The children of Sparta and the boy on a dolphin

The Lydian lion, believed to the be the world’s first coin

The ancient Greeks produced many beautiful coins that are highly sought after by collectors today. The Greek historian Herodotus recorded that the world’s first coins were struck in the Kingdom of Lydia around the Seventh Century BC. The Lydians struck their coins in electrum, an alloy of gold and silver, and they depicted the head of a lion.

Within a century, the island of Aegina, who traded with Lydia, had become the first Greek city-state to see the potential of currency. They struck an astonishingly beautiful coin featuring a sea turtle in high relief. Other regions eagerly followed their example and created distinctive coins depicting the emblems of their society.

But while Athens coinage depicted a wide-eyed owl, and Corinth used the flying horse Pegasus, one Greek city-state stubbornly refused to embrace the concept of coinage. The legendary warrior city of Sparta was so resistant to currency that they actually forbade its use for several centuries.

The Athenian Owl

Given Sparta’s staunch opposition to coins, it is an amusing irony that their only colony, Taras, situated hundreds of miles away in southern Italy, not only fully embraced the concept but produced what is arguably one of the most intriguing and iconic coins of the ancient world.

The story of how and why the children of Sparta travelled to Italy and then chose the image of a boy on a dolphin as the emblem of their city to depict on their coins is a fascinating one.

City of Warriors

A Spartan warrior

The Spartans were arguably the most fearsome, ruthless and accomplished warriors in the ancient world. Located on the Peloponnese peninsula next to the mighty Eurotas River, Spartan citizens were bred for war. Their society was dedicated to producing physically fit, fiercely loyal and highly disciplined warriors who considered death on the battlefield the highest possible honour.

Training began at birth. Newborn Spartan babies were carefully examined for defects or illnesses, and if any were found, they would be taken outside the city and left to die on a hillside. Those fortunate to survive the selection procedure were sent to a state-run military school at the age of seven. They were taught to fight and endure pain through discipline, physical exercise, combat skills and weapons training.

The Sons of Virgins

During the Messenian War, circa 743-724 BC, the Spartan army pledged not to return home until they had secured victory. Having so many warriors away from home led to a dramatic drop in the birthrate, which threatened Sparta’s long term future. It is reported that a delegation of Spartan women travelled to Messenia to demand that their husbands procreate with them. However, as the war dragged on, it became clear that a different approach to solving the low birthrate problem was required.

To honour their pledge not to return home until the war was won, it was decided that young soldiers who had not yet sworn the oath to Sparta would be sent back with a special mission. In what must be one of the most unusual military orders ever issued, the soldiers were commanded to reproduce with as many young Spartan women as possible.

The children that resulted from these unorthodox unions were called Parthenians. The name means ‘sons of virgins’ because their mothers were considered to have done their patriotic duty for the state and so maintained their legal status as virgins.

Partheniae, however, had no legal status within Spartan society and were deprived of civil rights. Spartan warriors returning home at the end of the war refused to accept children conceived by their wives and daughters during their absence, particularly as it was rumoured that some babies had been fathered by slaves who had taken advantage of the situation to have illicit relationships with women outside of their social class.

After growing into adulthood, the Parthenians refused to accept their inferior status and organised a revolt. Anticipating the situation, the Spartan government proposed a peaceful alternative to bloody conflict. Perhaps due to their unique status as the children of Spartan women, there does not appear to have been the usual Spartan desire to crush their opponents by force. Instead, they asked their leader, a man called Phalantus, to lead the Partheniae out of the Peloponnese region and establish the only Spartan colony somewhere else.

A Spartan woman giving a shield to her son

Rain from a Clear Sky

To decide where they should go, Phalantus travelled to the temple of Delphi, located on Mount Parnassus in Central Greece. The Greeks believed Delphi to be the centre of the known world, and it became a place of great spiritual pilgrimage for those in search of divine guidance. At Delphi, it was believed that the gods could speak directly to humans.

Delphi was built to honour the god Apollo who the Greeks believed could transform into a dolphin. According to the legend, it was as a dolphin that he appeared to a group of terrified Cretan sailors. After taking on human form, he instructed them to build his temple in the mountains and name it after the aquatic mammal. They dutifully built a temple in his honour and named it Delphinios (Delphi) even though it is located several miles inland, far from a dolphin’s usual habitat.

Within the temple, the ancient Greeks believed that the gods would communicate through the Oracle, an older woman of good reputation who lived among the peasants in Delphi. She was kept alone in an inner sanctum built over a fissure in the rock. Fumes rising from this chasm had intoxicating properties that produced a trance-like effect. At pre-arranged times during the year, the Oracle would go into a trance, and according to legend, Apollo would speak directly through her. The priests in the temple would be on hand to transcribe and interpret any ‘divine’ instructions received.

Phalantus asked the Oracle to tell him where he should build the new colony, but he received an answer that puzzled him. She informed him that he should go to a place where rain fell from a clear sky. After all of his attempts to identify a place that fitted the description failed, a despondent Phalantus became convinced that the Oracle was telling him that there was nowhere on Earth for them to go.

After returning home in despair, his wife Aethra consoled him as he lay sobbing with his head in her lap until she also became upset. As her tears trickled down and splashed onto her husband’s face, Phalantus suddenly realised the meaning of the Oracle’s vision. His wife’s name, Aethra, meant ‘clear sky’. She had been born in the Apulia region, which is today in Southern Italy. He knew immediately that this was where the new colony had to be built.

Taras

The Partheniae arrived in the Apulia region in 706 BC and built Sparta’s only colony there. They chose a perfect geographical location for trade, as it provided a naturally safe harbour for sea-going vessels on the Mediterranean. They named their city Taras (later, Tarentum) after the son of the Greek sea god Poseidon and a local nymph Satyrion. The colony was initially modelled on Sparta’s constitution and grew quickly to become one of the most important commercial centres in the region. Today, the city is called Taranto.

Little is known of what happened to Phalantus after he established the colony. There is no history that he was buried in the city, which was the traditional way to honour a founder. One legend has him leaving Taras and returning to Sparta, where he met an untimely death at the hands of jealous government officials threatened by his popularity.

