Thursday, 15 June 2017

The discovery of a Scarborough siege coin

Ilka Heale, Metadata Specialist, explores the history of siege coins after discovering one from Scarborough in the Raymond Burton Yorkshire collection.

Through my job at the University of York Library, I get to see and catalogue some rare and interesting items in our varied collections.
Coins. Photograph by Albert from Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Recently, I came across a small metal item in the Raymond Burton Yorkshire collection.  With it, there was a handwritten note ‘Scarborough Siege, 1645’ but no further information.  This thin, square shaped piece of metal measuring at 28mm by 25mm was also engraved.

Using this as a starting point, I turned to your old friend and mine, Google* and found more information on an auction website.  From looking at examples on the site and by doing some research, I began to see that what we had might be a siege coin from Scarborough possibly dating from the English Civil War.

Siege or obsidional coins were made by besieged towns during the war in order to pay the troops.  As there was no proper minting equipment available, these coins were made from irregular pieces of
The coin is stamped on one side with a rough representation
of Scarborough Castle. Photograph by Paul Shields.
metal cut from trenchers, plates or cups.  The values, which were punched into the coins, depended on the weight of the piece of metal.

Between 1642 and 1646 England was divided by civil war.  On one side were the supporters of King Charles I (Royalists) and on the other were the supporters for the rights and privileges of Parliament (Parliamentarians).  During the English Civil War, the country was split into a broadly Royalist north and west with the south and east in the Parliamentarian camp. Both sides gained and lost towns during battles and by changing loyalties.

Scarborough was one of the towns that changed hands. In September 1642, Sir Hugh Cholmley, was commissioned to hold Scarborough for Parliament, but he was soon persuaded to change sides. For the next two years Scarborough served as an important Royalist base. In 1645 Parliamentarian forces closed in on Scarborough.  After three weeks Cholmley was forced to retreat from the town to the castle, where for five months he resisted one of the bloodiest sieges of the civil war. The bombardment was so intense that the massive walls of the great tower and half the building collapsed. Eventually Cholmley ran out of gunpowder, water and food and finally surrendered on 25 July 1645.
Scarborough Castle painted by John Constable, 1832.
retreat from the town to the castle, where for five months he resisted one of the

There is an inscription on the reverse of the coin, ‘OBS Scarborough 1645’. Whilst researching the coin, I found this reference in The obsidional money of the Great Rebellion by Phillip Nelson. In it, Nelson wrote the following about the Scarborough siege coins…..

The reverse of these coins is blank, save for the few specimens which bear engraved upon them the words OBS Scarborough 1645 which engraving, however, may possibly not be contemporary with the siege, but may have been added subsequently, as a memorial, about the date of the Restoration.

Reverse of coin showing an inscription. Photograph by
Paul Shields.
The University Library Special Collections have many items from the civil war. Sarah Griffin, the Rare Books Librarian has written about some of these items in this blog post.

All items in Special Collections are on YorSearch, our Library catalogue where you can view images of the Scarborough siege coin. To arrange to view items in our Special Collections, please contact the Borthwick Institute.

* Please note that other search engines are available!


  • For books on the history of coins see the Library shelves at LG 7.4.
  • The obsidional money of the Great Rebellion, 1642-1649 by Philip Nelson.  Morrell LG 7.4942 NEL.  The above quote is on page 18.
  • A little barrel of ducatoons : the civil war coinage of Yorkshire by Craig Barclay and Edward Besly. Morrell LG 7.494274 BAR.
  • The story of British coinage by Peter Seaby. Morrell LG 7.4942 SEA.
  • You can read the account of the siege of Scarborough written by Cholmley himself in The English Historical Review (volume 32, number 128 (Oct. 1917), pp. 568-587).   The article Sir Hugh Cholmley’s narrative of the siege of Scarborough, 1644-5 by C. H. Firth is available as an e-journal via the e-resources guide or search for the journal in YorSearch.
  • The Raymond Burton Yorkshire collection was donated to the University Library and Archives by Dr Burton.  His collection of books and ephemera on Yorkshire range from Edwards of Halifax bindings with fore-edge paintings to early writings about Dick Turpin.  Search for further items in the collection in YorSearch.
  • Dr Burton also donated his collection of historical records on Yorkshire to the Borthwick Institute which can be viewed via Borthcat, the Borthwick catalogue.

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