by Marcin Brzeziński
The year 1587 began the reign of the Swedish Vasa dynasty in the history of Poland. The times of Sigismund III Vasa are a period of unprecedented momentum in coin minting. Never again in Polish history has there been such an abundance and variety of numismatic items. More than a dozen mints worked on an extremely extensive coinage system, covering the entire coin catalog, from the magnificent one hundred ducats in gold to the modest denarii.
Ruler of Two Kingdoms Overlooking the Third
Sigismund III Vasa (1566-1632), the son of the Swedish king Jan III Vasa and Katarzyna Jagiellonka, sat on two thrones, which did not prevent him from aspiring to a third. He was elected King of Poland in 1587. After the death of his father, in 1592 he hurried to Sweden to assume the throne there and to look after dynastic issues. In 1599, he was dethroned by the Swedish parliament, the Riksdag, although he formally used the royal title until the end of his life.
The third throne that Sigismund tried to conquer this time for his son Władysław—was the Moscow throne. Poland intervened in the internal affairs of its eastern neighbor during the so-called of great sadness, after the end of the Rurkovich dynasty, and before the accession of the Romanovs to the throne. In 1610, the troops of Hetman Stanisław Żółkiewski captured Moscow and the Kremlin, which they occupied for two years. In 1611 in Warsaw, the former Russian Tsar Vasyl IV Szujski pledged an oath to the Polish king, which went down in history under the name of the “Ruthenian Homage“.
Mint Policy of a Great Country
Sigismund III ruled over a large area of Europe, with an sophisticated and complex fiscal system. It is therefore not surprising that the numismatic heritage of his time includes not only the coins of Poland and Lithuania, but also the Swedish thalers and öre, and even the Moscow kopecks of his son Władysław. These were issued in the years 1610-12 during the occupation of the Kremlin by the Polish army.
The beginning of the reign of young Vasa coincided with a great financial crisis in Western Europe. In the countries of the German empire, divided into many small state organisms, and in the Crown of Bohemia, there was an increasing devaluation of the small silver coin. The rulers benefiting from the mint’s profits bought their own coins as well as foreign coins in order to re-mint them into inferior numismatic items with a lower silver content. As a consequence, this practice led to a significant price disproportion between the “thick” coins: ducats and thalers, and the small ones. In some areas, inflation was above 1,300%!
This phenomenon left an indelible mark on the Polish economy. Trade exchange meant that weak, foreign coins were flowing over the Vistula, and good coins (suitable for melting) were flowing out of the country. To prevent this from happening, Sigismund III was forced to lower the silver content in coins and to introduce new denominations to the market. This is all to adjust the Polish currency to the changing thaler exchange rate.
During the times of the first of the Vasa, fascinating numismatic novelties appeared on the market. The so-called “Półtoraki”, ie coins worth 1.5 groszy, which were to improve the trade with Brandenburg. An “orth” was introduced, corresponding to a quarter of a thaler. For a short time, the “Trzykrucierzówki” were also minted, which equaled the three countrymen and served trade with Silesia and the Crown of Bohemia.
The Monetary System of the Republic of Poland (c. 1623)
The aforementioned financial crisis, deepened by the monetary chaos, forced the need for reforms. In 1623, the exchange rates of market denominations were stabilized. It was assumed that one “heavy” thaler is worth 80 groszy. Apart from it, a smaller version of it, known as the “light” thaler, remained in the market. In the following years, the issue of the small coin, the most prone to devaluation, was limited. Half-thalers and quarter-thalers were also put into circulation.
Around 1623, the country’s monetary system included the following denominations: gold ducat and its derivatives (Portuguese, donatives), in silver: thaler and its derivatives, orth (1/4 thaler), sixth (6 groszy), threefold (3 groszy), one and a half (1.5 grosz), penny, penny (1/3 grosz), third (1/6 grosz), two-dollar (1/9 grosz) and denarius (1/18 grosz). The unit of account was the Polish zloty, equal to thirty groszy. Sigismund III flooded the country with a gold coin. Not only single ducats were issued, but also their multiples.
Seventeen mints operated for the needs of the expanded monetary system. These mints were located in: Bydgoszcz, Drezdenek, Kraków, Królewiec, Lublin, Malbork, Mitawa, Olkusz, Poznań, Warsaw, Vilnius, Wschowa, Łobżenica, Elbląg, Gdańsk, Riga and Toruń.
Samuel Ammon’s Golden Masterpiece
Among the list of mints just cited, Bydgoszcz deserves special mention. It is there that the largest coin in the history of Polish coinage was created – 100 ducats in gold, which is one of the greatest numismatic items in the world.
Although Bydgoszcz obtained the privilege of minting coins in the Middle Ages, organized production dates back to 1594. Initially, the mint operated as a private mint, and from 1613 as a royal one. Three years later, the Dutchman Jakub Jacobson von Emden became its leaseholder. Under his excellent management, the mint became one of the best coinage centers in the country, specializing in the minting of half-thalers, thalers, ducats and Portuguese. It was here in 1621 that a gold stud, weighing about 350 grams, with a diameter of 70 mm, was minted.
It was an example of the so-called medal coin intended for awarding to meritorious people. Its break coincided with the victory over the Turks at Khotyn. The project was made by Samuel Ammon, a medalist from Gdańsk. This master from Switzerland became famous as the creator of great portrait medals and numismatics.
On the obverse of the 100 Ducats coin, the medalist showed a bust of the king in majesty. Sigismund III does not wear a crown, his features are realistic. He is wearing sumptuous armor, decorated with the head of a lion. He is girdled with the commander’s sash. On the chest is the Order of the Golden Fleece, the highest decoration of the House of Habsburg awarded to monarchs. The inscription in the rim gives the title – by God’s grace, the king of Poland and Sweden. A seasoned eye will also notice, among the richness of armor ornaments, the medalist’s monogram: SA and the date of issue: 1621.
The reverse is decorated with a nine-field coat of arms under the royal crown. It features the emblems of Poland and Lithuania, as well as the intermediate shield the coat of arms of Sweden – Three Crowns and the Folkung Lion – and finally on the heart shield the coat of arms of the Vasa bunch. The whole is surrounded by a chain of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Along the rim, the next part of the titles of Sigismund III – the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Ruthenia, Prussia, Masovia, Żmudj, Livonia. Next to the cross, on the crown of the royal crown, date: 1621. On both sides of the coat of arms, among the ornaments, there is a monogram of the general manager of the mints: IIVE (Jakub Jacobson von Emden).
The same stamp every one hundred ducats was made in gold, in Bydgoszcz, also other denominations, including silver. Over the last decades, the studukatówka has rarely appeared at numismatic auctions, arousing great interest from collectors. It was sold for the last time in 2018 for the sum of over $2 million US dollars – setting a new auction record for any Polish historical coin.
Marcin Brzezinski is a graduate of the Faculty of Journalism and Political Science at the University of Warsaw. He is interested in the history of Polish aristocracy and old photography. Author and co-author of several books, including: “Adam and Jadwiga Czartoryski. Photographs and Memories” (2013), “Stanisław Kazimierz Kossakowski. I love photography” (2019). Co-creator of historical exhibitions, including: “For here we do not have an enduring city – a story about palaces on the Royal Route in Warsaw” (2010). He has been cooperating with the National Treasury (Skarbnica Narodowa) for several years. The area of his numismatic interest is primarily historical Polish coins.