Book Review: Gunmoney (The Emergency Coinage of 1689-1691 for the Irish Campaign of James II)


I don’t usually review books on Irish coinage but this one is an exceptional piece of work by Philip Timmins – one of Ireland’s leading experts on James II’s Gunmoney. There has, for many decades, been a lack of any indepth reference on this extensive series of fiat coinage and this book is, in my opinion, a refreshing change.

James II Gunmoney & Limerick Halfpenny. The Old Currency Exchange, Dublin, Ireland.

Gunmoney was, for along time, readily available in bulk lots at Irish and English auctions but, in recent years, has actually become relatively scarce. Historically, some papers and magazine articles were contradictory to say the least and many errors from the past have been simply copied and re-published. This led to a lot of confusion among collectors and dealers alike.

  • This new book by Philip Timmins changes all of that.
  • It is an internationally significant piece of research and adds greatly to our understanding of this complicated series of de facto currency issues.

Published by the Numismatic Society of Ireland in October 2017, this book has generated a huge interest in Gunmoney. Prices at auction reflect this surge of interest and there now many more people collecting Gunmoney than before. Timmons should be heartily congratulated for reinvigorating collector interest in Gunmoney.

His book is arranged as a timeline rather than by denomination – ha includes a month by month review of James II’s campaign in Ireland and William III’s reaction to it. Among the numismatic highlights, it includes:

  • The varieties within each denomination, by month
  • The differences between the James Press dies and the Duchess Press dies
  • The timeline of James II’s Limerick Mint

It has been critically acclaimed by experts in Ireland, the UK and in North America. One reviewer said:

“The publication of a reference work on the intriguing series of Irish Gunmoney has long been needed – partially because the series is so darned confusing, but also because there has been so much misinformation published over the last 300 years that collectors for too long haven’t really known what was out there. This admirable work by Timmins certainly fills that need, and corrects much of errors of the past.”

The review by Paul Withers shocked me. It seemed very harsh and perhaps even a little bit petty and vindictive in places. This is Philip Timmins’ first book and it is the result of a substantial amount of research in a very difficult subject – the result of which is a massive improvement on what was published before. I can’t help wondering if Philip beat Withers to press with a book on James II Gunmoney.

  • Hopefully Mr Withers will review his ‘review’ and re-think it.

Timmins also lists proofs, specimens and trial pieces issued in gold, silver, copper and pewter. He focuses on the regular issues of sixpences, shillings, halfcrowns and crowns, while listing their varieties in a month by month format – helping to explain and make sense of the seemingly haphazard die changes.

James II needed over £100,000 per month to pay for his military campaign and he didn’t have the cash! His solution was to produce a fiat currency from old cannon, church bells and household utensils – producing cheap brass alloy flans to produce a replacement coinage for the usual silver and copper coinage of the day. Gunmoney was, in effect, a token coinage but, given it had a king guaranteeing it, it became a de facto currency for a short while – 17 months!

  • James II promised to redeem the face value of all his coins with silver after war
  • He lost that war; he fled the country; and left everyone bankrupt in his wake
    • His Gunmoney was the first fiat currency in Europe
    • I do not consider Elizabeth I’s ‘base coinage’ to be a fiat currency since it was an act of war and was deliberately designed to prevent the Irish from using it abroad, i.e to prevent them buying weapons and ammunition for Tyrone’s Rebellion, or the Nine Years War. Also, there was no promise to pay.
      • It was also the first promissory currency in Europe
        • The Song Dynasty (China) invented paper money back in the 11th C but the idea had not yet spread to Europe, as it failed in China due to over-production and consequent hyper-inflation
    • As such, it was a very important trial
      • Less than a decade later, William III would found the Bank of England and they would follow James II’s example and issue their own fiat currency – paper banknotes!
      • Like James II, the Bank of England’s notes were of a promissory nature and promised to pay in silver or gold, the value of each note. They are the basis for the UK’s sterling issues of today, although British banknotes are no longer exchangeable for silver or gold
        • Nowadays, every country in the world uses a fiat currency.
          • Base metal coins of little tangible value
          • Paper money with almost zero tangible value

Timmins finishes with the Siege issues of Limerick – well after James II had fled but the logical conclusion of William III’s Irish campaign. The victorious Williamites then devalued James tokens to junk status – over-striking James’s sixpences to farthings and his shillings to halfpennies.

