Black money in Aberdeen (1488)

ACR, 7, p. 57 (14 April 1488)

by William Hepburn

ACR 7 p. 57

1488 was an eventful year in Scotland. King James III faced the second major rebellion of his reign, led by a group of aggrieved noblemen using his teenage son Prince James as a figurehead. After a skirmish at Sauchieburn near Stirling the king was killed in unknown circumstances and his son was crowned as James IV. There is little evidence of these dramatic events in the Aberdeen burgh register entries for that year, which focus on the ongoing affairs of people in and around the town. In amongst this material, however, lies evidence for the widespread impact of one of James III’s most unpopular policies which, in combination with a range of other grievances, provoked some of the king’s subjects into rebelling against him.1

Between 1480 and 1482 James III’s government introduced a form of debased currency known as black money, which was essentially a type of coin with the same face value as existing coins but made from lower-quality metal. According to a contemporary chronicle these coins, along with the war between Scotland and England ‘causyt baitht hungar and derth and mony pure folk deit of hunger’. This crisis led to black money being ‘cryit downe’ in 1482, meaning that it effectively lost its status as legal tender. The outcry against the black money appears to have been a contributing factor to the first major rebellion against James III.2


A Crux Pellit penny – part of the black money of 1480-82 (Wikimedia Commons)

Elizabeth Gemmill and Nicholas Mayhew discovered many entries about black money in the Aberdeen Burgh Registers from around 1482, when the issue of the currency and its swift denunciation led to a flurry of litigation in the Aberdeen courts. They noted that cases involving black money continued into 1485 but that the issue was ‘essentially short-lived’.3 One entry, however, appears to suggest that its effects were still being felt in Aberdeen as late as 1488.4 It records one of the matters dealt with in a head court held before the baillies of Aberdeen in the tolbooth on 14 April of that year:

‘The samyn day Jhone of Culane Alexander Menyeis ande Jhone Wormet oblist thaim be the fathis of thar bodiis lelely and treulie to content and pay to the men of Danskin for the want of ther silver in tyme of the blak money in lentryne wair ande futvale penny and penny worthis for siclik price as fremmit mene may by it for reddy silver in hand fra merchandis of the toune.’5

Like many of the entries about black money from closer to the time of its demonetisation in 1482, this entry concerns the settling of debts which were complicated by the use of black money in a transaction.6 In this case, ‘men of Danskin’ (Danzig, modern-day Gdansk) were reimbursed by three Scottish merchants (John of Cullen, Alexander Menzies and John Wormet) for a debt incurred ‘in tyme of the black money’. The Scots were to settle the debt by handing over sheepskins (‘lentryne wair’, ‘futvale’) equal to its value.

The only other known issue of black money in James III’s reign was coined in the late 1460s.7 However, it seems that the 1488 entry refers to the 1480-82 coinage rather than this earlier issue.8 The earlier coinage was far less controversial and no trace of it can be found in the historical record for the 1470s, suggesting that it may have fallen out of use by that point.9 Also, the phrase ‘in tyme of the black money’ appears to refer to a well-known episode such as the notorious second issue of the coinage. 10

If the entry does refer to the infamous black money of 1480-82, what is its significance? It would be the latest-known contemporary reference to a legal case concerned with the repercussions of the 1480-82 black money issue in Scotland’s public records, showing that while this issue was largely dealt with in swift fashion, some of the problems it caused were still being resolved as late as six years after the event. Perhaps ‘the men of Danskin’ had returned to Aberdeen for the first time since they were paid in black money and took the opportunity to pursue the issue in the burgh court. Further work on the Aberdeen burgh registers may reveal more echoes of the black money crisis of 1482. It could even uncover evidence which sheds more light on this specific case.

More broadly, it links local, national and international history. Here is a case of a local court dealing with the effects of a reckless royal policy on international merchants. It demonstrates the capacity of these records to reveal detailed evidence about the affairs of Aberdeen as well providing a unique perspective on the impact of royal government and the links between Scotland and the wider world.


Seventeenth-century portrait of James III (Wikimedia Commons)

Lastly, there is a kind of poetic symmetry to this case taking place in 1488. Two months later, James III died at the battle of Sauchieburn on 11 June. After the battle, hoards of treasure belonging to the king were found in Edinburgh and in chests abandoned on the field – treasure which may have been amassed, at least in part, as a result of stowing away coins made of precious metals which he swapped out for the debased black money.11 If the fatal skirmish at Sauchieburn was a lightning strike at the heart of the storm created by James III’s reckless approach to kingship, the case of the black money cleared up by the magistrates of Aberdeen was a raindrop at its outer edge.

  1. Norman Macdougall, James III (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2009), pp.346-51, 359-68. 
  2. Elizabeth Gemmill and Nicholas Mayhew, Changing Values in Medieval Scotland: A Study of Prices, Money, and Weights and Measures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 126; Macdougall, James III, pp. 183, 185. 
  3. Gemmill and Mayhew, Changing Values, p. 127. 
  4. It was also still affecting the Scottish crown’s financial administration, when a case involving payment of black money to the Comptroller was addressed in 1487 – Gemmill and Mayhew, Changing Values, p. 127. 
  5. Minor changes have been made to the text to aid readability 
  6. Gemmill and Mayhew, Changing Values, p. 127. 
  7. Gemmill and Mayhew, Changing Values, p. 125. 
  8. Other debased coins, known as billon placks, were used in James III’s reign but Joan Murray insisted that there are ‘strong reasons against identifying the billon placks as part of the black money’ – Joan E. L. Murray, ‘The Black Money of James III’ in British Archaeological Reports, 45 (1977), pp. 115-130 (p. 119). 
  9. Gemmill and Mayhew, Changing Values, p. 125. 
  10. The same phrase was used in a passage identified by Joan Murray as referring to the 1480-82 black money from a record of a case heard before the lords of council in 1482 – Murray, ‘Black Money’, p. 117. 
  11. Norman Macdougall, James IV (Edinburgh: John Donald, 1989), p. 51; Macdougall, James III, p. 186. 

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