By WIlliam MacKay

This series of short articles takes as its subject a British coin which neatly enscapulates an important moment in history of the British Isles. 


No. 1. 'Whilst I Live, I Hope'- 1648 Pontefract Siege piece and the last days of the Royalist cause.

An octagonal Shilling from the coinages of the English Civil War struck at Pontefract, Yorkshire, whilst  besieged February-March 24th 1649, after the execution of Charles I, in the name of Charles II. Obverse, castle gateway, tower above with flag flying dividing  P C (for Pontefract Castle), cannon protruding to right,OBS (besieged) to left,CAROLVS:SECVNDVS:1648, Reverse, crownedCR,DVM: SPIRO: SPERO (North 3648; Spink 3150).

On the 20 January 1649 Charles I faced a High Court of Justice set up by parliament charged with high treason and other high crimes. Charles regarded this court as an insult to his authority believing no court held jurisdiction over the king whose authority came from God and the traditions and laws of England as entrusted to him by his coronation oath and anointment. As a result he saw the trial as nothing more than an instrument of the Parliamentary Army that had defeated his own forces. For him this was an illegal trial and he was confident that the law was on his side telling the court, 'then for the law of this land I am no less confident, that no learned lawyer will affirm that an impeachment can lie against the King, they all going in his name: and one of their maxims is,' he added emphatically, 'that the King can do no wrong.'He then made his position absolutely clear,'I would know by what power I am called hither, by what lawful authority?' 

Over the next week Charles was asked to plead three times and each time refused, ensuring that the prosecution could call no witnesses. The outcome was inevitable. On Saturday 27 January 1649 he was sentenced to death. Three days later on a cold morning he walked out onto a scaffold erected in front of the Banqueting Hall, part of the Royal Palace of Whitehall and before placing his head on the block, declared'I shall go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be.'  With his execution the seven long years of division between the king and his supporters and the people in England, Scotland and Ireland who opposed his aims, seemed to come to an end.

But the subjugation of opposition was not complete. One hundred and eighty five miles to the north the great medieval fortress at Pontefract still held out resolutely for the Royalist cause. In 1648 Charles had managed to pull together a desperate alliance with the Scots against the English Parliamentary forces. This had ignited the second English Civil War. His campaign proved ineffective against the well-organised forces of Parliament and by the end of 1648, with the exception of Pontefract, the cause of Charles I was all but lost.

Pontefract castle was no newcomer to dramatic events in English History and had been associated with opposition to the king as much as otherwise. Built by the De Lacy family, descendents of one of William the Conqueror's barons in the thirteenth century, it was subsequently enhanced by the Earls of Lancaster to whom it came by marriage in 1311. The powerful Thomas of Lancaster, son of Edmund, the brother of Edward I, rebelled against the divisive rule of Edward II and was defeated at Boroughbridge in 1322.  Tried for treason and found guilty he was executed in front of his Pontefract castle. His son, Henry, became a close ally of Edward III and led English armies against the French in the 1340s and 1350s with distinction. Created Duke of Lancaster by Edward III, the Duchy including Pontefract castle then passed on his death through his daughter Blanche, to John of Gaunt, third son of Edward III. John of Gaunt extended it and made it one of his main residences.

Following his death in 1399, his son and heir, Henry Bolingbroke was exiled in an ill judged attempt by the paranoid Richard II to destroy the power of the Duke of Lancaster.  Henry then collected an army and invaded England, deposing the despotic and unpopular Richard II and had himself acclaimed King Henry IV by parliament on 30 September 1399. Pontefract castle was then to provide a fortress prison fit for a deposed king and at some point in 1400 Richard II either starved to death or was murdered (probably the same thing) whilst there. 

Pontefract castle next came to prominence in the English Civil War when it was seized for Charles I by Sir Marmaduke Langdale on 2 June 1648. The subsequent siege by Parliamentary forces was initiated by Cromwell in the autumn of 1648. To  provide cash to pay for supplies and the services of soldiers the defending Royalist leaders melted bullion and plate held at the castle and using their own dies minted it into coins. That they seem to have been aware of the desperate position of their cause and their own dedication to keep it alive is evident in the latin mottoDVM SPIRO SPEROor, in English,WHILST I LIVE I HOPE.

The first issue of these siege pieces were struck before the execution of Charles I and acknowledge his authority with the royal cipherCR. At some point in early February 1649, news evidently reached Pontefract that the King had been executed an event which must have only added to the sense of desperation expressed in the heroic motto. But the defenders did not lose heart. Charles I may have been in his grave but the Royalist cause could not be extinguished so long as he had an heir, which of course there was in Charles, Prince of Wales. The cause could be kept alive with a new king and Charles II was proclaimed by the defenders of Pontefract for, as long as there were adherents and a king (even one in exile on the continent), the cause could live on.

The issue of Pontefract siege piece Shillings in the name of Charles II can be dated to between early February and March 24th 1649 when Pontefract surrendered. All are dated 1648 as the seventeenth century the new year did not begin on 1 January as it does today.

Pontefract castle, in common with other castles that had stood for the king, was slighted by the Parliamentarians, so it could never again form a focus of opposition to the government of the land.

Pontefract octagonal siege pieces in the name of Charles II are very rare. From time to time Spink may have examples in stock or offer examples at auction.