In February, every year, an important judicial trial, the Trial of the Pyx, takes place in the City of London- and it is not at the Old Bailey nor in the Royal Courts of Justice, but takes place within the confines of Goldsmith’s Hall in Gresham Street.
Currency we can trust
This is the testing of the newly minted coins of the realm to ensure that the coins are up to standard, have not been debased and are fit for purpose. In the earliest days, coins were made of actual silver alloys, and it was vital that the coins contained the correct composition
of metal, to ensure that they held their true worth. Today, while coins in general circulation are no longer made from precious metals, we all rely on the trust that they can hold a monetary value. So, some might say the trial might seem to be less important. In fact, as trust in the banking system underpins the value of the currency, if anything, the trial is more important, as it is a formal certification that the coins of the realm are indeed true and trustworthy.
History of the Trial of the Pyx
The Trail of the Pyx is not a new trial either but has been taking place since the 12th century, originally in Westminster Hall, then in the Pyx Chamber, just close to the Chapter House within the confines of Westminster Abbey. But since 1871 it has taken place at Goldsmiths Hall, where the trial is conducted by the members of the Assay Office, who are based at Goldsmiths and have responsibility for testing the purity of precious metals, to protect consumers from buying substandard gold and silver items. If an item conforms with the legal requirements for purity, the Assay Office marks it with the appropriate hallmark and a leopard’s head for good measure, indicating it was hallmarked in London. As well as the members of the Assay Office, the trial is presided over by the King’s Remembrancer of the Royal Courts of Justice as it is a formal court of law.
Pyx boxes and the testing of the coins
Little has changed in the procedure since the reign of Edward I (1239-1307). Throughout the year, coins are randomly selected from every batch of each denomination struck by the Royal Mint, now based about twenty miles from Cardiff. The coins are sealed in bags containing 50 coins each and locked away in the Pyx boxes for testing at the Trial. The term Pyx comes from the Latin Pyxis meaning ‘small box’. These coins, normally more than 50,000 in total, represent one coin from every batch of each denomination minted. The Goldsmith’s Company has two months to test the coins, and they are tested to ensure they are within the statutory limits for metallic composition, weight, and size.
Not all the 50,000 coins, received on average, from Cardiff are tested- the Pyx packets are taken from the chests and each member of the jury must select one coin at random and place them into a ceremonial copper bowl in front of them for testing. Following this ceremony, the Trial moves into the Assay Office where coins are weighed, measurements are taken, and the composition of the metals used is tested. The trial also includes the special Maundy Money which will be handed out by The King on Maundy Thursday – as those coins are in fact legal tender.
At the completion of the trial, the court reconvenes, and the verdict is read out in the presence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer or his deputy master and all can breathe a sigh of relief that all is well in the world of freshly minted coins until the trial is reconvened in the following February.
Tickets can be obtained to participate in this historic event by contacting Goldsmith’s Livery Company Hall. If you can’t make it to Goldsmith’s Hall, coins tested in a trial can be purchased from the Royal Mint, but be warned, they are not cheap!