Discover the Oldest Currency Still Being Used Today (Over 1,200 Years Old!)

Written by Patrick MacFarland
Published: December 10, 2023
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In today’s world, especially in the immediate outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, people started using their bank cards or credit cards to pay for products. Before the pandemic, the switch had already started happening from cash to card, though. The inception of using cards to pay for things revolutionized the “cash world.” In the 20th century, cash was how everyone paid for things. If people traveled, they would exchange cash for the country’s currency. That’s how things were done.

Most people don’t think about the history of that banknote or the coin they’re holding. The dollar bill is relatively new. The euro is only about 20 years old, having come into use in 2002. But what is the oldest currency still being used today? Let’s explore the British pound sterling, the oldest currency in the world, which is over 1,200 years old!

About the Sterling

British pounds banknotes background

Typically, all banknotes and coins have the reigning monarch’s picture on the front and some British symbol on the back.

©mkos83/iStock via Getty Images

The sterling is the currency used in the United Kingdom and its territories. It has been used since the year 800. The British pound sterling is the fourth most used and traded currency in the world. The Bank of England issues the banknotes in circulation and regulates the private banks when it comes to the distribution and issuance of the sterling.

Why Is it Called Sterling?

British one pound coin placed on top of polymer 5 Pound banknote with visible Big Ben symbol.

Today, the oldest circulating coins are 1p and 2p copper coins that were introduced in 1971.

©Oleksandr Siedov/iStock via Getty Images

The currency is called sterling, but the individual units of the currency are called pound and penny. That’s why sometimes the currency can be referred to as pound sterling. There are several theories about where the name “sterling” came about. One theory refers to the Old English word for “star,” which is steorra, and the addition of “-ling” to mean “little star.” That’s because, in Norman England, the coins used had a tiny star. 

Another theory is that the Anglo-Saxons had silver coins that were called sterlings. If one needed a pound, as in weight, of those sterlings, they would call it a “pound sterling.”

Of course, like in every currency, there are also slang words attached to the sterling. The word “tanner” is used for the sixpence and “bob” is used for a shilling. People also use the word “quid” for one pound.

History of the Sterling

British Pounds a business background

The newest coin to be introduced was in December 2022 when the fifty-pence coin featuring King Charles III came out.

©johan10/iStock via Getty Images

The pound sterling was created when England adopted the Carolingian monetary system in the year 800. There were a variety of coins used with several names like shillings, pence, farthings, and halfpennies. The early pennies were made of silver but in 1158, a new coin was made that used silver and other metals, which was then called “sterling silver.” The new coins were more sturdy and didn’t break or wear down that easily.

During King Edward III’s reign, gold coins were introduced. For several centuries, silver and gold coins dominated England, and some were even debased with less pure gold or pure silver, to create the smaller units of currency. In 1694, the Bank of England was established, which started to use paper money, as well as coins.

The Currency Today

Today, banknotes in the United Kingdom are used more commonly than coins. The coins currently in use are the one-penny and two-pence coins made of copper-plated steel, the five and ten-pence coins made of nickel-plated steel, the twenty and fifty-pence coins made of cupronickel, and the one and two-pound coins that are bimetallic.

All coins in circulation feature Queen Elizabeth II and the fifty-pence coin also features the current monarch, King Charles III. Eventually, the coins with Queen Elizabeth II’s portrait will be phased out to only feature King Charles III.

As for the banknotes in circulation, there is the five-pound note in turquoise, the ten-pound note in orange, the twenty-pound note in purple, and the fifty-pound note in red. The banknotes feature the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II in 1990. Eventually, those banknotes will be phased out to feature the portrait of King Charles III.

Conclusion

And there you have it, the oldest currency still being used today is the British pound sterling. It is over 1,200 years old. The pound is one of the most used currencies in the world and it holds tremendous amounts of power. The exchange rates put the pound in a top-level category against the euro and even the dollar. As the currency that has been around for centuries, the British pound sterling has a storied and colorful history that rivals its counterparts.

The next time you are in England and use cash to pay for something, look at that quid and think about the stories. Maybe you’ll use the slang terms for it, but don’t be surprised if you get weird looks from the Brits!

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Scott O'Neill/iStock via Getty Images


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About the Author

Patrick Macfarland is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering travel, geography, and history. Patrick has been writing for more than 10 years. In the past, he has been a teacher and a political candidate. He holds a Bachelor's Degree in Political Science from SDSU and a Master's Degree in European Union Studies from CIFE. From San Diego, California, Patrick loves to travel and try new recipes to cook.

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