Trial of the Pyx: Putting the Pyx on trial

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by Dan Oliver
courtesy of The Royal Mint

January 13, 2014 – When HM Treasury made the announcement ‘The Trial of the Pyx will be held in Goldsmith’s Hall, London on 4th February 2014’, I’m sure this raised a myriad of questions in most people’s minds. Questions such as; what on earth is a pyx? and why is it on trial?

The Trial of the Pyx is an historic event and 730 years old. Photograph: The Goldsmiths’ Company/Richard Lea-Hair

It’s actually an historic event dating from 1282 and it is, indeed, a judicial trial as most of us would recognise, complete with judge, jury and verdict. I think it’s now time, after more than 700 years of its history, that we put it under the spotlight and shed some light on its history and proceedings. So let’s begin…

In front of the jury members are the pyxes, or boxes. Photograph: The Goldsmiths’ Company/Richard Lea-Hair

The Pyx
The word ‘pyx’ is of Latin/Greek origin and simply means ‘box’. The pyx that goes on trial holds a collection of random UK coins from the year’s production to be presented to the jury. At Westminster Abbey there is ‘The Pyx Chamber’ where historically the trial pyxides would be stored. These days, there are, in fact, many boxes involved in the event and they are stored securely at The Royal Mint.

The Coins
Samples of newly minted UK coins are randomly selected throughout each year during the production process.

Around 40,000 coins are being inspected during this year’s Trial of the Pyx. Photograph: The Goldsmiths’ Company/Richard Lea-Hair

They are placed in packets for onward transportation to their trial, where they are inspected to ensure they conform to the standards required by UK law such as weight, composition and size. The number of coins on trial varies each year, but around 40,000 coins will be inspected in February 2014.

Even the bombing in 1940 could not stop the Trial of the Pyx. Photograph: The Goldsmiths’ Company/Richard Lea-Hair)

The Trial
The trial has taken place every February since 1282, making this year’s the 732nd trial. It is one of the longest established judicial procedures in the country, and the procedures have changed little over the years, so this year’s trial should run like clockwork! Even a bomb falling nearby in 1940 didn’t stop it going ahead. It is almost certainly the oldest form of quality control and independent quality assessment in the UK, and probably the only trial of its kind in the world.

The Trial takes place at the Goldsmith’s Hall. Photograph: The Goldsmiths’ Company/Richard Lea-Hair

The trial takes place at Goldsmiths’ Hall which, as made official by the Coinage Act 1870, is its established venue.

The trial is presided over by The Queen’s Remembrancer, a high court judge. Photograph: The Goldsmiths’ Company/Richard Lea-Hair

As a legally constituted trial it is presided over by a high court judge, who holds the title of ‘The Queen’s Remembrancer’ for this process. On trial are the contents of the pyxides as well as the Deputy Master of the Mint.

The jury member examine the coins before sending them to be further analised in the Goldsmiths’ Assay Laboratory and National Measurement Office. Photograph: The Goldsmiths’ Company/Richard Lea-Hair

The trial is simply an examination of UK coins made by The Royal Mint to ensure that they conform to the laws and standards that surround them. With the growing use of automated vending machines and increasing counterfeit activity, the trial is as important now as it has ever been.

The Verdict
The trial adjourns and the coins are sent away to be further tested by the Goldsmiths’ Assay Laboratory and National Measurement Office. The verdict ceremony is traditionally held 12 weeks after the trial, usually in the first week of May.

Even in the 21st century testing coins by persons and not only machines continues to be pivotal. Photograph: The Goldsmiths’ Company/Richard Lea-Hair

For 731 years UK coins have been subject to this trial and provided all is well this year will make it 732 years of successful verdicts for The Royal Mint.

This article was written for and appeared first in The Royal Mint blog.

You may also want to visit the very informative website of The Goldsmiths’ Company.

During the last year’s Pyx Trial The Royal Mint has made a video explaining what this ceremony is all about. To watch the film please click here.