Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

Sovereign Counterfeits: The Trial of the Pyx

Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

Sovereign Counterfeits: The Trial of the Pyx

Article excerpt

1. Majesty's "Specyall Purpose"

On 9 May 1611 James I broke with a royal custom that had been established for more than a century of Tudor rule. He attended the trial of the pyx at the Royal Mint in the city of London. This yearly ceremony was for the formal testing of sovereign moneys. It was designed to ensure that the manufacture of various denominations conformed to current standards set by the crown. While his Tudor predecessors had allowed previous trials to continue unattended by majesty, James's presence at the pyx in 1611 provided the occasion for a striking display of royal power.(1) Howes's chronicle gives a detailed description of the event:

The King in person came into the Starre-chamber, and having viewed it, then went into the Recepts and other offices; his Majestie likewise went into Westminster Hall, and into the Court of Exchequer, and into the other offices, and presently after came the Prince of Wales, and survayed all those places in like manner; and this morning the King and the Prince of Wales, being accompanied and attended with the Lord Chauncelor, the Lord Treasurer, the Lord Privie Seale, and the Lord Chamberlaine, and six other Earles, and six Barons, and Syr Julius Caesar, Chauncelor of the Exchequer, being all in the Star-chamber, where his Majestie was then come of specyall purpose, to see his monies of gold and silver to be taken out of the pixe, and to be tried as well for their weight as for their finenesse; for which purpose . . . [officers of] . . . the Mint, as the King had appointed, caused the pixe to be brought from the Mint thether, where, in the presence of the King, they with their severall keys opened the pixe and poured forth the gold and silver to be assayed and tryed by their severall standards, according to the form of indentures made betweene the King and the Masters and Workers of his Majestie's moneys . . . This kind of tryall, though it bee usual once every year, for due examination and plaine proofe wheather the monies bee as they ought to be or not, yet it is beyond all memorie and mention for an hundred yeares space, that ever any King or Queene came in proper person to see any of these tryalls; yet neverthelesse at this time his Majestie in person gave a jurie of sixteene of the most honest, skilfullest, and best reputed gouldsmithes their othes, and charge for tryall of the monies, and the jury proceeded in all things according to their charge, and they gave up their verdict the same day at the Court of Whitehall, and the King shewed them great grace and favour . . . His Majesty having dilligently viewed and examined the state of his monies and Mint, as is mentioned, he also, with like Kingly care and prudence, searched and examined the abuses of the Commonwealth practised by very many persons upon all sorts of monies; for redresse whereof his Majestie made Proclamation the 18th of May for the preservation of monies.(2)

This account suggests that James's presence largely disrupted the usual course of events, and indeed transformed the internal structure of the ceremony. This was because James conceived of its function as a trial differently. During a period of some thirty years spanning the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the mint had essentially been in the hands of a single man, Richard Martin, whose responsibilities covered the entire process of making, checking, and accounting for the coin produced, including appointing a jury of experienced goldsmiths to assay newly minted coins. C.E. Challis notes that while "on the surface it was a successful arrangement since at successive trials of the pyx - in 1583, 1585, 1587, 1594, 1595 and 1598 - Martin's moneys were found to be upright standard . . . the suspicion had grown up in the 1560s and 1570s that the master-worker was likely to be corrupt."(3) Indeed, in the events leading up to the pyx trial of May 1586, Challis finds that great care was taken by Martin in impaneling the jury and conducting the assays to ensure an agreeable outcome. …

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