There are not many coins that can legitimately claim to have changed the world, but the Spanish escudo is one. Struck using the abundance of gold found in the New World, the escudo (which means “shield”) quickly became a trusted international trading coin, transforming the fortunes of Spain and delivering economic prosperity to Europe. By doing so, the iconic Spanish coin can be said to have financed the Renaissance and ignited the Industrial Revolution. The world would never be the same again.
At all costs, get gold!
When Spain agreed to finance Christopher Columbus’ dangerous voyage into unchartered waters, they could hardly have imagined what a sound investment this would prove to be. Columbus (1451–1506) mentions gold at least 65 times in the diary that he kept during his historic journey of discovery.
Upon his arrival in the Caribbean in 1492, the Italian explorer’s first question was apparently to ask where he could find it! When it became clear that the New World had gold in plentiful supply, Spain quickly dispatched more expeditions. In 1511, King Ferdinand of Spain instructed his conquistadors to “get gold, humanely if you can, but at all costs, get gold”.
When Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) arrived in Mexico, he was amazed to find that the Aztecs had so much gold that they used it to decorate childrens’ toys, walls, ornaments and plates. They prized brightly coloured feathers, cacao beans and cloth far above the yellow metal, and Cortés excitedly reported that half a kilo of gold could be purchased for just 250 cacao beans!
A document to history
In 1537 the Holy Roman Emperor, King Charles I of Spain (r. 1516–58), constructed the first mint in the New World at Mexico City and ordered them to strike escudos with gold mined from the region. The new coin was inspired by the Venetian Ducat, a popular trading coin due to its identifiable design, constant weight and consistent purity.
As Spain grew to become one of the world’s first major superpowers, the importance of the escudo as the chief gold coin of Spanish-America grew with it. Escudos were produced throughout the New World, in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Peru.
The Spanish escudo remained the most widely used currency in the Americas for over three centuries. Its popularity only waned after 1857 when it ceased to be accepted as legal tender in the United States. In 1864 Spain relaunched the escudo in silver as the official currency of Spain, but just four years later, they joined the Latin Monetary Union and introduced the Peseta. This brought over three hundred years of escudo production to an end.
Reborn as a commemorative
In 2018, 150 years after the last circulating escudo was issued, the Royal Mint of Spain struck their most iconic gold coin again, this time as a 24-carat gold commemorative. All four original escudo denominations were struck in their original sizes, each with a reworked design that charts the unique history of this remarkable coin.
The Spanish King of England
Gold from the New World began to arrive in Spain after 1503, and it is estimated that twenty-five tons went to the Seville Mint during the 16th Century alone. Built during the reign of King Philip II (r. 1556–98), the first Escudos struck by the Mint bore his shield, and this design appears on the 2018 Four Escudos.
Under King Philip II’s reign, Spain enjoyed its “Golden Age”, with an empire upon which it was said that the sun never set. For four years between 1554 and 1558, the King also ruled England jointly with his second wife, the Catholic Queen Mary I. Theirs was clearly a political union, as they married only two days after their first meeting!
When Mary I died in 1558 without producing an heir, Philip automatically lost his rights to the English throne, and he was to spend the rest of his life trying to get it back! He immediately proposed marriage to his dead wife’s Protestant sister, the new Queen Elizabeth I. When she rebuffed his advances, he supported her cousin Mary Queen of Scots in a Catholic plot to seize the English throne. When the plot was exposed, he sent an Armada to invade England. But the Spanish fleet was routed at sea before they could land, thereby sinking his dream of ever possessing England again.
The 2018 Four Escudo depicts the Royal Coat of Arms of King Philip II and the official crowned “M” privy mark of the Royal Mint of Spain together with the new face value (200 EURO). The legend reads “PHILIPPUS.DEI GRATIA.” (Philip by the Grace of God).
The obverse depicts the Cross of Jerusalem within a quatrefoil and a leaf in each corner. This symbolised the King’s official determination to carry the Christian message to the four corners of the world. Of course, a cynic might argue that this noble intention was also a useful pretext to justify the conquest and plunder of foreign lands full of exploitable natural resources. The legend “HISPANIARUMN.REX” means “King of Spain”.
The Two Escudo was known as a Doubloon (Double), and they were minted throughout the Americas as well as in Spain. Until 1732, all coins produced in the New World were crudely fashioned “cobs” struck on irregularly shaped pieces of gold. Most were shipped across the Atlantic to be melted down, and the metal used to create Escudos of a much higher standard.
In 1586, new coining machines were installed at the Segovia Mint in Spain to strike escudos with the gold received from the New World. However, the Spanish galleons transporting this vast wealth through the Caribbean and across the ocean were always vulnerable to attack from pirates seeking to relieve them of their precious cargo. No other coin in the world evokes stronger images of pirate ships and treasure maps than the Spanish Doubloon.
