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The Broken Bridge of Numismatics

Outside of the United Kingdom, the town of Pontefract is unlikely to be uttered in the same breath as some of the more well-known locations, and yet it holds a position amongst the elite when it comes to important historical landmarks on these Sceptred Isles.

From William the Conqueror to Shakespeare to Oliver Cromwell and even Robin Hood – the list of major historical figures that have been associated with this Yorkshire town is significant, cementing Pontefract’s influence on the economic and historical shaping of the United Kingdom.

In 1069, three years after landing at Hastings in an arguably more famous invasion, William the Conqueror travelled to the area in an attempt to quell an uprising that had already sacked the nearby town of York. On his arrival, he discovered a group of Anglo-Scandinavian rebels had destroyed the main bridge (and the main route to and from the (then) village) over the River Aire.

It is widely assumed that this encounter gave birth to the town’s name – Pontefract derives from the Latin ‘Pons’ for bridge and ‘fractus’ for broken.

Fast forward a few hudred years and ‘fractus’ became even more appropriate. When the English Civil War ravaged across the land as Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians and Charles I’s Royalists fought for the future of England, Pontefract’s central location made it a highly strategic town for both camps.

In 1648-49 the town was very much a Royalist stronghold, and therefore a military target for Cromwell, who pronounced it “….one of the strongest inland garrisons in the Kingdom.”

Over the course of more than 12 months, the town was laid to siege, leaving it ‘impoverished and depopulated’. This siege, as terrible as it must have been for those involved, was nevertheless the catalyst for one of the most important numismatic events in UK history – the creation of the besieged or ‘obsidional’ coin.

In the absence of any money coming into (or leaving, for that matter) the town, the inhabitants were forced to create their own currency to pay the soldiers who were, like the residents, trapped behind the city walls. Residents – noblemen, gentry and peasants alike were asked to donate steel plate in order to make these coins. And in a sense of community in adversity, they did it gladly. As the poet Samuel Butler describes in his satirical poem Hudibras:

‘Did Saints, for this, bring in their plate,

And crowd as if they came too late.

For when they thought the cause had need on’t.

Happy was he that could be rid on’t.

Did they coin trenchers, bowls and flagons,

I n’t officers of horse and dragoons.

And into pikes and musquetteers,

Stamp beakers, cups and porringers

A thimble, bodkin and a spoon

Did start up living men as soon

As in the furnace they were thrown

Just like the dragon’s teeth being sown.”

When the siege finally ended, it was clear that the residents of Pontefract had had quite enough. In 1649 the castle was demolished after being dubbed ‘a magnet for trouble’ by the townsfolk.

‘Fractus’, indeed.

Remains of the once mighty castle are still visible today, albeit in a much more diminished capacity. The coins, forged from the plate ‘just like dragon’s teeth being sown’, likewise mostly disappeared as their usage had been nullified. Which is why, when such a specimen does appear on the market, it is a significant numismatic event.

The High Grade Pontefract Shilling, 1648, for sale at our London Auctions on May 4, 2016. Estimate: £20,000-25,000

This Silver Shilling from the siege at Pontefract is one such item – with stunning detail, it is rare to find one so well preserved – a wonderful conversation piece and a vital addition to any British coin collection, representing a period of UK history that is as fascinating as it is bloody.

And Pontefract today? A thriving pretty market town in Yorkshire, affectionately known by the locals as ‘Ponty’, probably because its not ‘fractus’ anymore. And yes, they’ve fixed the bridge.

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