Odd London Objects: Legal & Non-Legal Tender
Strangely enough these aren’t so terribly rare; this unlovely example recently sold on the London Peculiar website here, which sells London oddities. It’s a Carausius Roman Bronze coin minted between AD287-293, and they sometimes turn up at building sites in the city (Londonium was ranged further East back then). These days the Royal Mint makes some surprising legal tender, including a £100 gold coin which I imagine you’d have trouble changing on the bus.
Legal tender has a very narrow and technical meaning in the settlement of debts. It means that a debtor cannot successfully be sued for non-payment if he pays into court in legal tender. It does not mean that any ordinary transaction has to take place in legal tender or only within the amount denominated by the legislation. Both parties are free to agree to accept any form of payment whether legal tender or otherwise according to their wishes. In order to comply with the rules it is necessary to offer the exact amount due because no change can be demanded.
In England and Wales £5, £10, £20 and £50 notes are not legal tender in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Royal Mint makes all sorts of commemorative coins – like the one currently out to mark VE Day – but these can’t be used as legal tender. They’re mostly bought as keepsakes, and by collectors.
On 15 February 1971, Britain underwent Decimal Day. Until then we still had pounds, shillings and pence in multiples of twelve – plus guineas (21 shillings), and it was common to get a number of different reigns in your small change, which always resulted in me holding up coins to my mother and asking, ‘Are you sure these are still legal tender?’ I never found them very hard to add up, but they were awkward to carry, being so large, and it was hard to work out money against lire, francs and drachma. I still have a pile of old money in a cupboard somewhere…
Britain has a very varied history of coinage, with some surprising oddities in its history, including the unique silver maundy coins. The Royal Maundy is an ancient ceremony which has its origin in the commandment Christ gave after washing the feet of his disciples on the day before Good Friday. The ‘mandatum’ from which the word Maundy is derived – ‘that ye love one another’ (John XIII 34) – is still recalled by Christian churches, and the ceremony of washing the feet of the poor which was accompanied by gifts of food and clothing can be traced back to the fourth century.
It was the custom as early as the thirteenth century for members of the royal family to take part in Maundy ceremonies, to distribute money and gifts, and to recall Christ’s act of humility by washing the feet of the poor. Henry IV began the practice of relating the number of recipients of gifts to the sovereign’s age, and as it became the custom of the sovereign to perform the ceremony, the event became known as the Royal Maundy.
In the 18th century the act of washing the feet of the poor was discontinued and in the 19th century money allowances were substituted for the various gifts of food and clothing. Maundy money started in the reign of Charles II with an undated issue of hammered coins in 1662. The coins were a four penny, three penny, two penny and one penny piece. Maundy money has remained in the same form since 1670, and the coins are struck in sterling silver, apart for brief interruptions (Henry VIII’s debasement of the coinage and the general change to 50% silver coins in 1920).
Today’s recipients of Royal Maundy, as many seniors as there are years in the sovereign’s age, are chosen because of the Christian service they’ve given to the Church and community. At the ceremony, which takes place annually on Maundy Thursday, HRH hands each recipient two small leather string purses. One, a red purse, contains – in ordinary coinage – money in lieu of food and clothing; the other, a white purse, contains silver Maundy coins consisting of the same number of pence as the years of the sovereign’s age.