The 2018 Spanish Doubloon features an original design that was struck at the Segovia Mint in 1607 during the reign of King Philip III (r. 1598–1621). Like his father, Philip III’s Doubloon also depicts the distinctive Cross of Jerusalem as a symbol of his “official” intention to spread the faith.
The reverse presents his Royal Coat of Arms together with a distinctive mintmark to show that the coin was initially struck at the Segovia Mint. Built by the Romans in the First Century to carry water to the town, the impressive Segovia aqueduct was an appropriate choice for a mintmark, as the Mint used giant water wheels to power its state of the art coin press. The legend reads “PHILIPPUS.III.D.G.” (Philip III by the Grace of God).
The Golden Fleece
The largest Spanish gold coin struck in the New World was the Eight Escudo. Often referred to as the “Onza” (ounce), the coin was first produced in 1610 and became the standard for large monetary transactions in the New World.
The 2018 Eight Escudo commemorative coin uses a design that was struck at the Mint of Madrid in 1719 during the reign of Spain’s longest-reigning monarch King Philip V (r. 1700–24, 1724–46). There were several public and private mints in Spain until Philip V decided to make striking coinage a state monopoly in 1718.
The official intention of the Spanish monarchs to spread their religious faith around the world had not diminished after more than a century. The obverse still bears the distinctive Cross of Jerusalem with four leaves. The reverse depicts the King’s Royal Coat of Arms and the legend “PHILIPPUS.V.DEI.GRA” (Philip V by the Grace of God).
An interesting feature of the shield is the inclusion of the mythical Golden Fleece on a chain. Philip V was the first head of the Spanish branch of the Order of the Golden Fleece, a Roman Catholic order of chivalry founded in Bruges in 1430. Since its establishment, the order has only had 1,200 members and is often referred to as the most prestigious and exclusive order of chivalry in the world.
The Golden Fleece was a highly appropriate image to feature on the largest gold coin of the New World. In Greek mythology, Jason and his crew of Argonauts travelled the seas to unexplored lands, searching for the fabled golden treasure. Now, centuries later, the Spanish were reaping the spoils of their own explorations, and the magnificent Eight Escudo was the proof that, like Jason, they had also found a golden treasure that exceeded their wildest expectations.
The amount of gold and silver produced in the New World was phenomenal. An estimated 70 million gold coins and over 2 billion silver coins were struck during the 17th and 18th centuries. The 2018 One Escudo pays tribute to this abundance of gold by depicting the design struck at the Popayán Mint in Colombia in 1758 during the reign of King Fernando VI (r. 1746-–59).
By 1758, all of the mints in the New World were striking coinage of a very high standard. The first milled coins struck in the Americas were produced in Mexico in 1732, and the technology quickly spread to the other mints. The last rough “cob” coins were produced in 1749.
Under monetary reforms initiated by his father, King Philip V, a portrait of the monarch was introduced onto the obverse of gold coins struck after 1728, replacing the Cross of Jerusalem. As a result, the 2018 coin has a portrait of Ferdinand VI on its obverse, with the legend “FERDND.VI.D.G.HISPAN.ET IND.REX.” (Ferdinand VI by the Grace of God, King of the Spains and the Indies).
The reverse presents the King’s lesser Royal Coat of Arms and the unique mint mark of the Popayán Mint (PN) to show where the coin was initially struck. Popayán was a strategically important location as a transfer point for gold and other riches going to Spain, and it continued to produce gold escudos and silver reales until 1819. Completing the reverse is the legend “NOMINA. MAGNA. SEQUOR” (I follow the Greatest Ones).
The first coins to bear the King’s image with his long, flowing hair became known, somewhat unkindly, as peluconas, because peluca is the Spanish word for a wig!
The Currency of Conquest
The Spanish Escudo provided the wealth that enabled the transformation of European society. But it came at a high cost. The Spanish conquistadors forced many indigenous communities into dangerous mines to extract the precious metal as quickly as possible under the most atrocious conditions. In addition, they confiscated their gold ornaments, jewellery and decorations, which were almost always melted down and struck into coins or ingots before being sent across the sea to the mother country. Those fortunate enough to examine the craftsmanship of the Aztec goldsmiths reported that they were more skilled than their European counterparts. The loss of their cultural and artistic treasures from the historical record is incalculable. It will forever be a matter of great regret that the Spanish Kings preferred to receive their gold from the New World in coins and ingots.
However, without the influx of gold from the New World, it is hard to see how the intellectual, cultural and artistic Renaissance that swept through Europe after the 15th Century could have been financed. Likewise, the Industrial Revolution that began in Britain in the 18th Century required a prosperous economy to sustain it. The reliable gold coin helped to facilitate this by lifting Europe out of the grinding poverty in which it had languished for centuries.
The Spanish Escudo, with its stable weight, trusted purity, and distinctive design, can be said to have paved the way for the international trading coins, such as the Dutch Ducat (from 1586), the modern British Sovereign (from 1817) and the American Double Eagle (from 1907) that came after it.