Mines Royal

October 31, 2010

In 1688 a law was passed that terminated a period of royal ownership of copper, tin, iron or lead mines, leaving only gold and silver mining under the royal prerogative. This meant they passed from being in the ownership of the Company of Mines Royal, which Deborah E. Harkness describes as one of two Elizabethan ‘metallurgical collectives’, the other being the Company of Mineral and Battery Works.*

A century earlier, in 1567, these laws had tightened in response to the test case of Elizabeth I vs. Thomas Percy, seventh Earl of Northumberland. It was a battle over royal copper-mining rights on privately owned land. The case occurred three years after the institution of the Company of Mines Royal and there is a very good article by Eric Ash in History of Science** which explains that Elizabeth managed to win the trial because she harnessed the knowledge of all of the domestic and foreign (mainly German) mining experts who had been drafted in to work for the company since its then recent inception.

The details of the case, as outlined Ash, are fascinating. Northumberland responded to the royal right to mine on his property, without affording him any compensation or profit, as an impeachment of his birthright and inheritance. The negotiations, which were after all about the removal of a certain asset that Northumberland considered his, broke down when it transpired that he did possess the tools to value the ore, the queen having harnessed them all (in the form of her mining experts). Eventually she defeated him by employing her technicians to her advantage, referring to knowledge from the continent that asserted that copper was always mingled with silver and/or gold, both of which were undoubtedly the crown’s. Measurement and property go hand in hand: if you want to own something legally you need to be able to assess it, or acquire the tools of assessment.

*Harkness, The Jewel House, p.170.
** E. H. Ash, ‘Queen v. Northumberland, and the Control of Technical Expertise’ in History of Science 39 (2001), pp.214-240.


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