Artisan-authors at the early modern Tower Mint


Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin, Cardiff University

There are few heritage sites as iconic as the Tower of London. For most twenty-first century Londoners and tourists, the Tower is associated with famous prisoners, grisly executions, and the Crown Jewels.

Aerial view of the Tower of London

To the early modern mind, the Tower had a more varied range of associations. As well as being a fortress, royal palace, and prison, it operated as a hive of institutional, mercantile, and artisanal activity. Within its walls were located the Mint (where money was made, and precious metals tested and refined), the Ordnance Office (responsible for weapon procurement and storage), and the Royal Menagerie (for housing and viewing wild animals). The premises of the Royal Mint had gradually expanded by the end of the fifteenth century to fill the narrow space between the inner and outer walls, or curtain walls, of the Tower. Hundreds of artisans and technicians were employed and lived at these Tower institutions, undertaking practices of testing, measurement, and material observation and production. The Tower acted as a beacon for expertise, drawing in skilled practitioners from across London, Britain, and Europe more widely – especially relating to the testing of metals, and the making of coins and weapons.

Mint Street and Beauchamp Tower, Tower of London, City of London

One such artisan at the sixteenth-century Tower of London was Thomas Aunsham, a self-described ‘practitioner in mint affairs’ who served as deputy to the comptroller and assay-master Sir Henry Wyatt, from c.1509 to c.1520. In this role Aunsham carried out the vital role of testing the material purity of metals entering the Mint, and the coinage. Aside from the bare bones of employment history, however, artisan practitioners such as Aunsham typically remain shadowy figures in the institutional archive. And yet, in the first decade of the sixteenth century Aunsham authored an intriguing manuscript, a copy of which survives in the British Library.

The document gives us rare insights into the working culture and mentality of an otherwise unknown artisan-author: outlining details of his workshop practices, professional networks, and knowledge cultures. For modern readers Aunsham’s manuscript is hard to categorise. It has features of a recipe book, with dozens of different methods and techniques for separating and testing the quality of metals, many of which had been trialled in Aunsham’s Tower workshop or in mint workshops across Europe. In places, the manuscript also reads like an institutional chronicle, with particulars about past masters, hierarchies, and ordinances. What struck me as I became familiar with the manuscript, and Aunsham’s somewhat eclectic writing style, was how the treatise read as both a personal narration of skill and expertise in metallurgical matters and an institutional history.

This was the starting point for my recent article in Cultural and Social History, which uses manuscripts like Thomas Aunsham’s to explore entwinned themes of expertise and institutional history in artisanal writings, specifically those authored by sixteenth-and seventeenth-century London goldsmiths. The repeated inclusion of personal or innovative workshop techniques and transnational networks of knowledge demonstrates how these institutional books of secrets, or recipe books, functioned as a type of status-boosting life-writing for their author practitioners. Moreover, in composing these treatises assayers and goldsmiths weaved their lives and experiences into grander, legitimising narratives of corporate culture and identity. As such, I argue that authorship was a means of articulating expertise and of rooting that skilled identity beyond the self, within a much longer trajectory of institutional production, regulation, and history.


About the author: Dr Jasmine Kilburn-Toppin is Lecturer in Early Modern History at Cardiff University. Research for the article referred to here was carried out as part of the Metropolitan Science project (2017-20), based at the University of Kent, and funded by The Leverhulme Trust. Her book, Crafting Identities: Artisan Culture in London, c.1550-1640, will be published this year with Manchester University Press.

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