‘They found a great quantity of Roman money’. Institutions and Coin Collecting in the 17th Century

Andrew Burnett, British Museum

After a shaky birth in the 16th century (Cambridge), coin collecting eventually got off to a proper start in Britain in the 17th century, with the formation of a grand royal collection at St James’s and a respectable one in the growing Bodleian Library; in addition, Camden’s work prompted the spread of the subject to schoolmasters and vicars. Libraries provided one model for coins, the other was the ‘cabinet of curiosities’, most notably that of the Tradescants. The young Royal Society at first followed this second model, in a rather pathetic manner, and as such provided an example for the new Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and Balfour Museum in Edinburgh. All were more or less complete failures, but the Royal Society collection limped on until the later 18th century, marked, however, by an unusual insistence on provenance. Only much later, in the 19th century, with the rise of the archaeological museum and men like Evans and Babington did things eventually change, and British collections emerged as some of the most important in Europe.

John Aubrey’s note of a coin hoard found in Wiltshire and given to the Royal Society. © Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Aubrey 3.
John Aubrey’s note of a coin hoard found in Wiltshire and given to the Royal Society. © Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Aubrey 3.

Medal of John Conduitt, FRS. © Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum
Medal of John Conduitt, FRS. © Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum