Eloye Mestrelle, the man responsible for England’s first milled
coinage, died in disgrace at the end of a hangman’s rope.
For centuries before the reign of Elizabeth I (1558 to 1603),
coins were struck by hand. With the rare exception of the odd cast
issue, coins were produced the same way for centuries.
A worker would place a heated piece of metal between two dies and
another man brought a hammer down hard to impress the design into the planchet.
Making coins was a hot, labor-intensive operation that often
produced thin, irregularly shaped coins of poor quality.
The ancient Greeks and Romans had produced astounding, high-relief
works of art by hand; but by the Middle Ages, hammered coinage had
deteriorated into crudely engraved, sloppily produced affairs.
Elizabeth wanted better. In 1560 Mestrelle, a Frenchman who
apparently learned his craft at Versailles, was hired to produce
England’s first machine-made or milled coins at the Royal Mint in
London. He was paid £25 a year and lodging.
Little is know about Mestrelle before he arrived in England, but
the first official mention of him is a telling document. In 1559, the
queen pardoned him “for all treasons, felonies and offences committed
… in respect of clipping or counterfeiting coin.”
From 1560 to 1571, Mestrelle supervised perhaps a dozen men, in
the laborious process of creating the uniformly thick, exact weight,
round planchets that the milled process required and operating the
screw presses that impressed the designs into the new style coins. The
new coins, which were widely prized by the populace, were fully round
and generally of good quality.
At the Royal Mint, though, resentment simmered among the
who feared for their jobs, and the
officials, who resented the added cost of producing milled coins.
While milled coins were of superior quality, they took longer to
make. In an article published in the 1983 annual journal of the
British Numismatic Society, D.G. Borden and I.D. Brown write that the
issue came to head in the early summer of 1572 when Sir Richard
Martin, lord mayor of London and newly appointed warden of the mint,
ordered a series of tests. In an hour test, two of Mestrelle’s men
produced 22 sixpence blanks to the hammered coin workers’ 280.
Barred from the government’s mint that year, Mestrelle apparently
set up his own. In October 1577 he was arrested on a charge of
counterfeiting. His goods were seized and his widowed mother cast out
into the street. The next spring he was taken to Tyburn gallows and hanged.
Milled coinage, presumably more efficiently produced, returned to
England in the 1600s.
Gerald Tebben is editor of the Central States Numismatic Society’s Centinel.