Coin hoards: the traditional way of hedging risk

A shilling coin of Elizabeth I

A shilling coin of Elizabeth I

Without access to banks, hedge funds or safe havens people in the past had no option in times of uncertainty but to bury their money in the ground.

In times of economic, military or political crisis when people face an uncertain future they will often take steps to protect their assets. Today this can be accomplished by selling risky assets such as sovereign bonds, withdrawing funds lodged with banks, buying gold or investing in a safe haven like Switzerland. But the in the past the option of quickly moving assets around was not available. For one thing a lot of wealth was tied up in land, buildings and livestock which were difficult to secure against an invading army or a government intent on expropriation. For another it was difficult to move wealth around, unless it was on the hoof, as banking houses only developed in the medieval period and services were limited.

When faced with the prospect of impending crisis often the best method was to convert what one could into the best quality coins available and bury them in the ground. Then wait until the crisis had passed for an appropriate moment to retrieve them. In some cases these personal coin hoards were never retrieved. This may have been for a number of reasons. The owner may have died or have been killed in war without telling anyone the location of the hoard. The owner may have lost control of the lands in which the hoard was concealed, perhaps to a government appointed planter, and have been unable to return. Or the owner may have had to flee abroad or been exiled. In these cases the hoards would have remained where they were concealed until discovered by chance decades or centuries later.

One of the most significant periods for the concealment of coin hoards in Irish history is the second half of the sixteenth century, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1558-1603. This turbulent period witnessed a war in Ulster 1565-7 and the two Desmond rebellions of 1569-73 and 1579-83, followed by the Plantation of Munster. Then the Nine Years War 1594-1603 resulted in the Tudor conquest of Ireland following the defeat of the Irish and Spanish armies at Kinsale in 1601. More than fifty coin hoards are known from this period and these are probably a fraction of the total number that have been found and sold over the centuries. These hoards range from just a few coins, perhaps concealed by a small farmer, all the way to thousands of coins that were probably concealed by wealthy merchants, landowners or military leaders. In some cases the hoards were buried in the street of a town like the hoard from North Street, Carrickfergus, or buried in a castle moat like the 150 silver coins found in a pewter pot at Con O’Neill’s castle at Castleargh, near Belfast. Alternatively they could be buried in out of the way places like the bog at Creggss, Co. Roscommon where 22 silver coins found in a cow’s horn.

Analysis of the Elizabethan hoards by Michael Dooley indicated a close relationship between the burial of coin hoards and the contemporary political and military crises. The earliest group of coin hoards were concealed in north-east Ulster in the 1560s, during the struggle between Shane O’Neill and the English government. A second group were concealed between 1570-85 in the south and west of Ireland and are related to the Desmond rebellion, the ensuing Plantation of Munster and the Tudor intervention in Connacht in 1585 known as the Composition. The largest group is found primarily in Ulster and dates to the period of the Nine Years war following 1590.

Like today people in the past reacted to risk and uncertainty by taking steps to protect their assets. But without access to banks, hedge funds or safe havens often their only option was to turn to the time-honoured method of burying their money in a hole under a hedge.

Further reading

Michael Dolley 1970. The pattern of Elizabethan coin-hoards from Ireland. Ulster Journal of Archaeology, third series, Vo. 33, 77-88.

Cite this post as:

Mount, C. Coin hoards: the traditional way of hedging risk. The Charles Mount Blog, December 1, 2011.

2 thoughts on “Coin hoards: the traditional way of hedging risk

    • Murray, Thanks for the reply. Don’t forget to tell someone what hedge you hid them under in case you don’t make it back to retrieve them:)

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