For more than 1,000 years Britain has had a national coinage.
The Royal Mint has been producing coins for the British Empire since it was founded in 886 AD, 1,135 years ago, and is wholly owned by Her Majesty’s Treasury.
It’s quarters were formerly housed at the Tower of London when it started its life under the rule of Alfred the Great but it now operates in Wales.
The official maker of UK coins produces planchets, commemorative coins, various types of medals and precious metal bullion, as well as minting circulating coins for use domestically and internationally.
Over recent years a number of special commemorative coins have been released by The Royal Mint with the most recent collection celebrating The Queen’s 95th birthday.
Despite The Royal Mint being part of UK tradition for many years its still has to undergo vigorous testing – the most famous being The Trial of the Pyx.
A selection of new coins were submitted for testing in the annual Trial last week and the results will be revealed in November.
What is the Trial of the Pyx?
The Trial, the UK’s oldest judicial ceremony, aims to protects consumers and upholds the quality of the nation’s coinage – as important today as it has been since the first public Trial in 1248.
This includes ensuring the coins maintain the precision and accuracy that The Royal Mint is known for.
The ceremony takes place annually at the Hall of the Goldsmiths’ Company – a membership organisation and Livery Company in the City of London.
Throughout the year, coins (circulating and commemorative) are randomly selected from every batch of each denomination struck, sealed in bags containing 50 coins each, and locked away in the Pyx boxes for testing at the Trial.
It is a legal trial presided over by the Queens Remembrancer of the Royal Courts of Justice.
What happens at the Trial?
The jurors count and sample approximately 60,000 coins, making sure they are of the standard and quality required before random samples are sent to the Goldsmiths’ Company Assay Office for further analysis.
Some jurors are dedicated to Platinum and Gold, some to Silver and the remainder to Homogeneous alloys such as Nickel Brass and Cupro/Nickel.
Each juror has an itemised list of what they are receiving and when presented with a Pyx packet of coins go about cutting the top of the packet, counting the 50 coins, and selecting one coin from the packet to place in a copper bowl.
This is the coin that the juror has selected for assay testing.
The remaining 49 coins are placed in a wooden bowl and will go on to be weighed.
The benchmark against which the coins are tested is called a Trial Plate.
These metal plates, made of Gold, Silver, Platinum, Copper, Nickel and Zinc, were formerly under the personal charge of the Monarch in the Exchequer, and are now the responsibility of the Department of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, along with the original coin Standard Weights against which the weight of the trial coins are compared.
The assays of the coins are measured against trial plates of ultimate fineness and the coins are weighed against standard weights.
Has The Royal Mint ever failed at the Trial?
Only on a handful of occasions has the Trial been failed.
There are no longer any legal sanctions for failure, but this would represent huge embarrassment for The Royal Mint and the Government.
In 1699, Sir Isaac Newton, the world-famous scientist became Master of the Mint, and ultimately responsible for ensuring the coins of the realm were of the correct content and weight.
It was in this post that Newton had to participate in the Trial of the Pyx, which by this time was already more than 400-years-old.
Unfortunately for Newton, at the Trial of 1710 the coins he had supplied to the Trial were rejected for being below standard.
Newton was furious, as were his fellow representatives from the Mint.
They protested so vigorously at the findings that they were ejected from the assaying chamber by the Goldsmiths.
The jury insisted on stating that the gold coinage was below standard.
Firmly believing that something was amiss at the Trial, Newton set about proving that this was the case.
Tenacious as ever, the scientist succeeded in establishing that the trial plate of 1707 had been made too fine, making the result of the Trial void.
As a result, the plate of 1707 was never used again, and until 1829 the gold coinage was tried against the 1688 plate.
The security of the Trial plates has only been violated once in the Royal Mint’s history.
In 1303, one Richard de Podlicote, aided by no less than 48 monks from Westminster Abbey, broke into the Chapel of the Pyx and stole the trial plates and the treasure of the kingdom.
He paid the then current price on capture of a common thief, but in addition his body was subsequently flayed, and his skin nailed to the chapel door as a dreadful warning to others.
No further attempts to steal the plates are recorded, so evidently the warning had its desired effect.
For further information or to browse the collections at The Royal Mint, visit the website here.