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Irish gun money struck 1689-1690
By R.W. Julian
June 22, 2018

One of the more interesting series of British coins came in the late 1680s under King James II. Well, he claimed to be king but the London government thought otherwise and this led to major fighting in Ireland during 1689 and 1690.

The story begins, in some ways, with the return of Charles II to the English throne in 1660, after the fall of the Cromwell government. King Charles II was a relaxed ruler and challenges to his authority were few and far between. However, Charles died on Feb. 6, 1685, and was succeeded by his brother (James II), Charles having left no legitimate children to inherit the throne.

James II was of a different mold than his brother. The new king was a firm believer in divine right to rule and felt that whatever he wanted should be done without any opposition from Parliament or the public at large. This change in attitude led to two armed rebellions in the first year of James’ reign, 1685. The revolts were easily crushed but were an ill omen of events yet to come.

One of the contentious matters in England at this time was religion. Henry VIII had created the Anglican church after he had broken with the Catholic church in 1634 because the Pope had refused his request for an annulment.

The religious question had flared up during the English Civil War of the 1640s but when Charles II regained the throne in 1660 he chose to avoid controversy by doing little or nothing about the matter.

James II, however, was determined to restore Catholicism as the dominant force, or at least the public thought so, and this meant trouble for the king. By the spring of 1688 there was open and increasing opposition to the him, especially by powerful members of the Anglican church establishment.

In the spring of 1688 a group of nobles and church leaders approached James’ daughter Mary (by his first marriage to Anne Hyde) to invade England and throw her father off the throne. Mary was married to a Dutch prince, William. Throughout the latter part of September and early October there were intense negotiations and at length William and Mary decided to invade. On Nov. 5, 1688, troops under the command of William and Mary landed on the English coast and made preparations to attack forces loyal to James II.

Unfortunately for King James his support in the army and navy quickly dwindled to almost nothing as most of the key commanders jumped ship and declared allegiance to William and Mary. By late November 1688 the writing was on the wall and James made plans to flee to France, where his cousin, Louis XIV, was king. William and Mary soon controlled most of England and Scotland though Ireland was less certain due to the strong Catholic population.

On Dec. 11, 1688, there was an abortive attempt by the king to cross the English channel into France but he was captured by alert coastal guards and detained. The capture was a problem for William and Mary so orders were issued that the men guarding James were to take long breaks, the longer the better. With the way now wide open, James then promptly escaped a second time (as intended by William and Mary) and joined his family in Paris.

Louis XIV agreed to underwrite an invasion of Britain with an eye towards restoring James II to the throne, as well as promoting Catholicism. It took a few months to raise an army but on March 12, 1688, his flotilla anchored off the coast of Ireland, with James’ troops landing the following day.

Considering that James had not left England until December 1688 it does seem strange to modern eyes that he would be able to land his invasion force in Ireland several months earlier. This apparent mistake in dating was actually due to the calendar used in those days by the British. On the continent most Catholic countries had changed the calendar so that Jan. 1 was New Year’s Day rather than March 25 as in the past. Britain, however, did not change until 1752, so March 24, 1688, in Britain was March 24, 1689, by modern reckoning.

(When Britain changed the calendar in 1752 this also affected the American colonies. George Washington, for example, had actually been born on Feb. 11, 1731, but had changed his birthdate to Feb. 22, 1732, because of the new calendar. The extra 11 days were due to an adjustment that brought Easter into line.)

James had little difficulty in raising an army among the Irish Catholics but he got little support from the Protestant factions. Even though James’ army was poorly trained and equipped he had little trouble in seizing control of the better part of Ireland.

Problems for James arose when King William led an English army across the Irish Sea to Ireland and promptly attacked the forces of James II. This led to a money shortfall for James, as the funds supplied by Louis XIV soon dried up under the rapidly increasing military activity. During late April and throughout May there were intense discussions about what to do for funds.

At length, and no doubt with strong reservations, James decided to issue sixpences in brass rather than silver. At first old and outdated brass cannons were used as the raw material but in due course James appealed to the Irish public for any kind of copper or brass metal. The sixpences were first issued in late June 1689 and were accepted by the army as well as the public but with reservations. If James did not win his struggle against William the coins would become worthless.