Coinage

Sparta had no need for coinage which they considered the product of an inferior society. With a huge underclass of slaves, known as Helots, and a separate class of merchant craftsman called the Perocei, Spartan citizens were allocated food, clothing, housing and possessions according to their rank and status within society. All of their day-to-day needs were provided by the state, so money was redundant as a medium of exchange. In fact, Spartan citizens were forbidden to embark upon profit-making ventures, as this was considered a distraction from their training as warriors.

Taras did not have the same structured society as Sparta. Without an abundance of slaves, and skilled craftsmen to provide for their needs, they had no alternative but to engage in widespread commerce with their neighbours. In a significant departure from the Spartan model, they decided to strike their own coinage to facilitate the trade that fueled their economic prosperity. Production of Taras coinage was prolific and began about 500 BC, making them the first coins to have a direct connection with Sparta.

Boy on a Dolphin

Coin struck at Taras

Like most cities, Taras chose to place an emblem that symbolised their city on the face of its coinage. They selected the image of a boy riding on the back of a dolphin which appears on most of their coins. The popular theory is that he is Phalantus, the founder of the city. The dolphin appears on the coin because Phalantus chose the colony’s location after consulting the Oracle at Delphi.

However, the Greek philosopher Aristotle claimed that the Taras coins depicted the mythical figure of Taras himself. According to the murky world of Greek mythology, Taras was rescued from a shipwreck by his father, the sea-god Poseidon, who dispatched a dolphin to save his son from drowning.  The creature dutifully carried Taras to shore at the spot on which the city that bears his name was built.

While it is always dangerous to base even tentative historical conclusions on ancient mythology, this theory does, on balance, appear to be the more plausible of the two, as it explains why the male character is actually riding on the dolphin than simply asking it for directions. In addition, the story of a parent protecting a child from danger may have appealed to the children of Sparta, separated as they were from their strong parent city by hundreds of miles of sea.

What is clear is that the people of Taras revered both Phalantus and Taras as heroes. In the Second Century AD, a Greek travel writer called Pausanias described visiting Delphi and seeing a votive offering to the gods that depicted both men side by side.

Other Designs

The coins of Taras have always boasted a wide variety of reverse designs. The earliest included a four-spoked wheel, representing either a war chariot or a racing chariot. Others featured a head, possibly Taras or a cockle shell, which would have been abundant on the shoreline. One of the most popular and enduring designs appears to have been a man on horseback, which appeared on coinage from around 450 BC. These are generally considered to depict equestrian games at the hippodrome, where athletes competed in contests of skill and strength.

Why the reverse designs appear to have been changed so frequently is not immediately apparent. Certainly, the city’s economic prosperity was offset by less successful military campaigns against the native inhabitants of Apulia, the Iapyges. This instability might be reflected in the changing designs and help to explain why depictions of charging warriors, chariot wheels and trident wielding deities rub alongside images of young people, equestrian sports, musical instruments and fruits.

Conquest and Commerce

Initially, Taras sought to imitate the military glories of their parent city and secured important military victories over the Iapygian tribes of the Messapians and the Peucetians, two of the indigenous tribes within Apulia who objected to the expansion of Greek settlers on their land.

However, the colony’s victory celebrations were premature. In 475 BC, they were soundly defeated by the Messapians in a battle described by Herodotus as the greatest slaughter of Greeks in his knowledge. In 466 BC, they suffered another major defeat. So many of the ruling class were killed in the fighting that a democratic party was able to assume control of the government and introduce democracy to the city.

Afterwards, Taras restricted its future expansion to coastal regions and became one of the most successful Greek colonies that spread out across Italy, the Mediterranean islands, Syria, Egypt and the Middle East. She continued to grow throughout the Fifth Century  BC, assisted no doubt by the decline of her long term coastal rival Croton.

The value of coins would change from city to city. Merchants would usually only accept coins from their own city, which meant that visitors would have to seek out a moneychanger to exchange their coins before they could make purchases. The Athenian monetary system, adopted by most Greek city-states (except Sparta), ruled that the Drachma was worth six Obols and a Didrachm worth two Drachma. A Tetradrachm was worth four Drachma, and a Dekadrachm worth ten Drachma.

In the Fifth Century BC, it is believed that a Drachma would have been about a day’s wage for a manual worker. Soldiers in the Greek armoured infantry could expect to receive up to two Drachma, while sculptors and physicians could be paid up to six Drachma a day for their services.

Meat in ancient Greece was expensive, and only the wealthy could afford to eat at home. Lamb would cost eight Drachma, a gallon of olive oil about five Drachma and a loaf of bread, typically an Obol. A pair of shoes in Ancient Greece would typically cost between eight and twelve Drachma. For those wealthy enough to own slaves, one could be purchased from between twenty to thirty Dekadrachm.

Interestingly, travel costs between cities in ancient Greece appears to have been relatively inexpensive. According to the Greek philosopher Gorgias writing in the Fifth Century BC, a ferry crossing from the island of Aegina to Athens would cost just two Obols. In contrast, a long voyage across the Mediterranean Sea from Egypt to Athens would cost about two Drachma.

In 433 BC, the Spartan colony even founded a colony of her own in the west. Named Heraclea after the Greek god Heracles, she became the seat of the Italiote League just thirty years later. Taras controlled this association of Greek-speaking inhabitants in southern Italy, and coins were struck portraying the mythical hero fighting a lion, an allusion to the strength of the Greeks against the native population.

It was not until Sparta was in terminal decline as a military and political power that it became necessary for them to produce their own coinage to trade with their neighbours. The strict laws prohibiting the use of coinage were relaxed, and the first Spartan coins, comprising silver Tetradrachms and Obols, were struck, albeit in very low quantities from the Third Century BC.

Taras flourished as a major centre of commerce for nearly five hundred years before she was captured by the Romans and renamed Tarentum after 213 BC. The Romans named the coastal areas of Southern Italy ‘Magna Graecia’ (Great Greece) due to the number of Greek colonies established throughout the region.  The minting operation at Taras, which had struck the coins that circulated widely throughout Magna Graecia fell silent, and her reign as a significant economic and political power came to an end.  However, the large number of iconic coins found throughout the region provide evidence of the prosperity, power and influence that the children of Sparta achieved.

