O’Brien Coin Guide: An Introduction to the Irish Coinages of Elizabeth I


The Elizabethan series of Anglo-Irish coinage is a somewhat neglected space in terms of numismatic research since many of her issues were relatively small and their survival rate poor. As such, the availability of suitable study material is limited.

  • The British Museum’s holdings are relatively modest
  • The National Museum of Ireland only has a small holding of Elizabethan coins
  • The largest holdings are at the Ulster Museum:
    • Raymond Carlyon-Britton’s Anglo-Irish coins (1,500 coins) were acquired by the Ulster Museum in 1962 and almost 100 pieces belong to the Elizabethan period

It is, nevertheless, a great place to start collecting Irish hammered coins. There are three distinct issues to collect, many have interesting variations and each issue is interspersed with a rich social, economic, fiscal and political historical background. The history of the series culminates with the Nine Years War – otherwise known as Tyrone’s Rebellion.

It is one of Ireland’s best known stories and took place from 1593 to 1603 but a less well known story is how Elizabeth’s “third coinage” was deliberately debased (low % of silver content) in order to deny ‘good’ silver to the rebels in the north of Ireland so they would not have anything with which to buy arms from abroad.

  • The idea was to flood Ireland with base money and get everything else out of circulation

It was fought between an Irish alliance—led mainly by Hugh O’Neill of Tír Eoghain and Hugh Roe O’Donnell of Tyrconnell—against English rule in Ireland, and was a response to the then-ongoing Tudor conquest of Ireland.

  • The war was fought in all parts of the country, but mainly in Ulster
    • O’Neill initially fought on the side of the English
      • He won an early victory at the Battle of Belleek on 10 October 1593
      • O’Neill has hoped to be named as Lord President of Ulster
      • Elizabeth refused this, as she suspected his ambition was to usurp her authority
    • Once it became clear that Henry Bagenal was marked to assume the presidency of Ulster, O’Neill accepted that an English offensive was inevitable
    • He joined his allies in open rebellion in February 1595, with an assault on the Blackwater Fort, which guarded a strategic bridge on the River Blackwater
      • Later in 1595 O’Neill and O’Donnell wrote to King Philip II of Spain for help, and offered to be his vassals
      • He also proposed that his cousin Archduke Albert be made Prince of Ireland
      • An unsuccessful armada sailed in 1596
      • The war in Ireland became a part of the wider Anglo-Spanish War
  • The Irish alliance won some important early victories:
    • The Battle of Clontibret (1595)
    • The Battle of the Yellow Ford (1598)
  • The Battle of the Yellow Ford was the heaviest defeat ever suffered by the English army in Ireland up to that point and the victory prompted uprisings all over the country, with the assistance of mercenaries in O’Neill’s pay and contingents from Ulster, and it is at this point that the war developed in its full force
    • Hugh O’Neill appointed his supporters as chieftains and earls, e.g.
      • James Fitzthomas Fitzgerald as the Earl of Desmond
      • Florence MacCarthy as the MacCarthy Mór
    • In Munster as many as 9,000 men came out in rebellion
    • The Munster Plantation (colonised by English settlers) was dealt a serious blow; the colonists, among them Edmund Spenser, fled for their lives
    • Only a handful of native lords remained consistently loyal to the crown and even these found their kinsmen and followers defecting to the rebels
  • The final battle ended with a decisive victory for the English against the Irish alliance and their Spanish allies in the Siege of Kinsale (1601–02)
    • The war ended with the Treaty of Mellifont (1603)
    • Many of the defeated northern lords left Ireland to seek support for a new uprising in the Flight of the Earls (1607), never to return
    • This marked the end of Gaelic Ireland and led to the Plantation of Ulster

Elizabeth’s Numismatic Legacy:

The Anglo-Irish coins of Queen Elizabeth I can be divided into three phases but each one has a story to tell and is deeply intertwined with the history of the period:

  • Elizabeth’s 1st Irish Coinage
    • Debased silver shillings and groats (1558)
    • Seated Greyhound ‘Countermark’ on Edward VI Irish Shilling (1560)
  • Elizabeth’s 2nd Irish Coinage
    • Fine silver shillings and groats (dated 1561)
  • Elizabeth’s 3rd Irish Coinage
    • Debased silver shillings, sixpences and threepences
    • Copper pennies and halfpennies (dated 1601-02)

Elizabeth’s 1st Irish Coinage

The Irish economy was primitive and under-developed, and consequently the people had little need for vast quantities of money. What circulating coin there was in Ireland came from two main sources – England and the continent, mixed with some Scottish and (obviously) with some coin struck in Ireland itself. Foreign trade was healthy, particularly with Spain, and this even continued when England and Spain were at war during the late 1580s. Consequently, a considerable amount of Spanish silver circulated in Ireland.

The English coin which found its way to Ireland, and the Irish coin specifically made for circulation there, were really sent for the purpose of financing English government in Ireland. English currency circulated in Ireland not for economic reasons but to support law and order, i.e. an English colonial version of law and order.

Furthermore, there was a need to separate the English and Irish coinage because they contained different percentages of silver. The harp first became a feature on Anglo-Irish coins early in 1536, with the introduction of Henry VIII’s coinage of groats and their halves.

  • This coinage was 10oz fine instead of the standard 11oz 2dwts
  • Henry’s commission referred to the coins as 6d and 3d Irish

Thus, the Irish currency was manipulated for fiscal purposes: various debasements followed during Henry VIII’s reign, and adjustments were made to the ratio of Irish to English. Elizabeth inherited a deeply divided kingdom and she was by no means safe in her investiture as queen – there were many rival claimants to the throne and, worse till, she did not inherit a wealthy kingdom either.

  • When Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558, she inherited a difficult financial situation and a debt of £227,000
  • Over £100,000 of this was owed to the Antwerp Exchange who charged an interest rate of 14%
  • Throughout her reign, Elizabeth was engaged in expensive financial issues, especially foreign policy
  • By instinct, Elizabeth was a careful spender and believed in strict housekeeping

By the time Elizabeth came to the throne the coinage of England had undergone a series of momentous changes. The chronic debasement of the currency carried out by her father had left the coinage in a parlous state. Under Edward VI and Mary, attempts had been made to restore the currency to a good standard, but given the short reigns of her two predecessors this was only fully realised under Elizabeth.

This was, perhaps, epitomised by her first Irish coinage – a base coinage that simply continued on from previous reigns. From 1551, English coinage had been reduced to about 50% of its former face value by reducing the % of silver content and Elizabeth’s new coinage for Ireland was reduced even further!

Elizabeth I, First issue, Shilling, mm. rose, reads reg, 8.45g (S 6503, DF 241). Old scratches on reverse, otherwise about very fine, rare

Elizabeth I, First issue, Shilling, mintmark = rose. Weight: 8.45g

  • Debased silver shillings and groats (1558)
    • Over 4500 lbs of silver was converted into Irish coins at a 3oz standard (billon)
    • This was done in the latter half of 1551 and early 1552 by Martin Pirry under the auspices of Queen Mary
    • Between March 155 and June 1559, there were 11 commissions ordering the Royal Mint to supply Dublin with debased coinage. Elizabeth’s moneyers merely continued the trend
      • These debasements accrued £70,000 in net profit to the Crown

Elizabeth’s 1st Irish Coinage (de-based silver, 1558) mm. Rose

In normal circumstances (foreign trade) it would not have been possible for the Crown to get away with this but Ireland’s economy at that time was relatively unsophisticated and this coinage was mostly used to pay soldiers campaigning in Ireland on her behalf. It might be said that soldiers would have been able to tell the difference between English and Irish silver but it must be remembered that they had a choice; get paid in ‘poor’ silver or not get paid at all. The coinage was good in Ireland and they only had a problem with it when they went back to England with what they hadn’t spent. Since most soldiers lived from ‘day to day’ this wasn’t a huge problem for the Crown.

