit closer to home ???

It has been suggested that they were minted in Dublin between the years 1641-42 – at the height of the Great Rebellion when the Lords Justice were minting silver coins (from plate) in Dublin.  Could these halfpennies have been used as ‘small change’ during the siege? There were silver twopences, threepences, groats and sixpences. It is feasible that these halfpennies might have been minted and used at that time.

There were two other candidates in Dublin in the 1650’s / 1660’s and each has a ‘tenuous’ link to the design of the the St Patrick’s Halfpenny.  Or, perhaps, a third party ‘combined the two ideas’ and produced a token himself.  The main problem with this theory is the fact that the St Patrick’s Halfpennies were larger and weighed more than the ‘typical’ tradesmens’ tokens of the 17th century.

Richard Greenwood, issued a penny token with an image of St Patrick

  • Obverse: St Patrick cursing the snakes / RICHARD GREENWOOD IN
  • Reverse: 1d + initials ‘RG’ in quarters / HIGH STRET DVBLIN
  • 17th C tradesmens' token of Richard Greenwood, High Street, Dublin

    17th C tradesmens’ token of Richard Greenwood, High Street, Dublin

John Haynes, issued a penny token with a brass plug

  • Obverse: brass plug, blazing star (centre)  / JOHN HAYNES ON THE         bimetallic
  • Reverse: A PENY TOK / KEY DVBLIN VINT
  • [no photo yet]

Where were they minted?

Where these coins were minted is still uncertain. Given that about 450 different die varieties have been identified and mintage estimates vary from 1.5 million to 7 million pieces, i.e. it is unlikely that these coins were produced by a small, private mint.

  • 450 die varieties from a sample of approx. 1,100 coins ???
  • This is a topic for a ‘more advanced’ discussion than this but I am registering my ‘suspicion’ that this may be a tad over-zealous in terms of die identification for the size of sample

For this reason, one researcher has suggested that they were minted at the Tower of London but there is no ‘hard evidence’ to back up this claim. Another researcher has suggested that they they were minted between 1646 to 1660 before the official reign of Charles II of England, while he was in exile in France, the Dutch Republic, and the Spanish Netherlands. All three of these jurisdictions would have had the resources and technology to produce such large quantities of coins … but why would they do so ?

  • Given the amount of die varieties, they may have been produced in more than one mint
  • Given the fact that two major varieties (large and small), it is likely that they were produced by more than one mint
    • This suggests that they were produced over a long period of time, i.e. several years
    • Once again, WHY ???

Where were they used?

These coins (or tokens) were used extensively in three different financial jurisdictions, albeit perhaps not simultaneously. The seventeenth century was notable for a number of political, economic and numismatic reasons – in particular :-

  • a succession of English monarchs colonised new lands and/or re-colonised (planted) existing colonies, e.g. Ireland
  • the divine right to rule (by kings) was challenged and an experimental English Republic was set up
  • a succession of English monarchs felt minting ‘copper coins’ was beneath them and granted third party ‘patents’ to do so
  • the result was frequent, chronic shortages of small change which ‘stifled’ commerce and economic development
  • the popular response was a proliferation of ‘unofficial’ token coinages by private individuals and/or ‘re-use’ of these tokens
  • the royal response, in turn, was to ban their usage
  • eventually, eight years later, the so-called ‘Armstrong & Legge’ regal halfpennies were minted in the name of Charles II

Ireland

They were initially used in Ireland. The two proclamations by Charles II in 1661, prohibiting the issue of tokens seems to have paused the production of ‘unofficial’ farthings (which probably accounts for the comparative rarity of the dates 1660, 1661, and 1662) but they continued to circulate and even had an increase in output thereafter.  Two further proclamations (1672 and 1674) seems to have halted the production of the ‘unofficial’ tradesmens’ farthings but they continued to circulate.

  • Proclamation of Charles II, Issued 16 August 1672
    • Making Current the Royal Farthings and Halfpennys and Forbidding the Use of All Others
  • Proclamation of Charles II, Issued 5th December 1674
    • Enjoining the Prosecution of Persons making or uttering farthings, half-pence, or pence of brass with private stamps

The introduction of Armstrong & Legge’s Irish ‘Regal Halfpennies’ for Charles II in 1680 at last gave the Irish economy much needed small change – thus paving the way for Mark Newby to export a quantity of these St Patrick’s Halfpennies to the American Colonies in 1681.

  • Most of the remaining St Patrick’s Halfpennies in Ireland would have been melted down and/or re-used in some way
  • They are ‘very scarce’ nowadays

Isle of Man

Sometime prior to 1678 someone brought an unknown quantity of these St Patrick’s Halfpennies to the Isle of Man.

  • An Act of Tynwald on 24 June 1679 ‘demonetised’ them as of 15 January 1680
  • Did the remainder of these coins get shipped back to Dublin in 1680/81, where Mark Newby acquired his supply ?
  • At this time, metal was a scarce commodity and it is likely the ‘demonetised’ coins on the Isle of Man were melted down and re-used – thus making subsequent specimens from there extremely rare

New Jersey

An English Quaker merchant in Dublin named Mark Newby (also spelt Newbie) acquired a large supply of these coins which he took with him in 1681 when he emigrated to West New Jersey (New Jersey was divided into separate Eastern and Western colonies from 1676-1702). Since both small and large St Patrick’s Halfpennies have been found in hoards in the USA, we are not certain which kind (large or small) halfpennies Newby brought with him to the New Jersey.

  • On May 18, 1682 the General Free Assembly of West New Jersey granted Newby’s coppers legal tender status and allowed them to circulate as small change at the rate of a halfpenny, replacing wampum.

The only restrictions were that Newby had to put up surety (300 acres of land) that he would exchange the coppers for “pay equivalent” on demand and that one was not required to accept more than five shillings in coppers at one time. When Newby died about a year later, in the fall of 1682, his estate included £30 in coppers, estimated at roughly 10,800 coins.

  • Newby’s St. Patrick coppers filled an important need in local commerce and remained in circulation throughout the colonial period
  • In 1681, the eminent New Jersey copper specialist Edward Marris stated that St. Patrick coppers continued to be found in change in western New Jersey into the early 19th century

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2 thoughts on “O’Brien Coin Guide: The ‘Anonymous’ St Patrick’s Halfpennies

  1. A great article which has significantly improved my understanding and appreciation of these enigmatic 17th century tokens. Can you supply the full details of the article by John N. Lupia referenced? I am unfamiliar with the C4 Newsletter. Who produces it and is it available on the web?

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    • The Colonial Coin Collectors Club (C4) Newsletter is not published online but they do publish an index of authors / articles.
      Below is a list of papers written by John Lupia.

      Lupia, John Counterfeit New England Copper Shillings & Sixpence V14 N3 Fall 2006 5
      Lupia, John Counterfeit New England Copper Shillings & Sixpence, Part 2 V15 N1 Spring 2007 31
      Lupia, John St Patrick – The earliest American description of a V15 N1 Spring 2007 37
      Lupia, John St Patrick – At Least One Million St Patricks V15 N4 Winter 2007 15
      Lupia, John St Patrick – ECCE GREX V16 N2 Summer 2008 31
      Lupia, John New Jersey Washington Copper – Haseltine discovery of a V17 N4 Winter 2009 20
      Lupia, John St Patrick – Dating the Smaller and Larger Coins V17 N4 Winter 2009 8

      Perhaps you might like to try contacting him directly and ask for a copy of that article.
      John N. Lupia Twitter a/c: @JohnNLupia
      Editor, Roman Catholic News; Professor of Art History and Archaeology; Author of The Ancient Jewish Shroud At Turin

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