Ancient temple ruins from Tarentum

Sir Isaac Newton – Master of the Mint

Newton in 1702

In 1699, Isaac Newton was ready for a new challenge. It had taken months for the Warden of the Mint to build a watertight case to prosecute the most notorious counterfeiter in the land. His forensic analysis of the evidence and dogged determination to get his man had paid off. In March, Newton’s nemesis, William Chaloner, made a one way trip to the gallows at Tyburn to suffer the ultimate penalty for his crimes.

Pursuing and prosecuting criminals wasn’t a task that Newton particularly relished. Still, when he was told that it was part of his job description, he applied the same scientific rigour to his criminal investigations that he had applied to his theorems. In doing so, he became arguably London’s first undercover detective.

On 17th December 1699, the Master of the Mint Thomas Neale died, and Newton was offered the role. He accepted it on Christmas Day 1699, his 57th birthday. Though technically less senior than the Warden, it was a more lucrative post because the Master acted as a contractor to the Crown and profited from the rates at which work was put out to sub-contractors. Newton was to remain Master for the Mint until his death twenty-seven years later.

Once again, Newton threw himself into his new role, working diligently and with great integrity to improve the reputation of the Mint, which had been dogged for decades by accusations of corruption and incompetence. At a time when corruption was widespread, he set himself up as a role model for his employees to follow, as evidenced when he refused a bribe of over £6000 to award contracts for the procurement of copper.

Newton was determined to use the new minting technology available to him to create the best possible visual appearance of coins. He hired a skilled German jeweller from Dresden named John Croker to engrave designs onto the dies at a greater depth. The resulting die would then be used to strike coins in high relief, which would make the monarch’s portrait look more lifelike. The deeply engraved Two Guinea and Five Guinea pieces that were struck in 1701 are known today as the “fine work” Guineas. They are a testimony to Newton’s determination to produce the best possible coinage and have rightly become numismatic classics.

The ‘Fine Work’ Five Guinea

In April 1705, Queen Anne knighted Newton during a royal visit to Trinity College, Cambridge. The knighthood is likely to have been motivated by political considerations rather than recognition of his scientific discoveries or services as Master of the Mint. Nonetheless, Newton became only the second scientist to be knighted after Sir Francis Bacon.

Sir Isaac took his responsibilities as Master of the Mint very seriously and maintained an active involvement in its day-to-day affairs even into old age. The administrative skill he brought to the role is demonstrated in the hundreds of surviving reports and letters he wrote as Master. One of his most famous reports, issued in September 1717 to the Lords Commissioners of His Majesty’s Treasury, established a new mint ratio between silver and gold that had the effect of moving Britain onto the gold standard.

With silver coinage in such short supply, there was an urgent need to issue a lower denomination gold coin. In 1718 it was decided to strike a gold quarter guinea worth approximately the same as the five-shilling silver Crown. The new coin weighed 2.1 grams and was just 16 millimetres in diameter. Newton did not appreciate that such a small coin would be impractical to use, which made them unpopular. Of the 37,380 coins minted, many were put aside as keepsakes due to their beautifully intricate design. Production of the quarter guinea ceased within a year, and an increased number of guineas and half guineas were made instead.

The short lived Quarter Guinea, beautiful but too small for practical use

Newton was particularly concerned with the accuracy of the currency. He was determined to ensure that all coins were made to the correct weight and fineness, varying as little as possible. This level of accuracy was unprecedented. It is arguably one of his most outstanding achievements as Master of The Mint that he brought the coinage, in his own words, to a “much greater degree of exactness than was ever known before”.

Given his undisputed commitment to accuracy in every aspect of his work, it is hardly a surprise that Newton reacted furiously in 1710 at the judgement of the Trial of the Pyx, who ruled that his gold coins were below standard. Trials have been held in London on an annual basis from the Twelfth Century to the present day and are presided over by a judge with an expert jury of assayers. Their purpose is to test randomly selected newly minted coins to ensure that they are within the statutory limits for metallic composition, weight and size.

On this particular occasion, Newton was so adamant that his coins had been manufactured to the correct weight and finesse that the gold trial plate used by the assayers to evaluate the coins was itself evaluated and found to be below the legal standard. The coins themselves were perfect.

Knowing the penalty for failing the Trial of the Pyx makes Newton’s unwillingness to admit error quite understandable. It was more than professional pride. As Master of the Mint, he could be held directly accountable for any coins that failed the trial. Punishment ranged from imprisonment to hanging and quartering!

Despite his great ability with numbers and mathematical calculations, Newton still lost a fortune on the stock market. In 1720 he invested heavily in the South Sea Company, established in the early Eighteenth Century, which had a monopoly on trade in the South Seas. Newton initially purchased and sold a small number of shares and made an impressive profit. As he watched stock in the company continue to climb, Newton bought more shares, eventually pouring almost his entire life savings into the company. Then, he watched in horror as the bubble burst. According to his niece, he lost around £20,000 and is said to have remarked ruefully at the time, “I can calculate the movement of stars, but not the madness of men.”

Newton never married, and his chronic insecurity, bouts of depression and preoccupation with his work meant that few friends came to visit. Towards the end of his life, he lived near Winchester with his niece Catherine (Barton) Conduitt and her husband John. When asked, shortly before his death, how he would describe his achievements, he replied;

“I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself now and then in finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

Sir Isaac Newton died on 31st March 1727, at the age of 84 and is buried at Westminster Abbey.

Given his lengthy association with coinage, it was inevitable that Newton would eventually be commemorated on one. Sixty years after his death, a severe shortage of farthings, half-pennies and pennies for everyday trade led to many private businesses taking matters into their own hands and minting large numbers of copper tokens. Workers were paid in tokens and would exchange them locally for goods and services in company-owned shops. By the end of the Eighteenth Century, millions of tokens had been struck and were in everyday use throughout Great Britain.

Half-penny copper token depicting Newton in 1793

In 1793, copper farthings and half-penny tokens featuring Newton on the obverse proved very popular. The reverse depicted a horn of plenty (cornucopia), a symbol of abundance that honours his outstanding contribution to science, astronomy and mathematics. The half-penny is larger, and in addition to the cornucopia also depicts the Caduceus, the staff carried by Hermes, the winged messenger of the Gods. This is a symbol of communication, writing, printing, eloquence, enlightenment and understanding. The inclusion of the symbols made the Newton tokens very popular, not least because they were believed to grant prosperity and eloquence to anyone who owned them

Nearly two hundred years later in 1978, the Bank of England honoured Sir Isaac Newton on the reverse of the one-pound note. The design, by Harry Eccleston, featured the Caduceus and cornucopia adjacent to Queen Elizabeth II on the front. The reverse depicted Newton holding an open book seated next to a prism and a reflecting telescope. Behind him is the heliocentric solar system, reflecting the enormous impact that his single-minded determination to uncover the secrets of the universe has had on the ongoing development of humanity.