For approximately 400 years, England had maintained 92.5% purity for sterling, but with Henry’s debasement, the purity of coins gradually dropped to 75%, then to 50%, to 33%, and finally to 25%. A 1551 issue under Edward VI contained only 17% of the silver contained in pre-debasement issues. Elizabeth couldn’t debase these coins any further, so she ‘countermarked’ them with a portcullis (better examples) or a greyhound (for the worst examples). It is thought that the latter were ‘exported’ for use in Ireland but this is now disputed by some numismatic historians.

Edward VI 'Greyhound' Countermarked Irish Shilling - Devalued to Twopence-Farthing

Edward VI ‘Greyhound’ Countermarked Irish Shilling – Devalued to Twopence-Farthing

  • Seated Greyhound ‘Countermark’ on Edward VI Irish Shilling (1560)
    • The ‘countermark’ was taken as a re-valuation to Twopence-Farthing (2¼d)
    • They are sometimes referred to as an ‘Irish Testoon’

Elizabeth’s 2nd Irish Coinage

The central themes of Elizabeth’s policies were good government at home and sound finances. After her succession, Elizabeth took the courageous and costly step of recalling all the base silver coins which were still in circulation and replacing them with coins of a high silver content. This policy included Ireland and, in 1561, a new ‘fine’ coinage was ordered and brought the Irish coinage closer to the restored English. These new types had a slightly more elaborate reverse design with three harps on a shield and the date inscribed on either side of it.

Elizabeth I, Second issue, Groat, 1561, mm. harp, reads reg and mev, 1.57g (S 6506, DF 250). Very fine with good portrait, rare

Elizabeth I, Second issue, Groat, dated 1561, mintmark = harp. Weight: 1.57g

  • Fine silver shillings and groats (dated 1561)
    • These coins are very different to previous designs and display three harps instead of the single harp seen on the Irish coins of Henry VIII, Mary and Philip & Mary
    • They also display a few legend variations – all of which are very collectable

Elizabeth’s 2nd Irish Coinage (fine silver, 1561) mm. Harp

Elizabeth’s 3rd Irish Coinage

With a costly, and largely unsuccessful war going on in Ireland, Elizabeth was forced to reconsider her monetary policy in Ireland. She was advised to withdraw her current silver coins from Ireland and flood the country with debased billon coins. In addition, she issued copper pennies and halfpennies. It was proposed that doing this would prevent the Irish rebels from buying guns and ammunition abroad and, ultimately defeat them.

The results were mixed to say the least. Firstly, it had little effect on rebel finances and, secondly, the people spending this money were mostly English soldiers and their money was often refused by merchants, traders and artisans. It is said that Mountjoy, upon marching south to relieve besieged towns in Munster noted that “the people will only accept this debased coin at the threat of a cannon”

Elizabeth I, Third issue, Shilling, mm. star, 5.83g (S 6507, DF 252). Good fine or better for issue

Elizabeth I, Third issue, Shilling, mintmark = Star. Weight: 5.83g

  • Debased silver shillings, sixpences and threepences
    • Reverse design reverts to ‘older’ single harp
    • Weight and silver content both greatly reduced
Elizabeth I, Third issue, Copper Halfpenny, 1601, mm. trefoil, 0.89g (S 6511, DF 257)

Elizabeth I, Third Irish issue, Copper Halfpenny, dated 1601

  • Copper pennies and halfpennies (dated 1601-02)
    • Metal changed from silver to copper
    • Obverse design (coat of arms) similar to English coinages / no image of Queen
    • Date either side of the harp (on the reverse)
    • Mintmarks relate to date

Elizabeth’s 3rd Irish Coinage (de-based silver, 1601-02) – three different mintmarks

Elizabeth died on 24th March 1603. Prior to this, during January and February 1603, Mountjoy was negotiating terms with Tyrone to end the rebellion. A week after the Queen’s death, Tyrone had surrendered and had received a pardon with his life and liberty.

