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Commonwealth Coins - Rarity & Variety

370 years is a very long time. In normal circumstances coins made in 1649 would have since spread to the four corners of the earth.

The Commonwealth Period was like no other time in English History. It was a period of 11 years sandwiched between the rule of Charles I who was eventually defeated in Civil War, tried and executed for his crimes, and Charles II at the Restoration of 1660. While this war was waging across the country the population was forced to take sides - Royalist or Republican. We had two of almost everything including armed forces. Two Parliaments one sitting in Oxford and one in London. After 1642 we had money being minted in London for the Parliamentarians and  Royalist mints both in Oxford and Provincial locations, like York, Chester, Bristol and Exeter to name a few which remained active till Pontefract surrendered in 1649. In those days money was power, was metallic silver or preferably gold. Forces from both sides toured the countryside looking for plunder to support their cause. Charles endeavoured to move metal and supplies to his headquarters in Oxford, while the Parliamentarian forces attempted to block shipments. Notably a shipment of gold and silver from Cambridge was intercepted on it’s way to Oxford and re-directed to London. Soldiers on both sides had to be paid so this activity never stopped. Provincial fortifications like York had to have money to pay defending soldiers. Loyalty had to be bought with money, food and shelter. Local residents supported the cause by donating gold and silver plate which could be converted into coinage.     

From 1643 to 1649 while the Civil War was raging, Parliament had control of Tower mint. and continued to produce Charles I coinage. Some support was bleeding out of the mint to support coins being made outside of London. So again another two, this time work forces. Records of the mint which had previously been made every year became much more erratic so following production is very difficult. After Charles I was executed in January 1649 Parliament set about normalising business as best they could. Staff at the mint had to be vetted to root out Royalist sympathisers. Late in the year authorisation was given to strike newly designed Commonwealth coinage. Goldsmiths were reluctant to supply metal while metal supplies at the mint had essentially run very low. It is assumed that one source of metal was any late Charles I coinage which was to hand. Again records are essentially none existent. However there was a priority to make the new money and have it in circulation as soon as possible. London was the commercial centre and within the city the circulation of new coinage was very fast. In the provinces that was not the case. One has an image of random Brownian motion for the distribution of new monies to people outside. Londoners still bore some sympathy to the now dead Royalist cause. One can imagine Royalist followers destroying any of the new money which came to hand, preferring instead to trade with Charles I coinage. 

Brownian Motion

16th May 1649 to 25th December 1651
26th December 1651 to 30th November 1653
1st December 1653 to 30th November 1657
1st December 1657 to 30th September 1659
1st October 1659 to 31st May 1660

Meanwhile record keeping at the mint did not improve. One has an image of a partially performing entity with a shortage of some key people who had to be replaced with new persons who would have needed time to adjust to the work. First accounts didn’t happen till Xmas Day 1651. It was to be the first of just five accounting periods over 11 years of the Commonwealth. Only the second and last periods were profitable to the tune of 361 but this was more than offset with losses for the other periods. One should not forget that the mint was a hive of activity in their endeavours to upgrade techniques in the making of coins and the constant struggle to find ways to defeat the counterfeiter.

All of the foregoing makes it exceedingly difficult to know how many coins were made during each individual year of operation. The gathering in of Commonwealth coinage from 1660 to 1662 is a complicating factor. Samuel Pepys in his diaries states that around 75% of the coinage was surrendered, melted down and recoined into hammered issues of Charles II. Then we have further losses with the Period of the Great Recoinage in the 1690’s which essentially eliminated hammered coinage from circulation. Attrition and losses at other times while what was left passed thru collectors hands and sought sanctuary in museums again makes this task of estimating what has survived, what would be a remarkable trip over 370 years, very difficult.

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Since CromwellCoins.com was established several years ago using data which was to hand, the survival rates have been a source of distraction. Where to start was the main issue. It was decided to survey the main museums in the UK, USA and Australia. Their help in this endeavour was simply the best and was much appreciated. Added to this were the results of auctions over recent years and finds in hoards. To top it off any knowledge of pieces in collections. This provided a data source of around 1800 coins. The question then to be answered - was this a large enough sample to work on the entire period. Three plots are shown here which provide a greater insight on this issue.

Plot 1 - Distribution of Coins1

Distribution of Coins

This plot shows both gold and silver coinage by denomination and year. One point we do know is how much silver and gold was minted during the Commonwealth period. The amount of silver coinage was 10 times that of gold coinage. So a first checkpoint was this ratio. It was found to be exceedingly close to the proportion plotted above. The year 1653 is universally accepted as the most populous year and here again we see that is true. Yet another check point is the most popular denominations and as others have found shillings and halfcrowns take those places.

So far so good. Next a check on die varieties. One would expect high volume to track greater numbers of die in use.

Plot 2 - Varieties seen using 3-D Plotting, same image rotated

3-D Number of Varieties Seen

This plot ideally should confirm the dominance of the years 1653 and 1656 which it does. More revealing are the results for gold denominations. There we see 1649 as being a very busy time for die makers which slowed down in the years 1650 and 1651. It’s almost as if the Unite was their test vehicle for die variance. This makes sense because some obverse dies used in 1649 are seen in use in the following four years.

Plot 3 - The combination of Plot 1 and 2

Combination of Numbers and Known Varieties

Combining the previous two plots provides an overview previously unseen. Both 1653 and 1656 were huge years for silver coinage in the Commonwealth Period.

As more data becomes available these plots will be updated.

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Survival - Silver and Gold

Silver Final Pie Gold Final Pie
Rarity Percentage Table4

around 6,000 pieces                                                                                           around 500 pieces                                                                                                           Silver Rarity Table showing ranges - yellow - very low numbers area
Total Minted 751,954                                                                                      Total Minted 97,448
Survival                                                                                                              Survival
0.05% hammered                                                                                              0.26% hammered
0.01% milled

Complete Picture Silver

Denomination data is for VF condition coinage. There are many more varieties than shown but the survival numbers become so small one becomes concerned about accuracy. An R4 silver shilling for example, suggests a survival rate of only 0.34%. This escalates as you approach R7, the rarest category, to just 0.08%. As certain dates are known to the exact number these are included above, for example the 1657 and 1659 halfcrowns where two of each are known to exist.

Percentage values are used in place of rarity letters to provide more accuracy. In a similar way gold coinage being 10 times rarer when minted provided an even greater challenge.

Unite Final Pie Dbl Cr Final Pie
Gold Crown Final Pie

There is no obvious reason why there were so many gold variants as the volumes for gold coinage were 10 times less than silver coinage and gold is a much softer metal so dies should have lasted longer. In general surviving gold coinage is of a higher grade. These gold charts are expected to be less accurate as the numbers are so much smaller.

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Gold Rarity Percentage Table1

The Gold Rarity Table showing ranges - yellow - very low numbers area.

Compared to silver gold coinage is around five times rarer in numbers. For this reason the threshold for very low numbers moves from 1% for silver to 5% for gold. The higher numbers are also removed as they are no longer applicable.