Newton appeared on the British one pound banknote from 1978 to 1988

In 2017, The Royal Mint commemorated the life of their most famous Mint Master with a fifty pence coin that borrowed the design of the solar system that had featured on the old banknote. The Government of Gibraltar also issued a commemorative Quarter Guinea and Five Guinea in the same year to honour Newton’s ‘fine work’. The new design incorporated the cornucopia and the Caduceus, together with an apple, which Newton famously credited with helping him develop the theory of gravity after watching one fall from a tree outside his home.

Commemorative gold Five Guineas issued by Gibraltar in 2017

Sir Isaac Newton – Warden of the Mint

Isaac Newton, pictured in 1689

In 1693, fifty-one-old Isaac Newton was mentally exhausted. After firmly rejecting a career in the family farming business as a young man, he had instead written the laws of motion, explained orbital mechanics, investigated the principles of light and colour and developed the calculus. His place in history as one of the greatest thinkers of the modern age was assured.

Newton had grown bored with his sedentary life as a Professor at Cambridge University. The man who had once pushed a bodkin into his eye to test his theories about colour now found that the scientific pursuit of truth no longer held the appeal it once did. His finest achievements were, he felt, behind him, and his behaviour had become increasingly unpredictable and erratic. He would fly into furious rages and write angry, vengeful letters to former friends accusing them of betrayal and conspiracy at the slightest provocation. Plagued by depression, paranoia and insomnia, he suffered what he would later describe as his ‘black year’. It would last eighteen months.

Newton needed a change of scene and a new challenge to exercise his mind. After a while, he began to bombard his friend Charles Montagu, Chancellor of the Exchequer, with letters requesting work in London. Eventually, on 19th March 1696, he received a reply, notifying him that he had been recommended for the position of Warden of the Royal Mint. Newton eagerly accepted and had reported for duty within the month.

Based at the Tower of London where the Mint made the coins of the realm, the Warden’s job was to enforce laws against counterfeiting. The office had been viewed as a largely symbolic position that required little work. However, Newton took the role extremely seriously and relished the challenge. Whether Montague intended it that way or not, his decision to allow Newton to apply his scientific methodology and towering intellect to the currency crisis was to prove an inspired one.

The Tower of London, pictured in 1737

Counterfeiting was a thriving industry in Britain when Newton arrived at the Tower of London to take up his new position. Around ten per cent of coins in circulation were fakes, cast or stamped from forged or stolen moulds and dies. In addition, the value of silver on the continent was greater than its face value on coins. As a result, huge numbers of silver coins were withdrawn from circulation, melted and taken abroad to be sold at a tidy profit. Genuine coins were often hoarded, thus proving Gresham’s law that “bad money drives out good”.

Counterfeiters would clip metal from coins (left) and use the clippings to make new coins (right).
Some counterfeit coins, such as those produced by William Chaloner, were of exceptionally high quality

Newton’s solution to the problem involved a Great Recoinage. This enormous operation involved taking in millions of pounds of coins by weight and re-minting them at their correct value. He organised a production line of 500 men at the Tower of London, and over the next four years, they smelted most of England’s money supply. To assist them, branch mints were established at Bristol, Chester, Exeter, Norwich, and York. Knowing that some counterfeiters had access to stolen Royal Mint equipment, Newton told the officers at these country mints to “trust not the computations of a single Clerk nor any other eyes than your own.”

On Newton’s orders, Mint employees worked six days a week from 4 a.m. to midnight. Before he arrived, no one thought the Mint could produce 15,000 coins in a week. Newton soon had them turning out 50,000 coins every week, and between 1696 and 1699, the value of silver struck was over £5.1 million, compared to £3.3million coined in the preceding 35 years.

Newton’s position as Warden of the Mint also meant that it was his responsibility to track down and prosecute counterfeiters. Chasing crooks was not something that particularly appealed to him, and he wrote a letter to the Treasury asking if he could be excused this particular duty. They reminded him that it was part of his job description, and so he set to work with his customary zeal and single-minded determination. To assist him, Parliament passed the Coin Act in 1696, making it an act of treason to make coins, construct, sell or possess the equipment required to make coins or assist anyone making coins. The punishment for doing so was death.

Newton was now able to devote more time to his primary duty of investigating and bringing to justice the counterfeiters and clippers. He went undercover himself and visited notorious bars, taverns and other dens of iniquity in London where criminals gathered to recruit informants and purchase information.

Newton went to bars and taverns gather evidence

Newton hired private “thief-takers” to locate counterfeiters and their equipment. Records show that he personally tracked criminals to their lairs and interrogated them in person. He became a regular visitor at the rat-infested Newgate Prison, where he conducted more than 58 interviews. Between June 1698 and December 1699, he conducted more than 100 cross-examinations of witnesses, informers, and suspects to build watertight cases against the accused. Newton gathered evidence to successfully prosecute 28 counterfeiters, most of whom went to the gallows and paid the ultimate penalty for their crimes

However, Newton’s biggest challenge was to prosecute the most prolific counterfeiter of the age. It took Newton many months to build a successful case against this kingpin of the criminal underworld, and soon he was working full time on this one goal. Like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, every great detective needs a worthy adversary. Newton’s was a man called William Chaloner, a resourceful and cunning counterfeiter of exceptional ability with ambitions to run The Royal Mint.

Chaloner was born in poverty, the son of a weaver in Lincolnshire. He ran away to London as a young man and started at the very bottom of the criminal ladder, hawking and scamming unwary passers-by on street corners. He possessed an enquiring mind and the gift of the gab and sometimes pretended to be a doctor to sell remedies for imaginary ailments that he would diagnose on the spot.

