1300 was the year when London sterling silver was first marked with the leopard's head. Unfortunately there were some unscrupulous goldsmiths who developed their own leopard's head punches which they would then strike against sub standard silver objects.
The mint soon realised the effect that this was having upon the coinage. Hence in 1363 the maker's mark was introduced. By having a maker's mark meant, any piece could be traced back to the person potentially responsible for striking it with a fraudulent leopard's head. Interestingly, the early maker's marks were symbols. This was simply due to the fact that the vast majority of people were illiterate. It wasn't until the end of the 15th century that this began to change with the symbols being combined with initials.
The next addition came during King Edward IV's reign in 1478. This was the year that the date letter was first introduced. The reason was due to official corruption amongst the wardens who were responsible for testing silver and gold in London. Due to the testing being made in the goldsmiths' shops, it became quite a temptation to stamp sub-standard silver with the official leopard's head. Inevitably this affected the coinage. To resolve this failing system, pieces produced from 1478 onwards were taken to the assay office at Goldsmith's Hall in London where they could be tested and, if up to standard, marked.
The Assay Master who was appointed every May would be provided with a new date letter. In 1478 the letter A was issued and then year after year each letter of the alphabet was used systematically. Once all of the letters had been used, a different style of alphabetic font was used. Another important alteration was the leopard's head. Previously struck within a circle, the leopard's head now had a surrounding shield and wore a beard and crown. Between 1478 and 1544, three marks were struck on silver pieces - the leopard's head, the date letter and the maker's mark.
Towards the end of King Henry VIII's reign in the year 1544, a fourth mark was added. This mark was the lion passant which was implemented after the coinage had become debased to consist of less than the 92.5% silver sterling standard. The reason behind choosing the lion passant was due to Henry VIII taking over the Assay Office and hence him wanting to show his royal control. To this day we still use the established system of four marks. The leopard's head or alternative provincial mark, the maker's mark, the date letter and the lion passant.
If you have any silver that you wish to have valued, please contact Robin Newcombe, silver specialist at Grand Auctions, Folkestone, Kent.
- Posted by Robin Newcombe