  • With the war over, the need for a debased silver and copper coins would disappear
  • In an ideal world it would have been exchanged at the 22 shillings for 20 shillings rate for money of good silver, but this was far from an ideal world
  • In fact, fiscally, things were to get even more complicated

James I had succeeded Elizabeth and had envisaged a monetary union taking place in Ireland as well as Scotland and England. However, there was a discrepancy between the standard proclaimed at the beginning of James I’s reign and that to which the coins were actually struck. It is quite probable that the confusion was deliberate – it is worth remembering that when James VI of Scotland came to the English throne he brought with him a very considerable experience of the problem of debasement.

  • The real standard of the Irish shillings and sixpences of James I was 11oz 2dwts fine
  • This was identical to his English counterparts

By devaluing the third issue base silver Elizabethan shilling to fourpence and the lesser denominations in proportion on 11th October 1603, and then by saying that his new silver Irish coins were no more than 9oz fine, the Elizabethan base issue was subtly undervalued.

  • With the war over, it was essential to get Mountjoy’s demoralised troops disbanded and out of Ireland as soon as possible
  • This fictitious premium would have gone a long way in making the base money attractive to Mountjoy’s soldiers:
    • the final settlement of their long overdue wages would have been paid in base coin bearing mint mark martlet

On 22nd January 1605, a second devaluation occurred, decrying the base Elizabethan shillings to threepence. At this rate, it was advantageous to return the base coin to the melting pot as bullion, and by this time merchants and silversmiths alike must have been aware of the true standard of the new James I pieces.

  • The soldiers had been paid and the monies spent
  • For some while longer, the pretence of the 9oz standard was maintained, but with the proclamation of a new exchange rate on 11th November 1606, when the production of the “harps” probably ended, the deceit was becoming transparent

Minting of the James I Irish issue had definitely ceased before 31st March 1607, and on 19th May 1607 a proclamation declared full monetary union and complete exchangeability of English and Irish.

  • The base silver of Elizabeth’s third issue had disappeared from circulation almost as quickly as they had been issued

The copper pennies and halfpennies met less of an abrupt end. Although they were technically tokens, they met a very real need for small change and aroused relatively little opposition, although some initial criticism might be inferred from the fact that what seems to have been the earliest pieces of mint mark trefoil appear to have been struck to a slightly lighter weight standard.

The coppers were allowed to continue at their original rate, the sole restriction being a limit on the number that might be tendered in any one payment. In all, they probably continued in circulation at least until 1613, when the Royal copper farthings for James I arrived as small change in Ireland, and were proclaimed current in both kingdoms.



  • Challis, Christopher, “The Tudor Coinage for Ireland” (British Numismatic Journal, 1971)
  • Dolley, Michael, “The Pattern of Elizabethan Coin Hoards from Ireland” (Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 1970)
  • Pawlisch, Hans S., “Sir John Davies and the Conquest of Ireland: A Study in Legal Imperialism” (Cambridge University Press, 1985)
  • Seaby, P., “The Story of British Coinage” (London, 1985)
  • Sutherland, C.H.V., “English Coinage 600-1900″ (London, 1973)


Checklist of Anglo-Irish Tudor & Stuart Coinages:




2 thoughts on “O’Brien Coin Guide: An Introduction to the Irish Coinages of Elizabeth I

  1. Is the identity of Elizabethan engravers of Irish coins known? I am an Irish American looking to find out to what extent the British Anthony engravers in the family interfered with life in Ireland. Noreen Cullen, from California


    • Derrick Anthony with John Lawrence as under-graver are mentioned in studies of Elizabeth’s first Irish series.
      The royal commissions were directed to Sir Edmund Peckham, High Treasurer, and Thomas Stanley, Comptroller at the Nether Mint in the Tower.

      The second (fine silver) series is attributed to Derrick Anthony.

      The third issue is attributed to Sir Richard Martin and Richard his son, master workers at the Tower – five denominations of Irish money were ordered. Charles Anthony was the Chief Engraver at the time but the under-graver, John Rutlinger, was probably responsible for these five Irish pieces.


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