To provide a legitimate front for his business dealings, Chaloner set himself up as a recoverer of stolen property. Of course, he was able to do this because he had arranged for the property to be stolen in the first place. He also had a brief career informing on enemies of the state, paying Jacobites to print dissident literature and then betraying them to the authorities and pocketing the reward money. Eventually, his luck ran out, and he was named a suspect in a burglary case in 1690, which forced him to flee and go into hiding.

It was a chance meeting with a craftsman who showed him how to gild surfaces that made Chaloner’s fortune but ultimately took him to the gallows. He quickly realised the potential for counterfeiting gold and silver money, and over a lucrative eight-year career, he is believed to have counterfeited over £30,000 worth of currency.

Counterfeiting made Chaloner a very wealthy man. He bought a large house in the semi-rural suburb of Knightsbridge, rode in a carriage, wore fine clothes and presented himself to high society as a gentleman. After forging “Birmingham Groats”, he moved on to more lucrative Guineas, French Pistoles, crowns and half-crowns, Banknotes and lottery tickets

Chaloner developed a sophisticated casting method that involved pouring molten metal into high-quality brass moulds and set up a factory in Egham 20 miles outside London. It was said that he was so pleased with the quality of the counterfeits he was producing that it upset him to see them used as it spoiled their perfection!

Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Montagu, who appointed Newton the Warden of the Mint

Ultimately, Chaloner’s giant ego was his undoing. A few months before Newton took up his post, Chaloner had written to the Government claiming to have evidence that men working at the Mint were selling duplicates of the casts used to make coins. Of course, he didn’t tell them that he only knew this because he had purchased one of these casts for himself! When Newton heard of the letter, he immediately launched an investigation and interviewed more than 30 suspects to determine whether there was any truth in the accusations. Meanwhile, Chaloner tried to involve himself in the investigation and revealed his real purpose for writing the letter. He wanted Parliament to let him run the Royal Mint to sort out the mess!

Chaloner wrote letters, published pamphlets and was even invited to appear before Parliamentary committees, arguing that only he could solve England’s counterfeiting problem. He even went so far as to publicly accuse Newton of incompetence and possibly even fraud in managing the Great Recoinage. Newton was furious at this slur on his reputation, and so began a game of cat-and-mouse in which Chaloner sought to persuade Parliament to give him control of the Mint while Newton secretly compiled evidence to expose him as the chief counterfeiter in England.

Newton discovered that Chaloner had been arrested repeatedly for various scams and had even served time in jail for petty offences. However, because there were no centralised criminal records at the time, it had been easy for him to move from place to place and start again each time he was released. Astonishingly, Newton discovered that in 1694, Chaloner had been caught red-handed in the act of forging banknotes. He had talked his way out of prosecution on that occasion by naming people who he claimed were the real counterfeiters behind the operation. He even ended up receiving a reward for his information!

Much to Newton’s frustration, in 1697, Parliament ordered him to provide Chaloner with the resources to make prototypes of a new currency that he had proposed to them. Newton refused, so Chaloner went ahead and made them anyway using stolen casts. When Newton found out through his informer network, he immediately had Chaloner arrested. Chaloner quickly paid a key witness to flee to Scotland, and without him, the case against him collapsed. Newton then went to Parliament to voice his suspicions about Chaloner, but these were dismissed, and Chaloner went back to offering his services to run the Royal Mint, whilst simultaneously producing forged £50 banknotes and lottery tickets!

After that, Newton dedicated himself solely to the task of building a robust case against Chaloner. He worked relentlessly and with a single-minded determination to gather evidence for the prosecution. He methodically bribed, threatened and bullied witnesses for information that would allow his spies and informants to infiltrate Chaloner’s sophisticated counterfeiting operation. Eventually, there was enough evidence to arrest him again, and this time Newton even arranged for informants to be locked up with him to report back on anything that he said in custody.

Newgate Prison

When the trial finally came, Newton assembled eight witnesses to testify against Chaloner, including the wife of the man he had paid to run away to Scotland. She was willing to speak in court because Chaloner had scammed them out of money as well. Such was the weight of evidence against him that the jury quickly reached their verdict and sentenced the counterfeiter to hang.

Chaloner appealed for mercy from his condemned cell in Newgate Prison and wrote to Newton several times, begging him to save his life. His final letter concluded with the piteous words; “Oh dear Sir nobody can save me but you. O God my God I shall be murdered unless you save me.” Newton did not respond.

On 22nd March 1699, there was nothing left for Newton’s great adversary to do but protest to the people who had come to watch him hang at Tyburn that “he was murder’d … under pretence of Law”. He suffered a miserable death choking for several minutes at the end of the rope, much to the amusement of the jeering crowd.

The Tyburn tree, where Chaloner met his grisly fate in 1699

It is doubtful that Newton was at Tyburn that day to witness this culmination of months of hard work. In his notebook, he wrote simply that “Chaloner could have lived a long, honest life had he let the money and Government alone.”

HRH Prince Philip and his work with coin design

In the last week, millions of words have been written in tribute about Prince Philip’s life and legacy as the longest royal consort in British history. However, one often overlooked fact is that, for almost half of his life, he also influenced the designs that appeared on British coinage.

When his wife became Queen following the death of her beloved father King George VI on 6th February 1952, Philip immediately gave up the naval career that he loved to take up his new royal duties as her consort. It was a role that he would perform with great distinction for the rest of his life, even though he would later joke that it made him “the world’s most experienced plaque unvelier.”

In 1952, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was keen to utilise the problem solving and leadership abilities that the young consort had acquired in the navy. His quick thinking and resourcefulness under fire had helped save the crew of the HMS Wallace in 1943 during the Allied invasion of Sicily. Coming under sustained attack, he quickly devised a plan to throw a smoking wooden raft overboard as a decoy. The ruse worked, and the Luftwaffe bombed the raft as the ship escaped.

To put his talents to good use, Philip was invited to chair the committee responsible for organising his wife’s coronation. Against the prime minister’s objections, Philip persuaded the Queen to allow television cameras into Westminster Abbey to broadcast the ceremony live to millions of people.  By doing so, he created a boom in television sales throughout the country.  For many people, their first experience of watching television in the home was watching the coronation. 

