Something that has puzzled me since I became Bailiff to the Chamber of Feoffees just over 3 years ago is why the good citizens of Colyton paid King Henry VIII 1000 marks and not in pounds for the seized Courtenay estates in Colyton? And what was a mark worth?
I mentioned this to Brian Denham, a fellow research volunteer who, spurred on by his metal detecting hobby, has developed a keen interest in historic coinage. Brian very kindly set about finding an answer. This is what he discovered which I asked him to convert into a short article.
1. 1000 Marks – What was Colyton really worth?
The citizens of Colyton paid Henry VIII one thousand marks in 1546. But how much was this worth then, and what would it be in today’s money? Well, there is a quick answer which means very little, and a much longer explanation ending inconclusively in ‘what is money anyway?’!
The quick answer is that a mark in England was two-thirds of a pound sterling, or 13s-4d. Originating in Saxon times, the pound sterling was 16 ounces (oz) of fine silver (or 20 troy oz- but let’s not go there!), which could be minted into 240 silver pennies, and notionally into 20 shillings. But this standard deteriorated and by 1544 a ‘pound’ of sterling silver was down to not much more than 6 oz.
However, marks and shillings were not coins, but “units of account”. We are used to thinking of the Pound as our accounting unit and our currency unit but it was not that way back then. Coins were gold and silver with names mostly describing the pictures on them – sovereigns, angels, nobles, groats, roses etc., and their value was not necessarily constant in terms of the notional accounting units. For instance, Henry VIII’s top coin, the gold sovereign, which historically was 20 shillings, was revalued in 1526 to 22 shillings. But the shilling was not a coin either! Henry introduced a silver coin called a testoon which was valued at one shilling, but the first silver shilling as such was issued by Henry’s son Edward VI about 1550. That should be enough to show the difficulty of understanding Tudor money by our modern concepts.
So what sort of wealth was a thousand marks? One source says that a successful merchant’s income would have been about 25 marks a year. Although they may have been top of their class as business leaders our merchants should not be compared to today’s CEOs, but perhaps medium sized business owners making £50,000.00 p.a. That would make their 1000 marks the equivalent of £2Million today.
Another comparison could be gleaned from the account that Wolsey spent 200,000 gold crowns (£50,000 or 75,000 marks) building the first Hampton Court; £150M today? – quite possibly.
At the other end of society, consider something very basic – a loaf of bread. A 24oz loaf cost a ha’penny, today you might pay as little as £1.00, but that’s still 480 times as much. By that reckoning the thousand marks is worth more like £320,000. Money is worth only what it will buy – not the other way round as we are wont to think.
Brian Denham says he feels finding things by metal detecting helps put him in touch with the people who lost them hundreds and thousands of years ago. Coins are particularly interesting because they are well documented and indeed document themselves.