How Well Do You Know the UK’s Coins and Notes?



By: Zoe Samuel

7 Min Quiz

Image: Jose A. Bernat Bacete/Moment/GettyImages

About This Quiz

British money traces its roots to the earliest organized cultures in the British Isles, some of whom, due to the Romans, used simple coins made of precious metals. In contrast, other Celtic cultures used metal objects like rings and bracelets made of standardized weights of precious metals like gold. The limits of the barter system lie in exchanges when one party does not possess the goods the other party wants, and this simple system made possible more complex economies. 

The first native British coinage was created by King Offa of Mercia along the lines of the currency system used by Charlemagne. Two hundred forty silver pennies were equal to one pound of silver, or "£1." This was further codified in 1266 by an official act, and the standardized system of currency in Britain was set in stone, or if you prefer, silver.

British currency has gone through several iterations over the centuries, changing in both form and materials. British money reflects the changes in British history, from the monarchs to the cherished symbols of the age. Even paper money is radically changed, with the addition of security measures and changes in the size and dimensions that mark out modern British cash as unlike any other in its history. How well do you know the pound sterling? It's time to find out!

England has been represented on the obverse of the pound coin in different ways over the years. Which of the following is not a way in which it has been represented?

The obverse of the pound coin, which has seen more than two dozen revisions over the years, has thus far featured three images representing England: the oak tree and rose, the Gateshead Millennium Bridge and the three lions passant guardant. At no point has Monty Python's holy hand grenade of Antioch played a role in the coin's design.


The Bank of England issued £1,000,000 banknotes in 1948. What value can they be said to have today, for sure?

These banknotes, created as part of the intra-governmental bureaucracy moving cash from one section of government to another, were all cancelled shortly after being issued, save two, which ended up in private hands. The last time one of these went up for auction, it fetched a price of £69,000.


From where does the "£" symbol come?

The "£" symbol, which stands for the pound sterling, has been the abbreviation used for this unit since such abbreviations were first used. Abandoned symbols include "s" for the Latin Solidus, for shillings, and "d" for denarius, for pennies.


What innovation in coinage achieved under Henry II had far-reaching effects outside of money?

With the introduction of the Tealby penny, Henry II's regime changed the silver content of coins to near-purity, requiring 92.5% silver mixed with 7.5% copper. The result of this mixture produced a new, tougher, harder silver, dubbed Sterling silver, an alloy that remains in use to this day.


When Offa created the first British coinage, how many farthings were there to a penny?

The measurement of Offa's coinage is as follows: four farthings to a penny, 12 pennies to a shilling, and 20 shillings to a pound. While not all of these units remain today, the legacy of this system remains in some of the terminology.


When did the manufacturing process of British coins undergo a major technological change?

After centuries of resistance by early moneyers, major changes came to the manufacture of British currency in the 1660s with mechanisation. Coin billets were punched from fillets of metal passed through a rolling machine. Coin blanks were then inserted into a simple screw press, which pushed the image of the coin into the metal of the coin.


What was the first decimal coin?

With mounting support for a decimalised currency, 1849 saw the introduction of the florin, a coin worth one-tenth of a pound. Ensuing years saw an energetic debate about decimalisation, rejected primarily because bankers worried about their ability to educate the public about the use of a decimalised currency.


Which King of England standardised a single English currency?

While many of the Anglo-Saxon kings are responsible for societal innovations, including the creation of common law, it is King Athelstan, the grandson of Alfred, who standardised all British money. He built 22 new mints across the country, bringing the total to 30.


Aside from the very modern, polymer bank notes, of what are other modern bank notes made?

Modern "paper" money is not made from paper at all. Like much of the stationary of the 1700s and 1800s, these bank notes are made of cotton fibre and linen rag, which are reduced to individual fibres with the application of water and turned into rolls of "paper." This "paper" is then subjected to the necessary security treatments to make it into cash, from watermarks to the insertion of security threads.


Medieval mints employed craftsmen called "moneyers," who were required to pass a seven-year apprenticeship before admission to the guild. Which of the following was one of their key tools?

Moneyers of the middle ages made all coinage by hand. They were entrusted with ensuring all money was of equal weight and purity, and that all coins were made to the standards of the monarch, bearing the approved images. To stamp images into a coin by hand, the two key parts of a die are a trussel and a pile, which would sandwich the metal that would become a coin.