A few months before the coronation, Churchill asked Philip to become President of the Royal Mint Advisory Committee, which exists to raise the standard of coin design in Britain. The RMAC ensures that designs meet the high technical and artistic standards required, and they recommend which should appear on coins, medals, seals and decorations. The Prince wrote later that Churchill’s invitation came out of the blue, and it took him some time to find out what the job entailed. He was immediately faced with an urgent situation, as the committee had to organise the design of an entirely new set of coins for the new reign.   

Artist Mary Gillick (1881-1965) was selected to design the new Queen’s portrait, who she depicted wearing a laurel wreath and ribbons in her hair.  The reverse designs agreed for the new coinage included the sixpence, which depicted interlinked plants from all corners of the United Kingdom, a rose, thistle, shamrock and leek, each with a leaf from the same stem.  The half-crown depicted a heraldic crowned scrolled shield flanked on each side by the new royal monogram ‘ER’.

Philip served as President of the RMAC for the next 47 years, only stepping down in 1999. During his time in office, he chaired the meetings that approved the designs of Britain’s first decimal coins and the next three of the Queen’s official UK coinage portraits.

To help the public distinguish between old money and decimal currency, a new portrait of the Queen was introduced in 1968. Designed by Arnold Machin (1911-1999), he depicted the Queen wearing her tiara, a wedding present from her grandmother Queen Mary. 

In 1985, the Queen’s coin portrait changed again.  Sculptor Raphael Maklouf declared that he intended to “create a symbol, regal and ageless”. He depicted the monarch wearing a necklace, earrings and the royal diadem that she usually wears during the State Opening of Parliament. 

The Queen’s fourth coin portrait, created by Ian Rank-Broadley, appeared on coins in 1997. He chose to present the monarch’s “poise and bearing” and depicted her wearing the tiara from her second portrait. The Queen was seventy when the new design was created, and her advancing years are reflected in the portrait, which was widely acclaimed for its realism.  

Since Prince Philip stepped down as President of the RMAC, the Queen’s appearance has only changed once more on the nation’s coinage. In 2015, artist Jody Clark became the first employee of The Royal Mint to design the monarch’s coin portrait since 1902.  In her official fifth portrait, the Queen wears the diamond diadem she wore in her third portrait.

In 2008, Prince Philip recalled that he found it a fascinating challenge to getting his team of experts to agree on which designs to recommend for use. In that time, he developed a good understanding of the complexities of designing coins, appreciating that one side of the coin influences the other when the metal is struck.  Above all, he recognised that coins must achieve a practical purpose whilst reflecting contemporary tastes and attitudes.  

Many of the coins that we still carry in our pockets and purses today look the way they do because of the design meetings that Prince Philip chaired during his many years of distinguished and faithful service.

Byzantine Coins, the Shroud of Turin and the Holy Grail

Byzantine bronze follis struck AD 969-976 and the face on the Shroud of Turin

Since I was a small boy, I have been fascinated by the Shroud of Turin, where the paths of history, science and faith combine in one unique artefact. Irrespective of your religious beliefs, any student of history or science will find much to captivate them in the faint image of a crucified man that appears on the ancient cloth. Whether the linen once wrapped the dead body of Jesus Christ or is the work of a more recent medieval forger, the mystery of how the image is imprinted remains unsolved, even with twenty-first-century technology. It is my view that the image of Christ that appears on Byzantine coinage provides compelling evidence for the Shroud’s authenticity and a plausible solution to one of history’s greatest enigmas – the location of the mythical Holy Grail itself.    

A New Acquisition

At some time during the short but distinguished reign of Byzantine Emperor John I Tzimiskes (AD 969- 976), an artist working at the Constantinople Mint was entrusted with the task of engraving an image of Jesus Christ for a new bronze follis. Earlier emperors had depicted Christ on gold and silver coins, but this was the first time that his likeness would appear on a mass-produced circulating coin. 

The Emperor’s decision to depict Christ on his coinage instead of his own portrait may have been prompted by an exciting new acquisition. Constantinople had recently taken ownership of the holiest relic in Christendom, a mysterious image of Christ ‘not made by human hands’ but miraculously transferred onto a cloth, it was said, by Christ himself. Although it was considered too holy to go on public display at the time, our coin engraver would almost certainly have been granted the privilege of entering the Pharos chapel of Constantinople’s Imperial Palace for a special viewing in order to capture a good likeness.

The cloth had arrived in Constantinople amidst much rejoicing on 15th August 944 after being acquired from the city of Edessa (today, Urfa in Southern Turkey).  According to local legend, it had been presented to King Abgar of Edessa by Jesus’ disciples when he became the first ruler to convert to Christianity. However, when the King died, the city reverted to paganism, and the cloth was hidden to protect it.  Workers repairing the city walls in AD 525 stumbled upon it in a niche high above one of the main gates. 

Images of the Mandylion

Rediscovery

The rediscovery of the Edessa Cloth (or Mandylion) sparked considerable excitement throughout the Christian world.  One contemporary account described the image as “a moist secretion with no paint or artistic craft transferred with no artistic intervention on the cloth”.

Since the New Testament provide no clues about Christ’s physical appearance, pilgrims flocked to Edessa to observe what they believed to be His true likeness. From the Sixth Century onwards, artists increasingly depicted him with the distinctive facial features that appear on the cloth – long hair with a centre parting, large owl-like eyes, a long prominent nose, a full moustache and a slightly forked beard. 

Contemporary paintings made of the Mandylion suggest that it was kept in a wide rectangular frame with a hole cut into the centre through which the bearded face could be viewed. It is interesting to note that artists who painted the face often framed it within a circle. Could this be the origin of the halo, or nimbus that became a popular symbol of holiness in medieval art?   

The First Depiction

Gold coin of Justinian II (AD 692-695)

The first coins to depict Christ were struck almost three centuries earlier during the reign of Emperor Justinian II (AD 692–695). On that occasion, the coin engravers may have made the 800 mile trip to Edessa to see the Mandylion for themselves. Both the gold solidus and the smaller gold tremissis (one third the weight of the solidus) incorporate many intricate details present in the mysterious image. However, political instability in the region may have restricted future access to the cloth, and later designs appear to have been copies of the first strikes. During the Eighth Century, a fierce debate raged through the Eastern Church about whether it was heretical to make images of the Son of God. Many paintings of Christ were destroyed, and no coins were struck bearing his image for over a Century until the debate was resolved. 

