Books - A sterling read - Janet Bush values this history of the pound, international currency for nearly 1,000 years.
Sterling: The Rise and Fall of a Currency. Nicholas Mayhew. Penguin Books £20
Those of us who sympathise with Harold Wilson, the prime minister who promised that the pound was safe in our pockets but was then forced to devalue sterling, should spare a thought for the 94 mint workers castrated in 1124 on the order of Henry I, disgusted with the quality of coins being produced. As Nicholas Mayhew writes in Sterling: The Rise and Fall of a Currency: 'It was the earliest, and certainly the bloodiest, of a series of attempts which were to take place over the centuries to restore confidence in sterling.'
Mayhew, a curator in the Heberdon Coin Room at the Ashmolean Museum and a Fellow of St Cross College, Oxford, peppers his history of sterling with such startling reportage - and jolly entertaining it is too. The first chronicled mention of English sterling is in the autobiography of Guibert of Nogent. In 1107, he bribed a group of cardinals with £20 sterling to secure papal confirmation of the election of Waldric, chancellor of Henry I, as bishop of Laon. As Mayhew dryly notes: 'The earliest firmly dated use of sterling thus involved papal corruption on behalf of a senior English government minister to help secure a lucrative European post.'
This history of Britain's currency is beautifully timed to inform the current debate now raging about whether to join the euro. Much europhile opinion is coloured by the pound's volatile performance this century after two world wars ravaged the British economy. In centuries past, however, sterling was, barring some rare but spectacular crises such as the South Sea Bubble, a highly successful international currency which generated 'a sense of unchanging stability of fundamental importance to the national psyche'.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, sterling was accepted in most of Europe as merchants had to use it to pay for English wool. In the 18th and 19th centuries, London became the world's foremost financial centre, solidifying sterling's dominance.
Mayhew warns those now debating the pound's future against an appeal to almost 1,000 years of tradition, arguing that sterling has only lasted because it has adapted over the years. I suspect, however, that his engaging history of medieval times to the glory days of British Empire and then to the humiliations of the post-war period, will, deliberately or inadvertently, fuel the campaign to keep the pound.
Janet Bush is director of the campaigning group New Europe.