BRITAIN’S FAILED COMMON CURRENCY: New study of the medieval sterling area

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30 Mar 2016

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The pound sterling dominated the economy of the British Isles for much of the Middle Ages, but according to research by Dr Martin Allen, this was a common currency that failed. His study, to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2016 annual conference in Cambridge, shows that England’s sterling currency was an essential part of English domination of Wales and Ireland – but monetary union with Scotland broke down as the Scots chose to go their own way.

The rise of sterling as the international currency of the many separate kingdoms and independent lands of the medieval British Isles began with the Norman invasions of Wales and Ireland in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. By the late thirteenth century, sterling was also the currency of the kingdom of Scotland.

It might be expected that the monetary union of England and Scotland would be shaken by the Scottish Wars of Independence against England starting in the 1290s. But Scotland was still inextricably linked to the English economy, and large amounts of English money were taken to Scotland by English armies.

The Anglo-Scottish union was finally broken in the late fourteenth century, when Scottish governments had to devalue their currency. The monetary union with an economically weak Ireland broke down in the fifteenth century, leaving only Wales.

Martin Allen’s research shows that England was the wealthiest part of the British Isles, with the highest amounts of money per head of the population. But Scotland was catching up fast before the outbreak of its Wars of Independence in the late thirteenth century. Ireland lagged far behind.

Martin Allen’s findings about the medieval sterling area are graphically confirmed by discoveries of hundreds of coin hoards and thousands of stray finds of coins, mostly found by metal detector users. These coin finds show the spread of the use of English currency, and its recession in the late Middle Ages.

They also show a big increase in the availability of money to a drastically reduced population after the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, at the same time as increasing inequality in wealth. Some of those who survived the plague became super-rich, but the gap between rich and poor widened.


Dr Martin Allen

Department of Coins and Medals

Fitzwilliam Museum

Cambridge CB2 1RB

01223 332 915

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