Find out about the violent and painful punishment for coin clipping, why coiners were executed as traitors, and the gory details of being hung, drawn and quartered.
Money is power. Historically, anything that undermined or threatened that power, such as counterfeiting or coin-clipping, was stamped on. So, in England, up until the early 19th century, coiners faced a macabre combination of execution and mutilation, designed as both a deterrent and a demonstration of monetary sovereignty.
The destabilising effects of counterfeiting & coin-clipping
Once power in Medieval England had begun to coalesce around one monarch, the importance of controlling money became as important as obedience to the King or Queen.
Those on and around the throne realised that losing control over money could erode trust in their authority, destabilise the economy, and, worst of all, undermine their ability to finance war.
The ultimate demonstration of their control of money was stamping their image on coins.
So, coining, whether it was via forging or clipping, shaving or sweating, was considered a direct attack on the monarch.
From the 16th-19th century, coining was equated with treason, the most serious of crimes, incurring the most serious of punishments. Traitors weren’t just executed but were hung, drawn and quartered.
The Punishment Coiners Faced – Hung, Drawn & Quartered
The crime of high treason, attacking the monarchy, was singled out for special punishment in England from 1352 under the reign of Edward III.
Traitors were dragged to the place of execution by horse, hung but not killed, mutilated in various ways, including emasculation (hacking off privates) and disembowelling (pulling out guts), then beheaded.
As if that gruesome, extended execution wasn’t enough, the headless torso was hacked into four pieces and presented to the monarch. The King or Queen presumably had little need for body parts, but no doubt appreciated the gesture.
This macabre form of execution is the origin of the term hung, drawn and quartered.
From the 16th century, those who messed with money were treated as traitors, suffering that hideous fate. Sometimes, the bodies of the executed would be hung in chains, like an early public service announcement to discourage coining.
The execution of Thomas Green (1576)
In 1576, a goldsmith named Thomas Green was executed for clipping gold and silver coins.
As was common practice for treason, Green was first drawn on a hurdle from his cells at Newgate Prison to the infamous Tyburn gallows. A hurdle was like a primitive sled, closer to a fencing panel of interwoven branches than anything you might associate with Father Christmas.
Green’s arms and legs would have been bound to the sled and dragged behind the horse in a procession from Newgate Prison over 3 miles through some of London’s busiest streets to the point of execution.
The hurdle was an important part of the theatre of execution. If the idea of death wasn’t deterrent enough, perhaps the humiliating procession past baying crowds, spitting and lobbing all manner of objects at you, might do the trick.
Tyburn gallows were named the “Triple Tree” or “Three-Legged Mare”, given the formation of a horizontal wooden triangle supported by three legs.
There, Green was hanged, but to add further suffering, was likely castrated and disembowelled before dying, then had his head chopped off – two forms of execution for the price of one.
If that wasn’t enough, his torso was then cut into four pieces, sometimes achieved by four horses pulling in opposing directions.
The execution of William Chaloner (1699)
William Chaloner was one of England’s most famous coiners, escaping justice for years; he became the nemesis of none other than Isaac Newton, given the post of Warden of the Mint in May 1696 and the job of improving monetary security.
Newton eventually got the better of Chaloner, who was executed on March 22nd, 1699, and dragged to Tyburn on a sled.
John Arthur, a highwayman who made the same journey by coach, was allowed to enjoy a condemned man’s pub crawl en route, guaranteeing he faced his fate drunk. Chaloner met his maker stone-cold sober.
The stark contrast in the manner of Chaloner and Arthur’s capital punishment illustrates the severity with which the state viewed those who messed with money.
Coining was considered treasonous, putting Green, Chaloner and numerous other counterfeiters in the same bracket as those, like Guy Fawkes, who threatened the establishment.
The death penalty for female coiners
It can hardly be considered lenient, but female coiners were spared mutilation, instead executed through a combination of being burned at the stake and hung.
Following the case of Prudence Lee in 1652, the burning became symbolic, with condemned women strangled first to spare them the suffering of the fire.
The last woman to be burned at the stake for coining was Catherine Murphy, on March 18th, 1789, executed along with her husband Hugh Murphy.
- Contrast the historical practice of burning women for messing with money with examples of how and why we now purposely burn money.
Why coining was rampant despite the death penalty
Despite the threat of execution, abuse of coinage in England was rampant, undermining trust and the trading economy, just as the state feared.
The scarcity of small denomination money, essential for small traders, was an intermittent problem in England from the 16th to the 19th centuries due to the prohibitive cost of creating low-value coins and the problem of coin clipping – shaving off small amounts of gold or silver with sheers to smelt and sell.
The dearth of shrapnel prompted the creation of informal localised token economies, which, for a period from 1649-72, was officially sanctioned.
The battle with rampant coin clipping culminated with the Great Recoinage of 1696 when King William II recalled and then reissued all money.
The Bank of England was then created (in 1696) as another means for the King to raise money and fight yet another war against the French.
Yet, within days of opening, the first fake promissory notes were circulating, damaging the reputation of the fledgling enterprise and illustrating the scale of the problem with money, despite the unimaginable terrors faced by those coiners that were caught.
From 1561 coin-clipping was treated as treason punishable by a special form of execution – being hung, drawn and quartered.
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