1. The technical term for the collection of marks found on English silver is hallmarks.
English silver marks are different than Scottish and Irish marks. This post refers only to English silver marks.
2. The most important thing you are looking for is the Lion Passant.
Although there are exceptions, for our purposes without the LP, it doesn’t matter how many other marks there are it isn’t sterling.
The LP was added to the collection of hallmarks in 1544 to show that the Assay Office was under Royal control – i.e. dire consequences for fraud!
During this period the de-basing of silver, especially coins, was rampant. It seems likely that the Goldsmiths Guild began to use this mark to assure the public that silverware could be relied upon, even if coins were unreliable.
3. Look for the marks identifying the City of Assay. The City of Assay is the place where each piece was taken to the Goldsmith’s representative to be tested and guaranteed that it met the standards of purity – i.e 925 of 1000 parts silver.
4. Look for a letter mark. The letter identifies in what year the piece was made. Each City of Assay has it’s own code to assign a particular letter to a particular year. Each “cycle” is distinguished by using variations of fonts, capital vs. lower case letters and through altering the shape of the cartouche surrounding each letter.
In London the first cycle of letter marks began in 1479. 13 years before Columbus sailed across the ocean blue.
5. In 1363 it became required for each piece to have a mark to identify who made (or owned the shop where the piece was made). This was another deterrent to fraud.
Sometimes these are a single set, other times it can be multiple sets. Silversmiths often formed partnerships that shifted and changed over the course of their careers so it is not unusual to find a smith who worked with several different partners.