When did British money move to decimalisation?

Decimalisation took effect on the 15th of February, 1971. On that day, the pound became like other decimalised currencies; 100 pennies to one pound. Experts have railed against the 12-base (instead of 10-base) system for centuries. The 12-base system owes its origins to the practice in biblical times of counting in twelves, using the joints of fingers on one hand.


New bank notes are made of a polymer, as an aid to stop counterfeiting. Who is featured on the £10 note?

The new polymer £10 banknote, distributed as of 2017, features a portrait of Jane Austen. This choice to highlight an important female figure from British history was the result of a popular campaign that started upon the announcement that Winston Churchill would be the face on the new £5 banknote at the time.


Banknotes are a fairly recent innovation. When were the first printed banknotes produced?

When the first British banknotes entered circulation in the 1700s, they were hand-written and had to be signed by the cashier of The Bank of England. As their use increased, banknote production needed to become mechanised. In 1853, the banknotes were printed by a machine but still needed to be hand-signed by cashiers of The Bank of England.


What event precipitated the British move to decimalisation?

1961 saw the introduction of the South African rand, as other Commonwealth nations became decimalised. The British Association for the Advancement of Science argued in favor of decimalisation as it had aided science, and the British Chamber of Commerce argued for its adoption as well.


When decimalisation took hold, the currency could have been renamed. Which of these names was not considered?

While "quid" may be shorthand for the pound, the roots of the name come from the Latin "quid pro quo" meaning an exchange of value. While adopting the name as the formal label for British currency would have been a delightful turn, it was not even considered.


When did England move to a de facto gold standard?

In 1717, the price of silver, which was the basis for the pound, was pegged to the price of gold for the first time by the Master of the Mint. One ounce of gold was priced at £4.25 by the Master of the Mint, who had been given the job as a way to draw an income without having a real job, but who had decided to take his job seriously anyway. His name was Sir Isaac Newton.


What year saw the release of the first decimalised coins as part of the decimalisation effort of the 20th century?

To ease the public into decimalisation, the mint produced three decimalised coins for release before Decimal Day in 1971. April 1968 saw the release of a 10 pence coin and a 5 pence coin. The fifty pence coin was released in 1969, but six months before its official debut, one was used for the coin toss at the 1969 FA Cup Final.


Scotland has been depicted on the obverse of the pound coin three ways. Which of the following is not a way in which it has been depicted?

The unicorn is one of the excellent and unique symbols of Scotland, but it has not, as of yet, appeared on the obverse of the pound coin. Engineering achievement the Forth Railway Bridge, a heraldic lion rampant with the fleur-de-lys, and last but not least, the image of thistle and bluebells were all used.


Which of the following did not happen in the run-up to Decimal Day?

The push to decimalisation was strong, with the government launching a massive public relations campaign to encourage the public to accept the system and to learn how to use it. Songs were recorded and played on the radio, conversion charts were distributed to reduce confusion when shopping, and banks shut for several days to process old cheques and clear the old system.


What happened as a result of the Bank Charter Act of 1844?

The Bank Charter Act of 1844 meant that banknotes could only be produced by The Bank of England, either in England or in Wales. Before this Act, banknotes could be produced by any private bank, as they represented that bank's assets. After a run on the banks in the 1730s, the supply of gold ran low, and there was justified worry that the private banks did not have the assets to back their banknotes.


Which of the following complaints did the public have about the new, decimalised currency when it was new?

"What's that in real money?" became the half-joking question asked by elders when told of prices in the new money. There were many complaints about the money: cabbies had to replace their meters, vending machines had to be re-engineered, meters needed to be replaced, and many people complained that the one-pence coin was an odd size.


Currency often features the image of a monarch. What artist was chosen to create the portrait on the decimalised pound note?

The previous generation of pound notes featured a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by artist Mary Gillick. For the new notes, a portrait by Arnold Machin RA was commissioned, featuring The Queen wearing a gift of Queen Mary, the "Girls of Great Britain & Ireland" tiara.


What year did the one-pound coin replace the one-pound bank note?

Coins are less expensive for governments in the long run than bank notes. This is a bit counter-intuitive. Notes are cheaper to produce than coins, but coins last much longer than notes. As a result of this, it is less expensive for governments to mint coins because they cost less in the long run.


