A history, biography and basic economics primer all in one, this account of sterling details the pound's modest medieval infancy, its world dominance in middle age and possible eclipse by the Euro as it approaches its millennium.
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How has sterling survived for so long?
Before we decide the future of sterling, shouldn’t we first understand its history? ‘Like an underground stream which rarely comes to the surface but which nevertheless irrigates all of the countryside through which it flows, Sterling runs through the history of Britain, from the Norman Conquest up to the present day…’
For nearly a thousand years, the story of sterling has been the story of Britain. From the devastating effect of the Tudor price rise to the shocks of 1992, from the aspirations of would-be monarchs (who, unofficially, minted their own currency), to everyday disputes over debt, Nicholas Mayhew’s Sterling (published by Allen Lane on 21 October), offers a unique angle on British history.
Sterling has not always brought out the best in human nature. Take the first firmly dated account of the currency – from the biography of Guibert of Nogent where he records having bribed a group of Cardinals with £20 to ensure the election of his favoured candidate as Bishop of Laon. Or Henry VIII’s solution to the crown’s financial crisis – a debasement of the coinage which raised £1.27 million for the crown and in the process operated ‘the greatest fraud deliberately carried out by any English government on its own people.’
Much of the story of sterling seems astonishingly modern. Where once monarchs debased the coinage (by reducing the percentage of pure metal contained in it), today governments enforce devaluations. Conversely, history shows what great efforts rulers have made to restore confidence in the currency – although Henry I’s action of castrating two-thirds of the mint workers in 1124 for producing bad coinage was perhaps a little extreme for modern tastes. We see how the fortunes of monarchs in the past, and governments today, depend upon the City – one of the major reasons, Mayhew argues, that Charles I lost the civil war was the City’s declaration for parliament. And we see how sterling has always been influenced by international forces beyond government control; the state of the German silver mines in the fourteenth century, for instance or those of the gold mines in Africa in the 1890s, were both crucial to the supply of bullion which underpinned the currency’s value. And then, as now, the availability of credit – whether from Jews, Lombards, or banks – was critical.
Not even monetary union is new; nor is it necessarily irreversible. The Scottish coinage, for instance, was pegged to sterling in the early 12th century, and the 15th century saw arrangements between Britain and the low countries where the English groat and Burgundian double patards passed interchangeably at equal value.
Sterling has always engaged our emotions, passions, and cherished ideals. It has prompted religious prohibition (the Council of Tours famously prohibited usury in 1163), superstition (the Angel, an English gold coin worth 6s 8d, stayed in circulation as a charm to ward off disease. It also occupied the greatest minds of the day. John Locke, whose philosophical speculations were perhaps more developed than his financial acumen, was highly influential in the disastrous decision to maintain a fixed silver content for coinage in 1696.
Above all the tale of sterling is the story of change. Nicholas Mayhew shows that perhaps the pound has only lasted so long because of is successful and often radical adaptation – something that should be understood by Europhiles and Eurosceptics alike.
Nicholas Mayhew is a curator in the Heberden Coin Room at the Ashmolean Museum, and a fellow of St Cross College, Oxford.
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Book Description Penguin Books Ltd, 2000. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # 0140276327