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The name groat was given in the Middle Ages to all thick silver coins, as opposed to thin silver coins such as deniers or pennies.
Enno van Gelder in his book "De Nederlandse Munten" notes that the first pieces larger than a penny ("sterling") in the 13th century were the Venetian grosso (meaning "large" or "thick"), followed by the French gros tournois, tariffed at 12 deniers tournois. This piece circulated in Holland, where it was known as the groot (also, conveniently, Dutch for "great" or "large"). There may be a Dutch intermediary between the French and the English use of the word. The OED (the big one) notes that the mediaeval Latin word grossus and old French word gros are recorded before the Teutonic forms and suggests that the adoption of the Dutch form into English is a sign that the coins from the Low Countries circulated in Britain before the home types were struck.
I am grateful to Martin Purdy of Wellington, New Zealand for bringing this information to my attention.
The first English groats were copied from the Continental gros tournois, and were issued during the reign of Edward I in 1279. This first issue of groats weighed 89 grains, representing a penny weight of 22.25 grains, a slight reduction on the previous weight of 22.5 grains, but were not particularly popular.
The groat became more established after they were reissued in 1351 by Edward III with a lower weight of 72 grains. The design changed relatively little during the next 150 years, although there was a reduction in weight to 60 grains in 1412 during the reign of Henry IV, and again to 48 grains in 1464 during the reign of Edward IV. Click here for an image of an Henry VI groat which is typical of the early groat design. I am grateful to Jean ELSEN & ses Fils for permission to use this image, which is of an early Annulet issue of the Calais Mint.
Eventually the design was changed in 1502, when a profile portrait of Henry VII was used.
The first issues of Henry VIII continued to use the portrait of Henry VII from 1509 to 1526, when a new issue with his own portrait was made. From 1544 the fineness of the silver was steadily debased from the normal .925 fine down to .333 fine.
During the reign of Edward VI the standard of the silver coinage was raised again, but the groat was not struck to this new standard until the reign of Mary I. A Philip and Mary groat is also illustrated.
Elizabeth I had several developments during her reign. Firstly, from 1559 to 1560 the groat was struck with a fineness of .916 and weighed 32 grains. In 1560 the fineness was increased further to .925, keeping the same weight. In 1561 a new issue was made, but the groat was replaced by the sixpence, and did not reappear. It is about this time that the word fourpence came to replace the word groat.
The milled version of the groat was produced by Eloi Mestrell at the same time as the hammered issues.
The hammered fourpence was issued for Maundy purposes until 1662 during the reign of Charles II, but was not generally used for circulation, as far as I can tell.
After 1662 a milled issue was made fairly regularly until the reign of George III. The crowned numeral first appeared in 1686 when the roman numeral IIII was used as a pun on Iacobus for James II. On the accession of William and Mary the arabic number 4 was used instead, and the basic design has not changed since (although the details have of course).
After the reign of George III the crowned 4 type was issued exclusively for use in the Maundy ceremony, and is still issued up until the present day, although revalued as 4 new pence on decimalisation in 1971. Pictures of examples of the 1840 Maundy Groat and 1922 Maundy Groat are available.
All Maundy groats of Elizabeth II use the same portrait.
In 1836 a new design of groat was issued for circulation. It's diameter was the same as for the silver threepence of the time, namely 16mm, but it was thicker and had a milled edge. It weighed 1.9g.
In fact this coin was never commonly referred to as a groat. The phrase 'fourpenny bit' was usual, but the coin was also known as a Joey after the MP Joseph Hume, who campaigned for its introduction. I believe his reasoning was that the hansom cab fare was fourpence, and the coin therefore did not require the change that a sixpence did. This was not popular with the cab drivers as often they had been given the twopence change from a sixpence as a tip!
Instead of a crowned figure 4 the reverse has a representation of Britannia, thus the term Britannia Groat. It was issued regularly until 1855, when it dropped out of use in the UK because of confusion with the 3d which started to be issued for general circulation in 1845.
The coin was also used extensively in British Guiana, and a further issue with the Jubilee head was made for use there in 1888. The issues from 1851 to 1853 are quite scarce, and proofs exist for 1857 and 1862.
I always like the legend errors - the 1838 coin has a version with the 8 over a horizontal 8. The die maker must have been living it up a bit the night before!
See my Main Coins Index page for acknowledgements
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v39 4th March 2015