Visit Nunney has secured a very rare coin struck in Nunney for the Visit Nunney community archive: a George Ashe farthing of 1652.
The George Ashe farthing was listed in a history of Nunney published in 1887 alongside the Roman villa at Whatley (now within Nunney parish boundaries) and the Nunney Hoard of 1860 as one of three notable historical artefacts found in Nunney.
Our copy is not a particular fine example even for this very rare coin. It is a hammered coin, likely to have been one of the last struck using the same dies.
A coin die is one of the two metallic pieces that are used to strike a coin, one per each side of the coin. A die contains an inverse version of the image to be struck on the coin.
The metal is placed between the two dies, which are then hit hard with a hammer. The remaining George Ashe farthings weigh from 0.86 grams to 1.41 grams and are the only known example of coinage struck in Nunney.
From the earliest times the standard English coin was the penny. This had a cross on the reverse, which made it easier to break it up into half-pence and farthings (quarter pence). But half-pence and farthings were also produced in their own right in large number during the reigns of Edward I, II and III. Edward III also coined pieces of a higher value.
The early penny coins were made of silver. In Saxon times the weight of a silver penny was 24 grains – the ‘penny-weight’. Every successive monarch reduced the weight – and therefore size – of the coins, until under Elizabeth I a half-pence weighed only 4 grains.
There was a constant need for more small change. As well as breaking up coins, tradesmen and others issued their own private tokens. These were useless as currency in their own right and often ended up losing their holders money.
There were severe penalties for the use of these tokens, with proclamations constantly warning that their use was strictly prohibited. But the practice continued out of necessity.
It isn’t hard to imagine how easy it must have been for the official small change – broken up tiny coins – to get lost. They were inconvenient. So there was a practical need for small change in large size and weight.
Private tokens issued by tradesmen had a lot of downsides too. They were accepted by hardly anyone else but the issuer as payment for goods or services. If you were lucky, a neighbour might accept them. The tokens were often inferior, made of lead, tin or even leather.
Queen Elizabeth I blocked the issue of copper half-pence and farthing coins, because she taught it rather vulgar to use base metal for what had thusfar been silver coins.
Following the execution of Charles I on 30 January 1649, no copper money was issued at all by the government during the Commonwealth. The only small change available were tokens issued by tradesmen.
Although most of these traders’ tokens were round, some are square, others octagonal, heart-shaped or lozenge-shaped. They are almost always dated, between 1648 and 1672, curiously varied in their designs and usually full of spelling mistakes.
Traders and local authorities continued to issue tokens on a large scale until Charles II issued farthings from the Royal Mint in 1672. These were of a similar size, weight and pattern to coins we use nowadays.
At the same time, the government clamped down on tradesmen’s tokens. This soon caused them to disappear from circulation, although it wasn’t until 1802 that they were officially banned by Act of Parliament.
Trademen’s tokens like the George Ashe of Nunney farthing of 1652 were in use for only 25 years. No fewer than 280 different designs are known for Somerset alone, the earliest from 1651 and the latest 1671. They were issued out of necessity, but had always been more of a nuisance.
We don’t know anything about George Ashe. It’s tempting to think that he was possibly the landlord of the Mercers Arms, an unidentified pub in Nunney or possibly Trudoxhill (which didn’t become independent until relatively recently).Tempting, but most likely wrong.
The use of arms of the trade corporations of the City of London by tradesmen in Nunney is on record. These trade associations and guilds – known as livery companies – promoted trading standards, working conditions and apprenticeships since the Middle Ages.
The Worshipful Company of Mercers was the livery company for general tradesmen. It is the premier livery company, in other words: it ranks in first place in the order of precedence of all livery companies.
The Company’s aim was to act as a trade association for general merchants, and especially for exporters of wool and importers of velvet, silk and other luxurious fabrics (mercers). By the 16th century many members of the Company had lost any connection with the original trade.
There were separate livery companies for grocers, drapers, fishmongers, haberdashers and lots more trades. Today 110 livery companies still exist, although their main focus these days is charitable fundraising.
