Inside the bizarre and ancient coin-testing ceremony -- the Trial of the Pyx

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.

The ceremony takes place in the opulent Goldsmiths' Hall in the City of London. Members of the public and invited dignitaries are sat on one side of the room.

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These are the Pyx, reinforced boxes of currency ready to be assayed or tested. The word Pyx comes from the Greek for wooden box. In them are hundreds of envelopes containing thousands of coins.

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The Queen's Remembrancer sat at the head of the table to give her address. She isn't actually present when the trial or counting process happens.

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This is the 16-strong jury. They're members of the Goldsmiths' guild. The wardens get to wear special robes. The small white books are bibles, which they must swear on before the trial begins. You can see the two counting bowls.

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Here's a professionally taken shot from the point of view of the Queen's Remembrancer. It shows just how ornate the hall is. As you might expect, the dominating colour in the room is gold.

The Goldsmiths’ Company. Photography by Richard Lea Hair

The trial begins! Here is the jury counting the coins to be tested. One in every 50 goes into the copper bowl. The counting is checked by staff in the so-called call over process.

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This 1kg pure gold coin was the most valuable coin to be tested. Based on current gold prices it's worth around £45,000 and is 99.9% gold. It's legal tender issued by the Royal Mint but you'd be hard-pressed to get change for it.

Image © The Goldsmiths’ Company. Photography by Richard Lea Hair

This is where the real magic happens behind the scenes. The jurors can't count out all 98,000 coins to be tested so much of the work is done by industrial machines set up in the Goldsmiths drawing room.

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In this room, Pyx boxes full of coins were stacked high. The coins being counted here were the £5, £2, £1, 50p and 20p pieces.

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More Pyx boxes with the official Royal Mint labels on. Each reinforced box has 2,000 £1 coins.

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Here's a counting station up close.

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The gold on display in the main hall was impressive. It was on the opposite wall to the public gallery, behind the desk where the Queen's Remembrancer sat.

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Even the hand-drier in the toilet was gold (coloured).

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