By Nuala Doherty
(Museum register entry)
“James II. Ireland. Gunmoney half-crown, large, bronze, May 1690.”
James II by the grace of God
King of Great Britain, France and Ireland 1690
‘XXX’ = 30 pennies (half-crown)
Where did it come from?
The coin was purchased in 1956 from Rev. R.M.S. Westropp. It had been in the personal collection of his late father, M.S. Dudley Westropp, former Keeper of Art and Industry at the National Museum of Ireland.
Why is it of historical interest?
This coin reflects a divisive time in Ireland’s history.
The Williamite – Jacobite War (1689-1691) was fought between the forces of the deposed Catholic King James II, and his Protestant son-in-law, William of Orange. James II had fled to France in 1688, only to return the following year to re-establish his throne, which by this time had been passed to his daughter, Mary, and her Dutch husband. Though largely supported by the overwhelmingly Catholic population of Ireland, James lacked the funds to prosecute a war. In order to pay his troops, he resorted to desperate measures.
James issued an emergency coinage, a so-called ‘money of necessity’. This was essentially a token coinage made from base metal, which was to be exchanged for silver and gold once the war had been won and James reinstated as King. Brass and scrap metal from objects such as church bells and old cannon was melted down for production, as were some guns, which is how it earned the nickname ‘gunmoney’.
Though unusual due to their metal content, the coins also broke with tradition by displaying the month as well as year of issue on their reverse. It is thought that this was done in order to facilitate a system whereby they could be redeemed in stages over a period of time.
The coinage was dependent upon supplies of metal and in 1690 supplies of scrap metal, as with silver and gold, were beginning to dry up. James’s war expenses at the time were £100,000 per month, so he desperately needed to source the material from somewhere. At one point, a letter was written from a mint official in Dublin to the Master General of Ordnance, asking him to deliver two brass cannon that were lying in the courtyard of Dublin Castle. James’s exiled Queen, Mary of Modena, was asked to source scrap metal in France and some coins, such as the large half-crown, were re-struck.
The Battle of the Boyne in July 1690 was the turning point of the ‘War of the Kings’. James II was defeated by William of Orange, granting both men a place in both the history and folklore of this island. The battle is still commemorated each July, predominantly by members of Northern Ireland’s loyalist community.
After his victory at the Boyne, William set about re-valuing the gunmoney coins to their actual metal worth, which had disastrous consequences. It served as a means of penalising those who had not supported him. Traders as well as civilian supporters of James II were left impoverished as their money was now worth a fraction of what it once was. The city of Limerick continued to issue gunmoney until October 1690, that city being the last stronghold to surrender to William’s forces after the Siege of Limerick.
This coin is part of the museum’s reserve collections and is not on display to the public. Similar coins are on display in the Airgead: A Thousand Years of Irish Coins and Currency exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts and History.
Colgan, E. For Want of Good Money. The Story of Ireland’s Coinage. Wordwell Ltd., Co. Wicklow, 2003.
Dowle, A. and Finn, P. The Guide Book to the Coinage of Ireland. From 995 AD to the present day. Spink and Son Ltd., London, 1969.
Nelson, P. The Coinage of Ireland in Copper, Tin and Pewter, 1460-1826. W.M. Murphy, Liverpool, 1905.
Seaby, P. Coins and Tokens of Ireland. Seaby’s Numismatic Publications Ltd., London, 1970.
With thanks to Michael Kenny, former Keeper of the National Museum of Ireland, Decorative Arts and History.