A student post by Cameron Maclean, Coin Room Volunteer at The Hunterian.
The counterfeiting of coinage has been a problem that states have tried to tackle throughout history. The recent withdrawal of the old £1 coin was prompted by the large amount of fakes in circulation. This was no less a problem during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots, which witnessed the widespread forgery of her coinage. This post will highlight some examples of counterfeits in The Hunterian’s collection to show their differing levels of quality and discuss the measures the government took to crack down on this activity.
Left to right: Genuine hardhead (Stewartby 3410), well-made fake (Stewartby 3426) and a poorly made fake (Stewartby 3432).
These coins, valued at 1.5 pence, were made of billon (base metal mixed with a small amount of silver). They contained just over 4% of silver and about 96% copper. The amount of silver in them is so small that it is impossible to distinguish it in the coin’s colour. This, combined with the coin’s crude appearance, made them a tempting target for forgers as they could produce copies that closely replicated the original’s design and colour without the need to use silver, allowing them to do so at a profit if they were able to pass them off as genuine.
The illustrated forgeries give an idea of the differing levels of quality that can be expected in surviving counterfeits. The centre fake is very well made and closely mimics the original. It is only with close inspection that some discrepancies become apparent. One of the most noticeable being the dolphins that flank the ‘FM’ monogram on the obverse, their fins are much larger than the ones on the genuine coin. In contrast, the coin on the right is an obvious fake. The dolphins have been reduced to simple backwards ‘C’ shapes and the monogram, which should read ‘FM’ (standing for Francis & Mary) neglects to include the ‘F’. Looking at the coin’s reverse reveals that the forger was likely illiterate as the legend is made up of a random assortment of shapes in a poor attempt to imitate the originals’ Latin legend.
The counterfeiter could reduce his risk by producing the fake coins abroad. The government frequently complained of foreign made counterfeits and commonly cited the Low Countries as a source of manufacture. There appears to have been a lot of truth in these accusations. A hoard of counterfeit hardheads was unearthed in Aberdeen in 1847. It has been proposed that these are connected to a case, in 1566, where several residents of the burgh confessed to importing counterfeits from abroad.
While foreign forgers were safe from prosecution, domestic counterfeitures and those who imported foreign fakes risked severe retribution. Penalties for engaging in forgery were incredibly harsh by modern standards. Those convicted could have been hanged, drawn and quartered or be strangled and then burned at the stake. In 1567, Andrew Murray, a resident of Perth and Patrick Ramsay, a resident of Dundee, were executed for importing fake hardheads from abroad. Their heads, arms and legs were sent to Edinburgh to be publicly displayed.
Harsh measures were evidently not enough to prevent the importation or production of counterfeit coins. In 1575 the government ordered that all hardheads be brought into the mint for inspection, those that were genuine were to be countermarked with a heart and star (this was the badge of the Earl of Morton, the then regent of Scotland), while the counterfeits were to be confiscated.
However, many genuine hardheads, including the one illustrated (Hunter 167a), do not have the countermark. This was likely because the only place that they could be verified in was the mint in Edinburgh, it is highly unlikely that the bulk of the regular people far outside of the capital would have had the resources to make the journey to have their coins verified. Some counterfeits also appear to have deceived mint officials. Two countermarked hardheads in the collection of the National Museum of Scotland were revealed as definite forgeries by metallurgical analysis. This confirms that some fakes were so convincing that they fooled the mint officials who were best equipped to spot them.