Two mints were established, one at Limerick and the other at Dublin. The Dublin Mint had two coining presses, nicknamed, respectively, “Duchess” and ”James.” The Limerick press, which did not begin operating until about May 1690, did not have a particular nickname.

At first the issuance of sixpences in June 1689 was not very strong but James added, late that month, shillings (12 pence) and half crowns (two shillings, sixpence) to the list of coins being struck. Despite the June edict, however, the first shillings and halfcrowns were dated July 1689.

The sixpence, shillings and halfcrowns were given an exact date (such as October 1689) because James planned to repay the holders of these coins in silver when he was again king in London. It was realized that there would be depreciation of these brass coins in due course, so the monthly dating meant that the earliest coins would be paid off first and at a higher rate.

With the issuance of new denominations there was growing resistance to the brass coins struck at Dublin. James was forced to issue increasingly dire threats against anyone failing to use these new coins at their stated value. However, despite these edicts, the coins fell in value at a fairly rapid pace and within a few months were worth less than a third of their silver equivalents.

For his forces, William was careful to pay in silver, which gave him a great advantage with the public in maintaining his power base in Ireland. Still, it required months to stamp out resistance in the north of Ireland.

In April 1690 a shortage of brass and copper forced James to reduce the sizes of his shillings and halfcrowns. At the same time the first crowns were issued (some in pewter) while penny and halfpenny coins were also made in pewter; very few of the pewter pieces reached the public, however.

The designs on the sixpence, shilling, and halfcrown are similar. The legend, from obverse to reverse, reads IACOBUS • II • DEI • GRATIA • MAG • BR • FRA • ET • HIB • REX, which translates to “James II by the Grace of God King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland.” The French claim was archaic and dated back several centuries; it was finally dropped under George III in 1801.

The above three coins have the bust of James II facing left while the reverse has a crown with various minor differences. All of these three coins have the year and month although it must be kept in mind that February 1689, for example, is actually February 1690 in modern terms due to the calendar then in use. The coins of March 1689 and March 1690 were, interestingly enough, struck in the same month.

The crown (five shillings) pieces were first struck in April 1690 but did not widely circulate and did not carry the month of coinage. The obverse legend is the same as found on both sides of the small coins while the reverse reads CHRISTO • VICTORE • TRIVMPHO, which means “I Triumph in the Name of Christ the Victor.”

The largest museum collection of Irish Gun Money is in, of all places, the Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg, Russia) numismatic collection. The second largest is in the British Museum. These two collections as well as others show that the shilling was the most commonly used denomination, followed closely by the halfcrown. The sixpence comes in a distant third while crowns are yet further down the list.

The total of this coinage, from the Dublin and Limerick Mints, was about £1.1 million, equivalent to about £100 million in modern terms. Most of this, however, was from the two coining presses in the Dublin Mint, the Limerick Mint not opening until the spring of 1690. The post-June 1690 issues were all from the Limerick Mint but did not amount to all that much.

After several months of skirmishes and semi-important battles, the two sides at last met in full force, on July 1, 1690, at the Battle of the Boyne in the north-eastern part of the island. James suffered a total defeat and soon afterwards fled Ireland altogether, much to the anger and dismay of his loyal supporters. Isolated pockets of resistance in Ireland remained for several months, however, notably at Limerick where the mint continued to operate until October 1690, though with great difficulties in obtaining the necessary metal for the coinage. The bravery of the Irish defenders at Limerick is legendary but even they could not prop up the failing coinage system.

Immediately after the Battle of the Boyne the brass money was cried down by in the areas under English military control. The halfcrown (30 pence) was given a new value of just one penny, for example. In February 1691 the Gun Money coins of James II were declared to be worthless and could not be used in the marketplaces. After that only the dedicated collector was interested in these relics of a failed attempt by James II to recover his throne.


This article was originally printed in World Coin News. >> Subscribe today.


  More Collecting Resources

• The Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1601-1700 is your guide to images, prices and information on coins from so long ago.

• Are you a U.S. coin collector? Check out the 2019 U.S. Coin Digest for the most recent coin prices.

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