The City of London’s livery companies have an online register of all known members since the Middle Ages. There is no George Ashe listed anywhere as a member. The only known members in Nunney were mentioned in 1729:
- Gabriel Knight, a clothworker in Nunney (deceased)
- John Knight, his son who worked as a new apprentice
- James Sheldon, a master clothmaker
Known as a tradesmen’s token, the George Ashe farthing was used as rather illegitimate currency only within Nunney itself.
In The History of Nunney historian Anthony Windrum wrote about the George Ashe farthing:
From time to time there was a great shortage of small change, and in many parts of the country tradesmen issued tokens, like the one which showed on the obverse ‘George Ashe The Mercers Arms’ and on the reverse ‘rev. of Nunney 1652 G.A.’.
The fair to fine copy pictured at the top of this page was auctioned in October 2014. Our copy of this very rare coin was auctioned by Dix Noonan Webb in London in September 2016 as part of a lot of three Somerset tokens.
These were part of an extensive collection of 17th century Somerset tokens previously owned by the late Terry Winsborough. The George Ashe token subsequently ended up on Ebay.
William Bidgood wrote about Somerset coins and tokens in his article ‘Somerset trade tokens of the 17th century, and of the period from 1787 to 1817’ (Proceedings of the Somersetshire Archaeological & Natural History Society, 1886, volume XXXII).
He said that there were many places and individuals across the country who struck their own tokens. In Somerset the variety of tokens was particularly great. There were private families and local authorities who issued tokens, but also tradesmen.
Arms of the trade corporations of the City of London were used by persons of the same trade throughout the country, and in Somerset we find the following:
- Clothworkers: Bath, Spaxton, Taunton
- Cordwainers: Bath
- Drapers: Bath, Bridgwater
- Goldsmiths: Bath
- Grocers: Bruton, Frome, Henstidge, Taunton, Wellington; three cloves only are sometimes used: Chard, Crewkerne, Ilchester, Yeovil; and also three sugar loaves: South Petherton
- Haberdashers: Beckington, Crewkerne, Frome
- Mercers: Bath, Batheaston, Chard, Frome, Glastonbury, Ilchester, Lydeard, St Lawrence, Minehead, Nunney, Taunton, Wells
- Salters: Bridgwater, Mells
- Tallowchandlers: Bath, North Petherton; one dove only: West Pennard, Yeovil
- Weavers: Bath, Croscombe, Taunton
The Mercer’s Maiden
The face on the George Ashe farthing is not that of a monarch. After all, it was struck in 1652. No monarch reigned between the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the Restoration of Charles II in 1660.
Between 1649 and 1653, there was no single English head of state, as England was ruled directly by the Rump Parliament during a period known as the Commonwealth of England. It was during this period that the Nunney farthing was struck.
A year later Oliver Cromwell would forcibly take control of England from Parliament after a coup d’etat. He went on to dissolve the Rump Parliament at the head of a military force and England entered a period known as The Protectorate, under the direct control of a single individual known as the Lord Protector.
While not officially monarchs, the holder of the office of Lord Protector wielded great, almost absolute and dictatorial power over England, and the office became de facto hereditary when it passed from Oliver Cromwell to his son Richard.
Richard (known as Tumbledown Dick) lacked both the ability to rule and confidence of the Army, and he was forcibly removed by the English Committee of Safety under the leadership of Charles Fleetwood in May 1659. England again lacked any single head of state during several months of conflict between Fleetwood’s party and that of George Monck.
Monck took de facto control of the country in December 1659. After almost a year of anarchy, the monarchy was formally restored when Charles II returned from France to accept the throne of England. This followed the Declaration of Breda and an invitation to reclaim the throne from the Convention Parliament of 1660.
So who is the woman on the Nunney farthing? She is known as the Mercer’s Maiden, indeed part of the coat of arms of the Worshipful Company of Mercers. The official description is:
Gules, issuant from a bank of clouds proper a figure of the Virgin couped at the shoulders proper vested in a crimson robe adorned with gold the neck encircled with a jewelled necklace crined or and wreathed about the temples with a chaplet of roses alternately argent and of the first and crowned with a celestial crown, the whole with a bordure of clouds also proper.
Around the Mercer’s Arms featuring the Mercer’s Maiden is a cabled inner circle, a roped border.
Nunney in 1652
Nunney Castle had fallen to Thomas Fairfax’ troops after a three-day siege in September 1645. Charles I was beheaded in Whitehall in 1649. The monarchy and House of Lords were abolished. Britain was de facto a republic and Parliament well and truly in charge.
