King John short-changed: The Short-Cross Silver Penny

Among items from the time of the Plantagenet kings of England, the Cathedral Library has a short-cross silver penny. The obverse (front) of the coin has a picture of a king stamped on it with lettering that says HENRICUS REX, meaning King Henry. The reverse side has a short cross in the centre with the legend RAUF ON LUNDE around the edge.

Until now the Cathedral had assumed that this coin was made in the reign of Henry II. However, this famous ‘short-cross’ English penny was actually produced between 1180 and 1247, spanning the reigns of King Henry II to that of his grandson Henry III, including all the years of King Richard the Lionheart and King John. A closer look at the coin suggests that it actually dates from the later end of that period, the reign of King John.

KJ penny obv

Obverse. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

The legend HENRICUS REX was not changed in the seventy years that this coin was in use, which explains why it makes no explicit reference to King John. It is difficult to read all the Latin words because the coin has been quite badly clipped around some of its edges. Clipping silver from coins was a way of making a little extra money, illegal of course, but widely practised. How then, you may ask, can we know it was minted in the reign of King John, as it has no date, does not mention his name, and even carries a picture of Henry II?

It is known that the picture follows a certain design from John’s reign. It is a ‘Class Five’ short-cross penny. The king has two curls of hair on either side of his head, both with little round pellets inside, and he wears a crown with five large pearls just above his forehead.

KJ penny rev

Reverse. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

And what about the reverse side of the silver penny? In the centre is the short cross that gives the coin its name. with four pellets in each segment of the cross. The lettering RAUF ON LUNDE or ‘Ralph in London’ gives the name of the money maker and the place where it was minted. Class 5 pennies are thought to have been produced between 1205 and 1209, all within John’s reign. Radulf de Frowic is listed as a money maker at the Tower of London mint in 1218, and this may be the Ralph inscribed on the silver penny. Other pennies were made in different towns, including Worcester.


King John’s seal. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

The short-cross silver penny made a stable currency in England for 67 years. But the practice of clipping meant that many coins were under their proper silver weight, so that in 1247 the long-cross penny was introduced instead. From then onwards the cross extended to the edge of the coin in order to make it obvious if it had been clipped.

The fame of the short-cross penny has resulted in its inclusion in the BBC and British Museum ‘History in 100 Objects’ collection. The penny featured in this collection is another Class 5 coin quite similar to the one held in Worcester, except that it was issued by Gileberd of Exeter.


More information can be found from the websites below:


Tim O’Mara


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