The Dutch ducat has always been an instantly recognisable and much imitated gold coin. Instead of a traditional depiction of a monarch or a saint, it features an armour clad soldier with a sword in his right hand and a bundle of arrows in his left. The year of issue is split so that two digits appear on either side of the soldier, and the design is surrounded by a legend “Concordia Res Parvae Crescunt” which can be translated “Union makes small things grow”. This elegant design appeared on the first Dutch ducat struck in 1586 and has survived with only minor modifications to the present day, making it the oldest continuously issued gold coin in the world.
The appearance of such a strong military figure on one of the world’s most important trading coins has always been something of a mystery. The commercially minded Dutch never relied on military force to build their Empire, preferring to govern colonies indirectly through the native authorities. This proved to be a quick and effective way to overcome cultural, religious and language barriers to trade, and the Dutch were more concerned with making a healthy profit than in subduing the local population by force.
The identity of the soldier depicted on the Dutch ducat has also been shrouded in mystery. Officially, he is anonymous. However, by reviewing the unique set of circumstances in which the coin was commissioned and struck, a plausible case can be made for his identity and his appearance on the Dutch ducat. Is it possible that the soldier on the Dutch ducat was an Englishman?
The First Ducats
The first gold ducats were struck in Venice in 1274. The coin’s name is derived from the medieval Latin word ‘ducalis’ and would initially have meant, ‘the duke’s coin’. At that time, there were many different gold coins in circulation throughout Europe and coins would often have different names in different countries. This made it much harder for merchants, traders and money changers to determine their correct values. They needed a reliable, trusted and accurate coin with an unchanging weight and purity.
The ducat met this requirement well. It had a consistent weight of 3.545 grams and a gold content of 98.6%, which was the highest purity medieval metallurgy could produce. Gold ducats proved to be so popular that other European cities and states began to copy its specifications and strike their own versions to facilitate their own international trade.
Not since the days of the Roman Empire had a gold coin been issued that would inspire the trust of nations around the world. Ducats were popular and easily recognized, and this led to their increasing acceptance as the primary coin of international trade.
Birth of the Dutch Republic
At the beginning of the 16th century, the Spanish were reaping the spoils of their victorious conquests in the New World. The Atlantic and the North Sea became primary trade routes and the Spanish-controlled Netherlands became the hub of this international trade.
In 1566, the seven primarily Protestant northern provinces of the Low Countries began a long struggle to untangle themselves from the Spanish Empire. The Spanish tried to brutally crush the Dutch Revolt but were unable to prevent the unrest from gathering momentum and strength. More and more people rallied to the side of William of Orange, leader of the Holland Province and, by 1581 the northern provinces were strong enough to declare their independence.
However, uniting the provinces into a single Dutch Republic proved to be a struggle. Each province could appoint its own Stadtholder (Head of State) who had the power to appoint officials and councils. But in the immediate aftermath of their split from Spain, they wanted a monarch who could simultaneously unite them and defend them from the Spanish.
The Search for a Sovereign
Having rejected King Philip II of Spain as their Head of State, the Dutch initially asked Queen Elizabeth I of England to protect them from ongoing Spanish aggression. The Queen refused, having no wish to antagonise Spain or involve herself in the domestic affairs of other countries.
Following this rejection, they turned their attention to France, and invited the King’s younger brother François, Duke of Anjou to become their sovereign. He proved to be a disaster. Many regions distrusted him immediately because he was a Catholic and so he was granted only limited powers. In January 1583 he used French soldiers to try to seize control of Antwerp and when this failed, he left and didn’t return.
Afterwards, Elizabeth I was invited to become Queen of the Netherlands, but once again she declined, leaving the United Provinces with no alternative but to try to govern as a republican body instead.
Just when it looked as if things couldn’t get any worse, the popular William of Orange was assassinated on July 10th 1584 by a Catholic radical hoping to collect the large bounty put on his head by the King of Spain. The murder caused political turmoil that threatened the fledgling Republic and left it even more exposed to the risk of Spanish aggression.
The Treaty of Nonsuch
One of William’s allies had been the wealthy English Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley. He was horrified at the events that were unfolding across the English Channel and pleaded with the Queen to intervene. He and Elizabeth were childhood friends, and he enjoyed a privileged position at court as one of her closest advisors. Indeed, it was widely rumoured that they were lovers.
The Queen was eventually persuaded by her trusted companion to provide the Dutch Republic with the support it so urgently needed. On August 10th 1585 she signed the Treaty of Nonsuch in which England agreed to supply 6,400 foot soldiers, 1,000 cavalry and an annual subsidy of 600,000 florins. In return, the Dutch agreed to finance English garrisons at the strategically important seaports of Flushing and Brill to keep them out of Spanish hands.
A substantial amount of the money required to finance this endeavour came from Leicester’s personal finances, and the Queen appointed him head of the English troops in the Netherlands.
The New Governor-General
When Leicester arrived in the Netherlands in December 1585 he was welcomed like a King. Lavish festivals were held in his honour and cheering crowds followed him wherever he went. The following month, he was offered the title Governor-General and accepted the position without first seeking confirmation from the Queen. He probably realized that the title was necessary in order to be able to exert effective control and unite the provinces. But by accepting the position he effectively made his Sovereign the Queen of the Netherlands.
Elizabeth was furious. She had explicitly declined the invitation to become Sovereign over the Netherlands and she commanded Leicester to resign the post. This put the Earl in a very difficult position. He now had the “the rule and government general” with a Council of State to support him. The Dutch pleaded with the Queen, claiming that the position had been bestowed on him by the Dutch people, and not by a Sovereign.