The late king’s son, who was to become Charles II, was crowned King of Scotland on 1 January 1651. He failed in his attempt to invade England, was forced to hide in an oak to escape capture and managed to flee to Normandy in October 1651.
Oliver Cromwell was appointed Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland, effectively placing the British Isles under military rule. Impoverished, Charles could not obtain sufficient support to mount a serious challenge to Cromwell’s government.
The first Anglo-Dutch war broke out in 1652, but it would not have affected rural Somerset much.
Parliament passed the Confiscation Bill in November 1652. A list of over 600 Royalists and other delinquents drawn up whose property is to be confiscated to raise funds for the Navy. The list included the Praters of Nunney.
The Prater family owned Nunney Castle and had not only defended it during the siege, but flown such a large royalist flag that it was sent to Parliament as a curiosity.
When Charles I toured the West Country in June 1644 and met his troops ‘neare Nunney’, it was said that residents everywhere stayed indoors rather than show any support for him.
Richard Prater had not only supported the king, but was said to have protected Roman Catholics within the castle too. They were described in one account of the siege as “a good store of papists” who were “not poor until the soldiers left them”.
Colonel Richard Prater died before the sale took place, and was buried in Nunney Church on 28 October 1649. His son George, who succeeded, petitioned Parliament unsuccessfully to save his estate. The sale took place in 1652, but was not without its problems.
It would appear that the commissioners in Somerset had leased Nunney Castle and manor to a Hugh Pickfatt for six years, from 25 March 1651, at £110.65. When Pickfatt heard of the intended sale, he petitioned on 26 January 1652, that his lease should be confirmed and the sale made subject to it.
This request was granted. The manor and castle of Nunney, with the lands etc were sold to Samuel Foxley and Robert Colby of Lindisfont.
The Pickfatts and the Praters were later related by marriage, although there was little love lost between them. When George Prater’s grandson (also called George) drew up his will years later, in 1694, he wrote:
“My only sister Ann hath of her own head, and to my great grief, without my privity or consent, very imprudently disposed of herself in marriage to one Thomas Pickfat, of noe competency or fortune, and of mean parentage and education, and there being a compentency for her livelihood already made and provided for her out of my estate, by George Prater, Esq., my late grandfather deceased, neither she nor any issue of hers shall reap any further advantage our of my estate, real or personal, except a leagacy of £5 hereinafter given her.”
The sale of Nunney Castle wasn’t the end of the story. George Prater appeared in a hearing in Wells in April 1652 to plead for his widowed mother to receive an allowance. This was granted because Mrs Prater was “above four score years of age, and for want of it was ready to starve”.
She was not the only one. Anne, wife of George Prater, also asked for financial support as she had “nooe other livelyhood for herselfe and children’s maintenaynce”.
In February 1653 Richard petitioned the Somerset commissioners again, this time claiming that Charles I had declared Nunney Castle a garrison but that he and his father had merely been living there and had never taken up arms. He also pointed out that there was no evidence that the Praters were catholics. His petition – and request for a fifth of the estate – was rejected.
As for the mysterious George Ashe, there is no record of the name associated with Nunney, neither in church records nor anywhere else. In fact, Ancestry.co.uk has no records for any George Ashe living outside North America at the time.
The surname Ashe was common in Somerset at the time – particularly around North and South Petherton – and it is therefore only to be expected that the name pops up in the archives.
Thomas Fairfax signed a permit on 19 February 1647/8, for example, allowing a William Ashe to pass the guards to South Petherton and back again to London.
Another Ashe is mentioned in observations on a libel case in 1637, referring to local men including one called Ashe, a clothier from Beckington, a strict puritan.
Were they related? We may never know.
Although not coins in the ordinary sense – in that they were not issued by kings and governments -, tokens play a much more important part in the history of the country than conventional coins.
Their study not only provides valuable insight into a turbulent period in English history, but is in many cases very entertaining too. Tokens tell a much more personal story of the people, their skills and occupations, their status and trade organisations, their towns and their homes.
The George Ashe of Nunney farthing of 1652 is not intrinsically valuable. But it does have a story to tell about a very turbulent time in our village’s rich history.