The mass circulating bronze coin of Emperor John I Tzimiskes marked the first in a series of what has become known as anonymous Byzantine folles. For the next 123 years, successive emperors chose to depict Christ on their circulating coins instead of their own portraits, which is why they are collectively described as anonymous. Whilst doing so may have been no more than an act of piety, it also allowed them to promote their holiest relic throughout the ancient world. On the reverse of the coins, several different inscriptions boldly identify the face that appears on them. The most common is the four-lined IHSUS XRISTUS BASILEU BASILE (‘Jesus Christ King of Kings’). There is also a popular cross symbol with two letters in each quarter, IC XC NI KA (‘May Jesus Christ Conquer’). 

Anonymous Bronze follis (AD 969-976)

The Engraver’s Art

Engraving a portrait directly onto a small circular die required formidable talent, consummate patience and perfect vision.  Given the large number of circulating bronze coins required to circulate through the empire, a relatively simple design would have been required so that the Mint could replace the dies quickly as they wore out.  This posed another challenge to the Mint engravers as there would be no time to create the intricate and exquisitely detailed dies which had been crafted for the more prestigious gold coins.  They had to work quickly using a design that was relatively easy to replicate over and over again to keep the coins coming. 

I am going to suggest, for reasons which will hopefully become apparent, that our engraver took a novel approach to create his coin design for the bronze follis. Unable to create a beautiful portrait incorporating detailed facial features, he instead carefully copied the faint lines that make up the image. The result may have lacked the elegance of the gold coins but accurately replicated the mysterious face on Constantinople’s most important holy relic, which was presumably his brief.

The Mandylion Stolen

So, how successful was the coin designer in copying the image from the Cloth of Edessa?  To answer that, we have to determine whether it has survived to enable us to make a comparison. In 1204, Constantinople was attacked and plundered by the French-led Fourth Crusade.  It was later reported that the crusaders had” taken many relics, including the linen in which our Lord was wrapped’.  The Mandylion, with its mysterious ghost-like image, slipped quietly into legend. 

The attack on Constantinople by the French led Fourth Crusade in 1204

Without the original cloth, inferior copies made of the ‘true image’ (Latin: vera icon) soon took on a mythical quality of their own. A new origin story emerged in the 14th Century in which a woman from Jerusalem wiped Christ’s face with her veil as he carried his cross to his crucifixion, only to find a supernatural image of his face imprinted on it. The event does not appear in any of the New Testament accounts, and the name Veronica is most likely a corruption of the words ‘vera icon’. Several churches claim to possess either the true veil or an ancient copy. In reality, they are most likely early copies of the image on the Edessa Cloth made before it was stolen from Constantinople in 1204.

The Templar Connection

There is strong evidence that the real Mandylion was entrusted to the safekeeping of the warrior monks known as the Knights Templar, who were fiercely protective of their most precious treasure and kept its location a closely guarded secret.  A Vatican researcher recently claimed to have unearthed a Templar initiation rite from 1287. In it, a young Frenchman called Arnaut Sabbatier testified that he was “shown a long piece of linen on which was impressed the figure of a man and told to worship it, kissing the feet three times“.

The Templar leaders are executed

When the Knights Templar fell out of favour with the Pope, the Grand Master Jacques de Molay was arrested with sixty of his knights in a dawn raid on Friday 13th October 1307. Charged with heresy, which included worshipping the image of a bearded man, years of torture and imprisonment followed, but they refused to divulge the whereabouts of the treasure they guarded.

Eventually, the King of France lost patience and had Moloy and his deputy, the Templar ‘draper’ Geoffrey de Charny, burnt at the stake in Paris on 18th March 1314. 

From Lirey to Turin

In 1349, a distinguished French Knight, also called Geoffrey de Charny, requested permission from Pope Clement VI to display the burial shroud of Christ in his hometown of Lirey. It is highly probable that he was a descendant of the man who died alongside Moloy in Paris, although the family always refused to explain how such a remarkable object had come into their possession. This led one local bishop to denounce the shroud as being “cunningly painted … a work of human skill and not miraculously wrought or bestowed“.

After Charny was killed fighting the battle of Poitiers in 1356, his family displayed the Shroud to the public and struck special souvenir pilgrim badges, depicting its distinctive double imprint of a human body and bearing the Charny family’s heraldry.

Souvenir pilgrim badge struck by the Charny family

In 1453 Geoffrey de Charny’s elderly grand-daughter Marguerite de Charny, knowing she would die childless, passed the Shroud to the pious Duke Louis I of Savoy. His successors installed it at their then capital, Chambery where it was folded up and placed in a silver casket. In 1532 a fire swept through the chapel, and a drop of molten silver from the casket burned a hole through the folded layers of fabric within. Fortunately, the image was left more or less intact, and in 1578 the Savoy family moved the cloth to their new capital Turin, where it resides to this day. In 1983 ownership of the Shroud was officially transferred to the Roman Catholic Church.

Scientific Investigation

The Shroud of Turin
Photographic negative

Today, the Shroud of Turin is the most studied historical artefact in the world. The scientific community began to take an interest after amateur photographer Secondo Pia photographed the face for the first time in May 1898. As he developed the image in his darkroom, he nearly dropped the photographic plate in shock. The negative revealed details of the face that had never been seen before. Pia was accused of tampering with the image and had to wait until the Shroud was publicly displayed again in 1931 before another photograph could be taken to validate his startling discovery.

In October 1978, an international team comprising over 40 scientists was granted unprecedented access to the Shroud for five days. Calling themselves the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP), they included a nuclear physicist, a thermal chemist, a biophysicist, an optical physicist, a forensic pathologist and specialist photographers. They brought over eighty tonnes of scientific equipment to Turin to determine how the image had been formed and where it had been.

Three years later, STURP published their findings, concluding that “there are no chemical or physical methods known which can account for the totality of the image“.

The image shows the anatomically correct human form of a scourged and crucified man with wounds consistent with the Biblical accounts of Christ’s crucifixion. These include a bleeding scalp, a severe scourging with multi-pronged whips, wounds in the wrists and feet and an elliptical wound in the side that appears to have been made by a spear.