  • Again, there are modern comparisons, e.g. the recent Zimbabwean banknotes denominated in trillions of dollars but now worthless due to hyper-inflation and demonetisation by the authorities there.

James II’s Gunmoney is also a precursor to war bonds. It was an ingenious way to fund a war – a method not ignored by future monarchs and their cash-strapped governments of the day.

Timmins has also devised a method that makes sense and is flexible enough to add new discoveries if they are made. The attribution numbers take a bit of getting used to and do seem a bit long, but they represent a combination of utility and flexibility.

  • Numbering coins from 1 to whatever has been proven the wrong way to do things
    • You only have to look at a Seaby catalogue to realise that mistake
  • The Timmins method is as follows:
    • Example: TB12B1-A.
      • T(immins variety)
      • B(ase metal)
      • 12 = Shilling
      • B = Type
      • 1A = Die Variety
      • His system is logical and easy enough to understand (with some practice)

Each monthly chapter begins with a short history of James II’s Irish campaign and the reasons these coins were needed – followed by an update of what happened in that month to a deposed king trying to reclaim a throne in a country he had never visited and wasn’t fully trusted. Remember, less than 40 years beforehand, his father Charles I divided Ireland with vague promises of reform – only for Cromwell to devastate an already ruined economy by confiscation, deportation and execution. James’s brother, Charles II was restored to the throne with great hopes of restoring the fortunes of Ireland’s Catholics and he too failed to deliver. James was deposed for his Catholic tendencies and he was replaced by the devoutly Protestant Queen Mary and her husband William of Orange – now William III.

  • James II now made promises he could not keep to Ireland
  • Once again, in their desperation, the Irish backed the wrong man
  • Another wave of confiscations followed and more Penal Laws were enacted
  • This is a history that is still sang about today in Northern Ireland
  • The worthless brass coinage of James is still mentioned in popular Loyalist lore

I am not a fan of Timmins’ rarity scale. It’s just more of the same vague language used in auction catalogues all over the world, with the addition of an N (for normal) which is, in my opinion, quite meaningless as a measure of quantity, i.e. how many are there? That said, Timmins has at least tried to tackle the problem of quantifying the survival rates of Gunmoney pieces – something no one else has attempted before him.

  • I prefer the Universal Rarity Scale (URS)
    • Each progression is a multiple of two
  • It goes from 1 to 20, although I consider anything >1000 moot (in terms of rarity)
    • URS-0 = no survivors
    • URS 1 = unique (only one known)
    • URS-11 = 501 to 1,000 examples known
Universal Rarity Scale Number of Coins
URS-1 1 known, unique
URS-2 2 known
URS-3 3 or 4 known
URS-4 5 to 8 known
URS-5 9 to 16 known
URS-6 17 to 32 known
URS-7 33 to 64 known
URS-8 65 to 125 known
URS-9 125 to 250 known
URS-10 251 to 500 known
URS-11 501 to 1,000 known
URS-12 1,001 to 2,000 known
URS-13 2,001 to 4,000 known
URS-14 4,001 to 8,000 known
URS-15 8,001 to 16,000 known
URS-16 16,001 to 32,000 known
URS-17 32,001 to 65,000 known
URS-18 65,001 to 125,000 known
URS-19 125,001 to 250,000 known
URS-20 250,001 to 500,000 known

Gunmoney is now quite common in archaeological context and examples are now found in the UK’s Portable Antiquity Scheme (PAS) database, as well as in archaeological reports in the former British colonies in North America. It would appear that, like the unwanted coppers of William Woods, the brass money of James II found a secondary use in the colonies. Scoff if you will, but I still find it an acceptable alternative to wampum.

I have not listed Gunmoney on my Irish-American Coins webpage – perhaps I should.

Timmins’ book is available via The Numismatic Society of Ireland

If you wish to save on postage, pay in advance and meet them at one of the major coin fairs in Ireland, or at one of their excellent monthly meetings / lectures.

18-19 October 2019

Dublin Autumn Coin & Banknote Fair

  • RDS Ballsbridge, Anglesea Road, Dublin 4
  • Friday & Saturday, 18-19 October, 2019
  • 11am to 5pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s