The Trial of the Pyx is an ancient ceremony that dates back to the 13th century. Its purpose is to check that all UK coinage produced at The Royal Mint is of sufficient weight and composition.
The name ‘pyx’ refers to the boxes in which the coins are carried and comes form the Pyx chamber in Westminster Abbey, where important artefacts were housed. We believe there was some quality control in early medieval times but it was in the reign of Henry II (1154-89) that regular tests took place
By the mid-13th century the Trial had begun to take the form we know today. Early trials were first held in Westminster until 1580, when Elizabeth I decreed that: “My friends the Wardens of the Mystery of Goldsmiths of the City of London” should take over responsibility - and it has done so to this day.
In practical terms this made sense, since the Assay Office, who issue the leopard’s head hallmark that you’ll see on any London sterling silver, was sited next door. The Trial is presided over by the senior judge on the Royal Courts of Justice, who is known as the Queen’s Remembrancer.
It is the oldest judicial position in the country and the present holder is Barbara Fontaine, who is the first female to hold that office. She begins proceedings by giving a short speech about the role, before the jury, comprising Wardens and selected liverymen of the Goldsmiths’ Company, along with the head of the Assay Office.
The benchmark against which coins are to be tested for “form and fineness” is known as the Trial Plate and include modern-day gold, silver and cupro-nickel metal plates. We saw the counting and weighing of the coins, which represented each batch of each denomination minted. Each set of coins, numbering 50, were in sealed packets. In front of each juryman and woman were 2 bowls, one wooden and one copper. Each member then counted the set, placed one coin in the copper bowl for assaying and the rest in the wooden bowl for weighing. There are 2 more phases of the Trial to follow but these take place over the next few weeks. The highlight? I held a 99.99% pure gold coin worth £42,000 in my hand - and returned in reluctantly.