Elizabeth issued a stern reprimand to the Earl and showed her displeasure by preventing his wife from joining him with a large entourage, which would have created the unfavourable impression that he was setting up his own court. However, she also recognised the importance of his role and wrote to the Dutch provinces asking them to follow his advice in matters of Government.
With Amsterdam’s reputation as a major centre of international trade growing the demand for a uniquely identifiable Dutch ducat grew along with it. On October 4th 1586, Leicester ordered that a gold ducat be designed and struck.
The Knight in Shining Armour
Ducats struck in other countries often featured monarchs and popular figures and so it is not a giant leap of the imagination to suggest that the figure depicted on the Dutch gold coin was modelled on the most powerful man in the Dutch Republic who had united the provinces and commissioned their new coin.
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester was held in particular high esteem by the Dutch for supporting their struggle for independence at great personal cost to his finances and political reputation. He was, quite literally, their knight in shining armour. And it appears that this is exactly how they chose to depict him on their gold ducat.
He wears armour because he was Head of the English army in the Netherlands. He carries a sword because he was determined to defend the Dutch Republic from Spanish aggression. He holds arrows in his hand to symbolize the provinces that he had united by becoming their Governor-General. Contemporary illustrations of the Earl of Leicester further support the theory that the oldest continuously issued gold coin in the world depicts the image of an Englishman.
A sketch made in 1575 depicts the Earl of Leicester in an expensive suit of tilting armour with a plumed hat that appears to closely match the image of the soldier on the ducat first struck in 1586. In addition, an engraving of the Governor-General on horseback in 1586 suggests that the Earl had put on weight during the intervening years. This could explain why the soldier on the coin has a significantly fuller figure than a typical soldier.
Despite his best intentions, the Earl of Leicester ultimately proved to be a major disappointment for the Dutch. The Queen forbade him from using his army to seek out and proactively engage Spanish soldiers which seriously hampered his chances of defending the Dutch from their attacks.
In August 1557 the strategic deep-water port of Sluis, defended by English and Dutch troops, fell to the Spanish after weeks of intense fighting. It was a bitter blow, and Leicester quickly lost his credibility with the Dutch as an effective military leader.
The hopes of the Dutch rebels that had been raised by the Treaty of Nonsuch were dashed by the harsh reality that Leicester, with his hands effectively tied by the Queen, was simply unable to defend them as they wanted. To compound the problem, Elizabeth also withheld payments to Leicester’s army which further worsened morale and made Leicester’s position even more difficult.
Elizabeth’s ongoing reluctance to take any action that could be perceived by Spain as a hostile act ultimately proved to be futile. Ever since the Treaty of Nonsuch, King Philip II had been preparing a full-scale invasion fleet to conquer England and bring the reign of its Protestant Queen to an ignoble end.
By December 1587 relations between the Queen and the Dutch politicians had broken down to such an extent that Leicester asked to be recalled to England. He returned home heavily in debt, having been unable to provide the effective military leadership that the Dutch required. Following his departure, several governors appointed by Leicester betrayed his trust in them and handed over land to the Spanish.
Once back in England, Leicester resumed his close personal relationship with the Queen. She appointed him Lieutenant and Captain-General of the Queen’s Armies and Companies, and as the Spanish Armada drew closer he arranged for her to rally the English troops at Tilbury where he planned to defend London. With Leicester by her side, Elizabeth made the famous declaration that would cement her status as one of England’s most beloved monarchs; “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king – and of a King of England too”.
The Spanish Armada was defeated at sea before reaching English soil and afterwards Leicester was seen riding in splendour through the streets of London and dining frequently with the Queen. On September 4th 1588 he died suddenly at the age of fifty-six Elizabeth was inconsolable and locked herself in her bedroom for several days until her worried staff broke the door down. She was to mourn him for the rest of her life. His last letter, sent six days before his death remained beside her bed until her own death in 1603 brought the Tudor dynasty to an end.
A Shrinking Waistline
Between 1586 and 1816 Dutch ducats had an unchanging weight of 3.515g and had a gold content of 98.6%. In 1817 a slightly modified ducat design was introduced with a new specification. The gold content was reduced slightly to 98.3% and the weight was lowered to 3.454g. Since then, the metrics have remained unchanged and gold ducats struck to these specifications continue to be struck by the Royal Dutch Mint to this day.
A comparison of the 1817 Dutch ducat and the original 1586 ducat shows that the gold purity and coin weight were not the only reductions made. The soldier that appears on the coin has also lost a substantial amount of weight over the intervening centuries.
If the first Dutch ducat really did depict the English Governor-General then the reason for the soldier’s changing appearance over the years suddenly becomes very clear. This was an intentional act to conceal the identity of the man on the coin. A deliberate attempt, perhaps, to airbrush from the collective Dutch consciousness the memory of the time when they enthusiastically welcomed an English Earl as the head of their Government and, in so doing made the English Queen their unwilling Sovereign.
After so much rejoicing at his appointment, the failure of the English Governor-General and the indifference of the English Queen to their plight was a bitter blow for the Dutch. It is highly unlikely that they would have wanted to immortalise such a painful chapter of their history on their most important gold coin, particularly during the bitter Anglo-Dutch Wars that were waged throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Of course, this may explain why the soldier on the Dutch ducat remains officially anonymous to this day.