What Would a Penny Buy You in Medieval England? | History Hit

What Would a Penny Buy You in Medieval England?

Depiction of a medieval moneylender. Miniature 'Livre de Bonnes Meurs' by Jacques Le Grand.
Image Credit: PRISMA ARCHIVO / Alamy Stock Photo

There were various measures of money in medieval England. A pound sterling was worth 20 shillings, and a shilling was worth 12 pence, so one pound was worth equivalent to 240 pence. The letter d was used to denote pence in reference to the Roman word for coin, denarius. Medieval money is therefore often expressed as £ s d, or L s d, from the Latin liber, solidus and denarius.

Other coins entered circulation at times. In 1344, Edward III attempted to revive the use of gold coinage by minting a gold noble, worth 6s 8d. Another accounting measure of money commonly used was the mark, which was worth two-thirds of a pound, or 13s 4d.

Debts and payments to the crown often appear measured in marks. The value of the gold noble was carefully set so that it was worth a third of a pound, and half a mark.

But what exactly could these denominations of money buy someone in medieval England? Here’s an introduction to the use of cash and currency in England’s middle ages.

Access to coinage

A collection of medieval silver pennies issued in the reigns of Edward I and Edward II

Image Credit: The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Despite these complex measures of money, the only coin most people would ever have seen during the middle ages in England was a silver penny. There was no shilling coin, or pound coin. A gold noble was beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest elite.

In the early 13th century, King John’s broken relationship with the Pope made him incredibly wealthy as he gathered the church’s income alongside his own. He had to transport and store chests and barrels packed with chinking silver penny coins, and would lose a vast amount in the Wash, on the east coast of England, in 1216.

Typical incomes

During the middle ages, a labourer could expect to earn £2 a year, which meant 2 pence per day. In 1351, Parliament set the wages for various jobs in the face of rising wages during the Black Death, which made labour more scarce and forced up wages. Edward III’s government set payments at pre-pandemic levels.

Haymaking could pay no more than 1d a day. Reaping would pay 2d a day. Coopers (barrel makers) would receive 3d a day. Carpenters were limited to a wage of 4d a day, masons to 5d. To provide some context, a  knight could expect to receive 4s, or 48d a day. A modest baronial income was around £600 a year, 300 times that of a labourer.

Eleanor Janega visits Grocers' Hall to explore the lives of those who earned in medieval London.
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Good wine was 8d per gallon (in 1331), though cheaper alternatives were available if you weren’t fussy. Ale was around 1 to 1.5 pence a gallon (in the 14th century), so you could get around 8 pints for a day’s wages.

Your medieval penny would get you 2lbs of cheese (in the late 12th century), or two dozen eggs (in the 14th century), or two chickens (also in the 14th century). A goose would set you back 6d though (1375 price). A sheep could be 17d (in the mid 14th century), a pig 24d (in 1338), and a cow 72d (in the late 13th century, rising to 108d by the mid 13th century), making them incredibly expensive for most. One penny would also get you a pillow (in 1457), but a towel would cost 6d (in the mid 13th century). A chair cost 3d (in 1457), a table twice that (in the same year), and a bucket the same, at 6d (also in 1457). If you wanted to be able to see after the sun had gone down, a tallow candle cost 1.5d per lb (in the 15th century), so you would want to use it sparingly. 

A university education would cost around £8 a year (in the late 14th century), putting it beyond the reach of most. Books could cost around a pound each (in 1397). Even some everyday items seem expensive. A linen shirt, worn by most under their clothes, cost 12d (in the early 14th century), several days’ wages for most.

Trade costs and rent

If you were looking to take up a trade to earn more money, buying the equipment you would need might well put that dream beyond reach. A spinning wheel was around 10d (in 1457). A blacksmith’s anvil cost £1, or 240d , and the bellows to go with it would set you back another 30s, or 360d . A cheap hammer retailed at 8d, while the same money could buy two chisels (all in 1514). Even a spade would cost you 3d, more than a day’s wages for most (in 1457).

All of that was without paying rent for somewhere to live. A cottage cost 60 pence a year to rent . A craftsman’s house was around 240 pence a year, and a wealthy merchant’s home could be £2 or £3 a year. Buying your cottage would set you back £2 (all in the 14th century), a year’s wages for a labourer, which actually doesn’t seem bad compared to house prices today.

A medieval image of serfs working in the field

A Reeve overseas serfs working in the fields

Image Credit: anonymous (Queen Mary Master), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Many of those occupying the lowest position in society, serfs, were required to spend some of their time, particularly around harvest, working for the lord of the manor for free. This limited the days available to gain wages for the family, meaning that what could be earned had to go even further.

Arms and protection

If you were required to fight, there were times when a stock of weapons was kept at the parish church for the use of those called up. Trying to equip yourself could be expensive. The longbow was a staple of the English medieval army and could cost around 1s, or 12d, depending on the quality. A cheap sword would set you back 6d (in the 1340s).

Protecting yourself was infinitely more expensive. A mail shirt was valued at 100s, or 1200d (in the 12th century). A Milanese suit of armour was an eye-watering £8 6s 8d (in 1441). Some protection could be afforded by the kind of leather armour found in a merchant’s possession in the 13th century that had cost 5s, or 60d, more than a month’s wages for most. So, a sword, longbow and leather armour could come to 78d, or 40 days’ wages for a labourer (and that’s without any arrows at around 12d for two dozen).

Buying many things was a huge investment for most working people, making career changes or social mobility an unreachable dream. Making do and mending was important, and handing on the tools or possessions one did have became imperative to offer the next generation the chance of a future.

Medieval historian Dr Eleanor Janega takes us on a whistle-stop tour across London, visiting some key historical sites and shining a light on the various communities of medieval London.
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Matt Lewis