Send George Osborne to the Tower, then he might learn that currency manipulation rarely ends well. Coins and Kings occupies four small rooms in a Yeoman Warder’s house on the site of the old mint, which was established by Edward I in the 1270s in response to endemic counterfeiting, coin clipping and general skulduggery.
This permanent exhibition progresses through the Middle Ages to Elizabeth I’s attempt to restore confidence after her bankrupt father had debased the currency and caused inflation, riots and misery (on display is an Elizabeth I half pound coin, above). The Reformation saw traces of continental popery being removed from coins, and the crown take even greater prominence as the nation state began to form. We watch how Sir Isaac Newton’s scientific methods developed over his 28-year career as Master of the Mint, and observe the influence of fledgling industrial technology on minting.
But progress did not eradicate chaos and corruption. The show ends soon after George III’s counter-marking, when the financial pressures of bankrolling the Napoleonic wars forced the government to stamp foreign coins with the king’s head. One cannot help but notice that the fortunes of governments are often tied to the fortunes of their currency; and they play with it at their peril.
The show is sufficiently tactile to distract young children from the Tower’s darker corners. You can try your hand at weighing, pressing, stamping, clipping and thieving. It’s great fun; but why did the curators insist on a Ye Olde soundtrack?
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