Friday, October 24, 2008

Question from Antonia - Currency conversion and value

Hello. I am trying to ascertain a conversion value between the current currency and Tudor currency, particularly during the reign of Henry VIII. If anyone knows of an approximate conversion value it would be greatly appreciated, foremost for "pounds" but I would be fascinated to know the value of other Tudor coinage, such as crowns and shillings.

My confusion arises after reading different views of the annual pension amount of £100. In reference to Mary Boleyn (following the death of William Carey) I have read this referred to as "paltry". However, when the same amount is given to Jane Boleyn (nee Parker) following her husband's execution, I have read it described as "substantial".

Any help greatly appreciated.

5 comments:

PhD Historian said...

I am not aware of any simple mathematical formula for straightforward conversion between the "value" of Tudor coinage and modern coinage. There may be several reasons for this. First, modern UK coinage is decimalized (100 pence = 1 pound), but Tudor coinage was not (240 pence = 1 pound). Second, the Tudor period, especially the mid Tudor period, was one of rapid inflation, so that the "value" of the coinage changed significantly from one year to the next.

When I think of valuation of Tudor coinage, I do so in terms of its relative purchasing power. For example, when John Dudley needed to raise an army to move against Mary in July 1553, he offered the men of London ten pence per day to serve in his infantry ... and that was remarked upon at the time as an unusually high rate of pay.

That ten pence per day would equal 300 pence or 1 pound and five shillings per month (assuming a 7-day work week), which in turn equaled 15 pounds per year. Thus an income of 15 pounds per year was considered unsually high for a common soldier in 1553. Compare that to the average yearly basic pay for a US Army private in 2008 of $16,200 per year.

Hans Holbein received from Henry VIII thirty pounds per year for his work as court artist, and that sum was considered "substantial." One of Holbein's portraits of Jane Seymour was commissioned by Edward Seymour for the "princely" sum of ten shillings (1/2 pound). A photographic portrait today by a photographer of modern stature comparable to Holbein's (e.g., Annie Leibowitz, Herb Ritz, Bruce Weber) might cost two or three thousand dollars.

An outstanding horse fetched several pounds in the Tudor period. Our own modern form of transportation, the automobile, can seldom be purchased new for less than $15,000. And while comparing Tudor-era horses and modern cars may seem unreasonable, when the purchase price of the item is related to average annual incomes, it proves to be a valid comparison.

An annual income of just 40 pounds per year qualified a man for knighthood as late as the 1620s. In the earlier reign of Edward VI, that same amount was a substantial and quite comfortable living, or " upper middle class."

Whether pensions were/are considered "paltry" or "substantial" by Tudor onlookers and modern historians has a great deal to do with the recipient and his social standing. This was/is even more true for widows, who were reliant upon those pensions for their support, since they seldom inherited their husband's estates (especially if he had been executed) and aristocratic women were unable to earn an independent income.

For Mary Boleyn Carey, a pension of £100 is indeed small, considering that her husband had been a close associate of Henry VIII and had held numerous high offices. William Carey died "naturally" of disease and while still in royal favor. His son Henry inherited his estates, though Anne Boleyn bought his wardship and thus the income coming from his lands until he was an adult. Mary Boleyn Carey, widow of a favored court official, had to rely on that £100 to survive.

Jane Parker Boleyn, on the other hand, was already in personal disgrace herself and out of royal favor even before her husband was executed for treason in 1536. By the standards of the day, Henry VIII should have been left her to her own devices. But Jane was able to finagle a pension by appealing to Cromwell, and was even able to engineer a return to court. Considering her history of periodic disfavor and the execution of her husband ... a history so different from Mary Boleyn Carey's ... Jane's pension does indeed seem "substantial."

PhD Historian said...

I might add, in regard to your mention of crown coins, that it would have been as rare for the average Tudor-era person to see any coin denomination larger than a shilling as it would be for a modern person to see a US bill larger than $100 or UK bank note larger than £100. The average Tudor person probably never saw a half-crown (2 shillings 6 pence, or 30 pence) coin or a full crown coin (5 shillings, or 60 pence, minted only after 1526). Extremely few of them have survived, suggesting that equally few of them were minted, just as few bank notes larger than 100 are printed today.

Lis said...

phd historian is right to suggest looking at Tudor coinage from the point of view as to what it would buy! There isn't any really valid "conversation rate" that would be applicable. I tend to take the average maidservant's salary per year(£3) and look at how much percentage-wise an item would cost. However, to give an idea of what could be bought, (although from the reign of Elizabeth, not Henry) go to "Elizabeth's London" by Liza Picard, Appendix II, Currency, Wages and Prices, which gives a lot of useful information on the relative costs of things.Hope this may help.

Bearded Lady said...

In Alison Weir's book on Kathryn Swynford, she cited the site www.measuringworth.com as the source of all her conversions (she made a lot!)

Maybe I am just an idiot, but I went to the site awhile ago because I came across the same problem and I could not for the life of me figure out how to use it.

Let me know if you have better luck.

PhD Historian said...

I looked at the Measuring Worth site recommended by BeardedLady. It is indeed complicated, using two very different methods to calculate two vastly different modern equivalents for one English pound.

According to the calculator, £1 in 1540 would purchase the same amount of goods and services that £406 would purchase today.

But because prices were far higher in 1540 when compared to average incomes (i.e., we get far more "bang for the buck" today), an earned wage of £1 would be the equivalent of making £4755 today.

Though it seems counter-intuitive, when converting the pound amounts calculated by MeasuringWorth into modern dollars it is most correct to simply use the formula of £1 = $1. While currency conversion does use a different formula, as any tourist knows, the purchasing power does not follow that conversion formula, but instead follows very nearly a 1:1 ratio. A Coca-Cola that costs $1 in the US costs £1 in the UK. A bus ticket costing $1 in the US costs about £1in the UK. A hotel room that costs $100 per night in the US costs £100per night in the UK.

So going back to Antonia's original question, Mary Boleyn Carey's and Jane Parker Boleyn's pensions of £100 in the 1530s and 1540s would be the equivalent today of an earned income of $47,550 or £47,550. But because prices were higher when compared to annual incomes in that period than they are today, both women would have been able to purchase far fewer goods and services with that £100 ... roughly the equilavent of just $406 or £406 in today's money.

I hope my explanation makes sense. It is a complicated issue with no single simple answer.