The English silver penny circulated for at least 1,100 years, first appearing in the eighth century, and remaining in circulation until 1820, setting a record of longevity for a circulating coin that has probably never been matched.
At the opening of the eighth century, small silver coins circulated, known to modern scholars as sceattas, and mentioned in the laws of Ine, a local English ruler, as pennies.
The clearest point of departure for a history of the penny begins about a.d. 760 with King Offa, ruler of Mercia, an Anglo-Saxon kingdom in central England. King Offa enjoys the added distinction of being the only English king ever to strike coins bearing the name and bust of his consort. He minted over a million pennies—by some estimates several millions—and he surpassed all of his predecessors in the quality of his coinage, as well as its quantity. Beginning with King Offa’s coinage, the penny remained the only English coin in circulation for 500 years. Initially 240 silver pennies weighed one pound, beginning the history of the English sterling pound.
The weight of the penny probably varied. In 1266 the English government defined a silver penny to be the weight of “thirty-two wheat corns in the midst of the ear.” In 1280 the English government fixed the weight of the penny equal to 24 grains, setting the precedent that makes a pennyweight today equal to 24 troy grains. The 32 grains of wheat were comparable to 24 grains. During the thirteenth century a penny was worth a day’s wages or could buy a sheep. The value of the penny was sufficiently high that the government turned to minting halfpenny coins in the fourteenth century, and three-halfpenny coins in the sixteenth century. The weight of the penny steadily fell until silver pennies struck in 1816 weighed 7.27 troy grains.
In 1257 Henry III minted gold pennies that were worth 20 silver pennies. Per unit of weight gold was 10 times as valuable as silver, and Henry III’s gold pennies weighed twice as much as the silver pennies. The issue of gold coins failed, being too valuable to meet the needs of the English economy.
The word penny may have originated from the word pending, which was the name of a coin issued by Penda, a king who ruled Mercia in the second quarter of the seventh century. Nevertheless, linguistic forms of penny are widely spread with equivalents in Dutch and Friesian. The Danish word for money is still Penge, resembling penig, the Old English word for “penny.” Variants of the word penny may have evolved from an old Danish word for the pans that were used to coin money.
The smallest denomination of coins minted in the United States are called pennies. They are token coins but were formerly minted from copper. The purchasing power of the United States penny is a bit modest to justify the phrase, “a pretty penny,” referring to a large sum of money. Sixpenny nails now denote nails of a certain length, but originally denoted nails that sold for six pennies per 100.