(click on photos to enlarge image)
THE LEGAL POSITION OF THE ENGLISH LEOPARD
from 1558 to 1696
I have felt constrained to write on this subject because so
many authorities continue to refer to the leopard’s head as the
London mark without any further clarification and to those not
familiar with how both the leopard’s head and the sterling lion
came into existence this can be very confusing since patently
there is much plate assayed outside London which is stamped with
the leopard’s head and equally there is much plate assayed at
Goldsmiths’ Hall which, being of Britannia standard, is not so
In the reign of Edward I it was decided that the fineness of
silver for both coin and wrought plate should be standardised
and thus the statute of 1300, titled "Vessels of Gold shall
be essayed, touched, and marked. The King’s Prerogative shall be
saved" (note 1),
was enacted making sterling (11oz 2dwt in the troy pound) that
standard for all English silver. This statute was originally
written in old Norman French, in which language the following
directive is given: "E qe nul manere de vessele de argent ne
parte hors des meins as overers tant qe ele soit assaie par les
gardiens du mester e qu ele soit signee de une teste de Leopart".
As ‘teste’ translates as head
(note 2) this
passage therefore translates as: "......and that no manner of
vessel of silver depart out of the hands of the workers until it
be essayed by the Gardiens ( Wardens) of the craft, and further
that it be marked with the Leopard’s Head,........")
from 1736 to 1815
The statute went on to say: ".....and that all the good
towns of England, where any goldsmith be dwelling, shall be
ordered according to this statute as they of London be;....."
and ".....and that one shall come from every good town for
all the residue that be dwelling in the same unto London; for to
be ascertained of their touch.")
(note 4). A
passage in the Goldsmiths’ Company’s charter of 1327 contains
similar wording, although the word "fetch" instead of "ascertained"
is used, with the addition of the sentence ("….also the punch
with the leopard’s head with which to mark their work as was
ordained in times past….").
It can be seen from this that not only was the leopard’s head a
standard mark but also that its use applied to all goldsmiths
throughout the land and not just those working in London. It was
not until 1856, when the statute of 1300 was repealed by the
statute 19 & 20 Vict. c. 64, that the leopard’s head mark could
have been used for any purpose other than a fineness mark.
Royal Commissioners, "responsible for assaying and marking in cities throughout the realm"
were to be appointed in accordance with this statute and another of 1363 reinforced by an ordinance
of 1379 (note 6) and there is evidence that action
was taken to appoint Commissioners as the records at Oxford show. A mandate was issued to the mayor
and bailiffs of Oxford on 14th October 1328 "to cause those ordinances to be
observed" and this resulted in the appointment of one Edward de Wircestr, goldsmith of
Oxford to enforce the ordinances (note 7).
However I have found no evidence that de Wircestr or representatives from any town did go to London
to receive a punch of the Leopard’s head or that any plate either at Oxford or elsewhere was ever
struck with the leopard’s head punch at this time.
This has caused some authorities to attribute, quite erroneously, a dual purpose to this mark.
Although it was designated as a standard mark and applied rigorously at the London Assay Office it
appears not to have been so at other towns until the 18th century and has thus been said to be
the London mark whereas, in fact, London had no distinguishing mark of its own at this time.
This has led to some confusion since, in its capacity as the standard mark, it was later required
to be stamped on plate assayed at the offices at Bristol, Chester, Exeter, Norwich, York and
Newcastle when these were established at the beginning of the 18th century.
from 1816 to 1895
With the exception of Chester and Exeter, both of which
offices had already ceased to use the leopard’s head by 1856 and
Norwich and Bristol which had gone into decline by then, these
towns continued to strike this mark on their plate throughout
the 19th century. The last of these was Newcastle which closed
its office in 1883.
London continued to use the leopard’s head on both gold and
silver of sterling standard into the 20th century and by then
was the only office so doing. It was not until 1975 however that
they first struck this mark on silver of Britannia standard so
that technically it is from that year that the leopard’s head
can be truly said to be the London mark although, of course, it
can be treated as if it were the London mark for the period
between 1300 and 1697 and again between 1883 and 1975.
from 1896 to 1976
(1) The word ‘Gold’ in this context means precious metal.
(2) The ‘s’ was not replaced by the circumflex until 1762 when
the Académie Francais, founded by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635,
rewrote the French dictionary.
(3) 28 Edw c. 20
(4) 28 Ewd c. 20
(5) J.S. Forbes-HALLMARK-A History of the London Assay Office
(7) Oxford Goldsmiths Before 1800-Ann Natalie Hansen.p11
- 2009 -
David McKinley devotes much of his time to researching the history of silversmithing in England with
particular reference to hallmarking at the London office. He writes for both The Silver Spoon Club
of Great Britain and The Silver Society.