How many times has the portrait on the pound coin been revised?

Since its introduction, the pound coin has gone through three revisions, each of which involved an updated portrait of The Queen. While the first pound featured the same portrait as the last generation of pound banknotes, 1985 saw a revision with a portrait by Raphael Maklouf, 1998 introduced one by Ian Rank-Broadley, and in 2015, a portrait by Jody Clark was used.


Wales has been represented on the obverse of the pound coin in different ways over the years. Which of the following is not a way in which it has been represented?

While some Arthurian enthusiasts point to Caerleon Upon Usk as the site of the fabled Camelot, these claims are neither proven nor are the represented on British currency. Wales has been represented on the back of the pound coin with its heraldic dragon, the image of the Menai Suspension Bridge, and the leek and daffodil, which are traditional symbols.


What reason is there for the inscription on the edges of pound coins?

Today, inscriptions on the edges of British coins exist primarily as decoration and as part of a tradition. The tradition of doing this dates back to when coins were minted from valuable metals. At that time, morally flexible moneyers or indeed anyone could clip off a bit from the edge of a coin, reducing its size and thus, value. By inscribing words into the edge of a coin, it makes secretly clipping the coin impossible.


What do the concentric circles on the £2 coin symbolise?

The £2 coin is steeped in symbolism. Along its edge, the coin reads "Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants," which is taken from a letter by Sir Isaac Newton in which he wrote to a friend that "if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Additionally, the coin features four concentric circles representing eras of human advancement.


What event in 1125 saw moneyers mutilated?

When Henry I paid his army, he discovered that the coins minted to pay them were only a third silver. The reasons for this were many: greedy moneyers had indeed gamed the system and kept silver for themselves, but additionally, no new silver deposits had been found in nearly a century. With cultures to the east preferring silver to gold currency, much silver money had moved out of England. Henry had his moneyers' right hands removed, and their ... other bits mutilated.


What are the origins of the archaic habit of calling £25 a "pony"?

While it isn't completely certain, historians believe that the habit of calling £25 a "pony" originated with British military servicemen returning from India, where the 25 rupee notes featured the image of a pony, at the time. Similarly, the habit of calling £500 a "monkey" is derived from the image on the 500 rupee note at the time.


Many forget the history of monetary policy. What was the effect of The Breton Woods Agreement?

The Breton Woods Agreement was an international agreement reached in the waning days of the Second World War, in which the Allies decided on a system of international monetary policy and regulation which lasts to this day. As part of the agreement, the pound was pegged to the dollar. At the time, that exchange rate meant that £1 was equal to $4.03.


When did £50 banknotes cease to be legal tender, following their first continuous run of production?

The first £50 banknotes were issued in 1725, and they continued to be produced until 1943, finally expiring in 1945. £50 banknotes were re-introduced in 1981 and have continued to evolve as counterfeiters have caught up with old security measures, necessitating new bills to be produced with measures including holographic imagery.


Northern Ireland has been represented on the backs of pound coins in many ways. Which of the following isn't one of them?

Northern Ireland has been symbolised on the obverse of the pound coin with the images of a pimpernel, a shamrock, a Celtic cross, the Egyptian Arch Railway Bridge, and the gold artifact the Broighter collar. So far, no leprechauns have been used as a symbol of Northern Ireland on British currency.


Where do archeologists find the most Anglo-Saxon coins?

It seems strange that the most Anglo-Saxon coins would be found in Scandinavia, except for the historical event immediately preceding the Norman invasion. Between the paying of the Danegeld and the conquest of England by the King of Denmark and Norway, who paid his men in Anglo Saxon pennies, much Anglo-Saxon cash went north.


The pillars of today's financial world are old. What current institution once possessed the last right to print English banknotes?

The last private bank legally allowed to issue its own banknotes was Fox, Fowler and Company, a Somerset bank acquired by Lloyd's. It lost its rights upon acquisition, meaning that no more private banks could issue banknotes.


Edge inscriptions on the pound have changed over time. Which of the following has not been used?

The pound coin's edge has seen many inscriptions, including the common "DECUS ET TUTAMEN" from the Aeneid, meaning "An ornament and a safeguard." "Honi soit qui mal y pense," though not an inscription on the pound coin, is the motto of the Order of The Garter, and translates as "Shame on him who thinks evil of it."


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