Trial of the Pyx: unmasked

First held in 1282, the annual Trial of the Pyx ceremony tests the integrity of the nation's coins, to ensure that they're the proper weight, size and contain the right amount of precious metals. 

The ceremony is named after the special chests that were used to carry the coins to the trial and the Pyx Chamber in Westminster Abbey where the coins were originally stored.

The Trial of the Pyx has taken place in the Hall of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in London since 1870.

Goldsmiths' Hall in London

The ceremony has not changed since Henry III's reign. Coins of each denomination struck by the Royal Mint are randomly selected throughout the year and locked away in the Pyx chests.

The Deputy Master of the Mint brings these chests to London's Goldsmiths' Hall, where the coins are checked by an independent jury of financial leaders and at least six assayers from the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, who wear traditional red robes. An assayer is a person who is trained to test a metal or ore to determine its composition and quality.

Graeme Smith, the Queen's Assay Master at The Royal Mint, views kilo coin commemorating Britain's longest-reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.

Coins are tested against a benchmark, which is known as a trial plate. Today trial plates are made of pure metals such as platinum, gold, silver, copper, nickel and zinc, and they are kept by the National Measurement and Regulation Office. The oldest surviving plate dates from 1477 and is held in The Royal Mint Museum.

After two or three months of rigorous testing to ensure the coins meet the statutory limits for metallic composition, weight and size, the trial reconvenes (usually in May) and the Queen's Remembrancer, the oldest judicial position in England, asks the Jury to give its verdict.

Every year, the verdict is given in the presence of the Deputy Master of The Royal Mint and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, or his representative.

History books reveal that if the coins fail the test, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is the ceremonial Master of The Royal Mint, risks losing a hand as punishment.

This hasn't happened for hundreds of years… but during the trial's long history 94 Moneyers (who were in charge of the Mints at the time, in a role similar to the Chancellor's) have had their right hands cut off by order of the King.

Hand chopping aside, the Trial of the Pyx endures to this day – and is likely to continue for years to come.

Trial of the Pyx, 6 Dec 1854, Illustrated London News Picture Library