The guinea is a coin that held a face value of One pound and One shilling (£1.05p in decimal currency) but, at different times in history, was worth more or even less. It was struck from gold and if you have a gold guinea, it’s value is linked to the current price of gold.
The history of UK coinage is full of interesting examples that are no longer in circulation. One such is the Guinea, a gold coin – the first to be pressed in gold in Britain – that was first seen in 1663, and was replaced by the pound in 1816.
The guinea began as a coin with a value of 20 shillings – as the pound is today – but fluctuations in the price of gold meant its value varies.
For example, in 1667, the famous diarist Samuel Pepys recorded the guinea as having a value of 24 or 25 shillings. In 1717, after many years of fluctuation in the value of a guinea – which must have caused headaches for traders accepting them as payment – the UK adopted the Gold Standard.
This determined the value of gold of a certain weight and grade, and the guinea was proclaimed to have a face value of One Pound and One Shilling, which is still applied to it today.
The guinea was in fact legal tender until decimalisation in 1971, although would rarely be used as direct payment in the latter years and had not been minted since 1813.
It was replaced as the major unit of currency in 1816 and in coinage by the Sovereign at the same time. This change is known as the ‘Great Recoinage’, and signalled a change in circulated coins in the country in an effort to put the UK economy back on a stable footing after the Napoleonic Wars.
So, now we know that a guinea is a term for 21 shillings, how is it that the name for a coin that has not been minted for 200 years is still used today? That in itself is an interesting question!
The Guinea Today
First, let’s deal with the name: it is widely believed that the Guinea is so called because that is the name of the African country where the gold from which it was made was mined.
There is no reason this should not be true, and no other plausible explanation is forthcoming, so we’ll go with that!
Now, once the Gold Standard was introduced in 1717, the guinea – as a gold coin – became a stable form of currency. This gave it a certain standing in business circles in the UK. In professional services – such as legal fees, the cost of medical treatment and so on – the guinea became the standard unit with which to invoice a client.
The came became true in the sale of horses and rams – quite why other livestock was not included is difficult to uncover – and also as the currency in Horse Racing and Greyhound racing in the UK.
It is the latter that keep the guinea alive as a frequently quoted value. The link between the guinea as a pound and a shilling and horse racing – and horse sales – in the UK is an intrinsic and traditional one, and there are some interesting quirks that come with horse sales.
Taking a step aside for a moment, the horse racing link is one that is worth checking out.
The Guinea and Horse Racing
Perhaps the most famous reference to the guinea today is in the title of two of the greatest horse races in the world. There are five races in the UK that are known as the ‘Classic Races’. These are the 2000 Guineas Stakes, the 1000 Guineas Stakes, the Epsom Oaks, Epsom Derby and the St Leger Stakes.
For pub quiz fans that’s worth making a note of, as most of your opponents will include the Grand National, which is not a traditional classic!
The first two are of course those we are interested in. Run in the Spring each year at Newmarket, they are prestigious races with a large prize fund. The name of each comes from the original prize – 2000 Guineas for the mixed fillies and colts race, and 1000 Guineas for the race of that name that is open only to fillies – which when they were first run in 1809 and 1813 respectively was a considerable amount of money.
Today, the prize money is still considerable, with the winner of the 2019 2000 Guineas – Magna Gracia – taking home £297,000, and first past the post in the 1000 Guineas – Hermosa – netting £283,500. If you want to get your calculator out and work out how many guineas each of those represents, be my guest!
So, enough about horse racing, but what is it about selling horses in guineas to this day?
Are Horses Still Sold in Guineas?
If you buy a thoroughbred horse at a traditional auction today, the chances are it will be knocked down at a hammer price of ‘£xxx Guineas’. This has been the case for as long as the guinea has existed.
However, you will not be expected to pay in gold coins – a good thing as for one reason, if you do have gold guineas they are worth a lot more than a pound and a shilling, and as we have seen, the guinea is no longer legal tender – but you will pay the full price.
The reason for this is that the seller will take home the value in pounds, with the auctioneer taking the remaining 5p per guinea as commission. Some bloodstock auctions have now settled into selling in pounds, but still take the 5% commission. As coin fans, we like tradition, and are sorry to see this happen!
Before we move on to finally answer the question as to the value of a guinea today, another horse racing related quiz answer for you: the UK ‘Triple Crown’ involves winning the 2000 Guineas Stakes, the Derby and the St Leger Stakes in the same year. The last horse to achieve this was the great Nijinsky, in 1970. Keep that one under your hat too!
The Value of a Guinea
A guinea may be a term referring to a pound and a shilling, but clearly a gold coin is always going to be worth in excess of £1.05p. There have been many iterations of the guinea – beginning in the reign of William and Mary, with the final examples minted during the reign of George III.
In general, the actual value of the coin will be determined by the price of gold at the time you wish to sell or value it.
The guinea has remained a very similar size during its existence, and also around the same weight – between 8.3g and 8.5g, depending on which version you might have.
It has also been consistently made from 22-carat gold, so we have consistency to work with. 8.3g is equivalent to a quarter of a Troy Ounce – the measure that gold is weighed in – so we can work out the value right away!
At the time of writing – 1st of March 2020 – the price of one ounce of gold stands at £1237. Therefore, your quarter-ounce guinea is worth around £310! For a collector, however, a genuine gold guinea of any era is worth more than its weight in gold. It’s a very special thing to own and one that collectors have high on their list.
A final word: in 2013, the Royal Mint paid homage to the guinea by issuing a special-edition £2 coin commemorating the 350th anniversary of the minting of the very first guinea.
This design recreated that of a guinea coin from the late 18th century. This edition is coveted by collectors as it represents the first time a UK coin was minted to commemorate another.
We leave you with the inscription that is found on the edge of that £2 coin, written by one Stephen Kimble, who lived in the age of the original:
“What is a Guinea? ‘Tis a splendid thing.”
We can’t disagree!