While central banks debate the merits of a purely electronic, cashless society, a near-800 year old ceremony to test Britain’s coinage is taking place in a quiet corner of London.
It might sound like something out of Harry Potter, but the Trial of the Pyx is real and has been conducted in London yearly since the late 13th century.
The ceremony, conducted in Goldsmiths’ Hall, puts the Royal Mint on trial. Around 96,000 coins are scrutinised over a four month period.
The coins are “assayed” or tested for imperfections and impurities in the metals used to make them, to confirm their value.
A sample of all the coins made by the Royal Mint are tried in this way — from a £1,000 pound commemorative coin made from a kilo of solid gold, down to the lowly 20p piece.
The opening of this year’s trial was on February 2nd was full of pomp and circumstance. It’s carried out by the Queen’s Remembrancer, a judge, who swears in the 16-strong jury who have the job of counting the coins sent for testing by the Royal Mint.
While it’s mostly ceremonial, the Trial of the Pyx has an important message — merchants, not the state or the monarchy, must have power over the country’s currency. To allow the state to have power over the currency, risks eroding its credibility.
Permission for the City of London to test the coins produced by the Royal Mint was granted by the Crown in the 13th century. Before that, the reigning monarch had a monopoly on producing and testing Britain’s coinage and would periodically alter the standards for the coins to finance wars.
“There was the inherent danger of inflation and currency corruption,” the Queen’s Remembrancer, Barbara Fontaine, said in her speech to open proceedings. The Trial was “a key stage of development of the international trust in our coinage.”
The Remembrancer leaves the room after her speech to let the jury start counting the coins, which are contained in Pyx or ceremonial wooden boxes.
Here are the instructions given to each member of the jury:
- cut of the top of the packet with the scissors provided
- count the coins
- confirm that the number of coins counted corresponds with the stated number for that packet on the appropriate Pyx list
- mark the list to show which packet has been counted
- initial the packet
- set aside one coin from each packet in the copper bowl and the rest in the wooden bowl
- leave the empty packet on the table for subsequent “call over” i.e. verification of the packet counted
Here’s how it all looks.