No pigments, paints or dyes were found on the linen fibres that would account for the image, meaning that the image cannot be the work of an artist. The bloodstains that cover the cloth are human and contain a high concentration of bilirubin, produced when a body is suffering extreme stress and pain. Curiously, the blood was present on the linen before the image formed around it. Pollen grains taken from the cloth have been identified as coming from plants that flower in Jerusalem, Edessa and Constantinople, suggesting that the Shroud has spent time in these locations.

More Than A Face

One problem with linking the Shroud of Turin with the Cloth of Edessa is that the latter was often described as bearing an image of Jesus’ face while he was still alive and not an image of his whole body laid out in death. However, it would have made practical sense for the original custodians of the cloth to disguise the fact that it once wrapped a dead body. Grave clothes were considered untouchable and unclean by the deeply superstitious population, and it would have been far more palatable to display the face only and claim that the image had been miraculously transferred when Jesus was alive.

This might explain why the cloth was displayed in a wide rectangular frame with a hole cut into the centre to display only the face. The frame would have allowed room for a much longer cloth to be folded up inside it. Intriguingly, the original Edessan account of the cloth refers to it as being “tetradiplon“, which means four-folded. Analysis of fold marks on the Shroud of Turin confirms that it was indeed folded in this way for a considerable time.

There are also eyewitness reports that suggest that the Mandylion was a full-body image and not just a face. In the Eighth Century, Pope Stephen III (reigned AD 752 to 757) stated that Christ had “spread out his entire body on a linen cloth that was white as snow. On this cloth, marvellous as it is to see… the glorious image of the Lord’s face, and the length of his entire and most noble body, has been divinely transferred.” 

Later, an English monk called Orderic Vitalis, writing in about 1130, confirmed that the cloth bore “the majestic form of his whole body… supernaturally transferred“.

In 1203, a French knight called Robert de Clari visited Constantinople and described seeing “the Shroud in which the Lord had been wrapped raised upright so that one could see the figure of our Lord on it“.

Carbon Dating

Undoubtedly the greatest obstacle for linking the two cloths came in 1988 when laboratories in Oxford, Tucson and Zurich were granted permission to conduct a destructive Carbon 14 test on a sample cut from the Shroud of Turin to determine its age.  They later declared that the Shroud was a medieval forgery, made between 1260 and 1390.

Regrettably, the laboratories showed no interest in understanding how a medieval forger had imprinted a full length anatomically correct image of a victim of Roman crucifixion complete with unique photographic properties onto the linen. At the Press Conference, Professor Edward Hall, Director of the Oxford Research Laboratory, suggested that “someone just got a bit of linen, faked it up and flogged it” as if this would have been an easy thing to do. Irrespective of when the linen was made, how the image came to be imprinted on it remains no less of a mystery.

Public exposition of the Shroud

In recent years, serious doubts have been cast on the validity of the 1988 test results. The test samples were cut from a corner of the cloth that priests had held up for hours at a time when displaying it to the faithful during outdoor expositions. We now know that smoke damage, prolonged exposure to the elements, and repeated handling can seriously affect the outcome of a Carbon 14 test.

Furthermore, in 2005 one of the original STURP scientists, Ray Rogers, examined a control sample cut for the test that was not destroyed and concluded that cotton had once been expertly woven into the ancient linen to repair the area and then dyed to disguise the repair. If correct, this would invalidate the 1988 results because it means that the samples cut from the corner “were not representative of the main Shroud“, which contains no cotton.  

New Research

In 2013, a team of scientists from several Italian Universities led by Professor Giulio Fanti published the results of their non-destructive chemical and mechanical tests on the Shroud. Using Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR), Raman Spectroscopy, and other tests to measure the micro-mechanical characteristics of flax fibres such as tensile strength, the team was able to date the linen to “33 BC ± 250 years”.

To date, all attempts to date the Shroud using scientific methods have provoked controversy and accusations of bias, and the Catholic Church has wisely refused to have an official position regarding its authenticity. However, the new test results open up the genuine possibility that the Cloth of Edessa and the Shroud of Turin are the same historical artefact.

Facial Comparisons

I believe that the anonymous bronze follis struck between AD 969 and 976 make this connection even more compelling. The coins circulated throughout the Byzantine empire for many decades, meaning that surviving examples are often heavily worn. Frustratingly, the highest points on a circulating coin are inevitably the first to wear, so coins that still display clear facial features are rare. Fortunately, well-preserved examples exist, and we can see what the coin designer engraved onto the die simply by flipping the image that appears on the struck coin. When flipped and viewed alongside an image of the face on the Shroud, the similarities are extraordinary, especially when you consider that our engraver was working on an area little more than a centimetre in diameter.

Byzantine Follis (AD 969-976) compared with the face on the Shroud of Turin

Most striking of all is the distinctive cross shape incorporating the eyebrows, forehead and nose. There is a long horizontal band above the eyes, bisected by a long vertical line that starts at the hairline and extends downwards to become a long nose. The base of the nose connects to a smaller horizontal line that forms the moustache, which slopes down slightly on the left-hand side. There is a distinctive mark on the right cheek, and beneath the moustache is a small square and a forked beard. The long hair, which hangs down on both sides of the face, has two parallel strands of hair at the bottom left of the image. These features can be seen clearly on the Shroud image, and the result is a coin that resembles the Shroud image far too closely to be dismissed as a coincidence.

Byzantine Follis (AD 1028-1041) showing detail on the forehead that matches a bloodstain on the Shroud

A later bronze follis struck in Constantinople about fifty years later incorporates additional details that suggest that coin artists continued to have access to the original image. Intriguingly, there is a tiny mark in the centre parting of the hair in the forehead that resembles the inverted “3” shaped bloodstain that appears on the Shroud in the same area. In addition, the coin artist has replicated the way that the long hair appears to bunch at the shoulders. The eyebrows are represented with a long horizontal line, and there is the suggestion that the right eyebrow is slightly higher than the left. There is also a wound-like mark on the right cheek, a moustache that appears to slope down to the left and, most striking of all, a horizontal band across the throat.

Once again, I would suggest that the similarities are too many and too specific to be a coincidence.

Ramifications

So, if we are to consider these startling similarities to be compelling numismatic evidence that the coin artists working at the Constantinople Mint saw and copied the face on the Shroud of Turin, then the ramifications are significant. It means that the Shroud is considerably older than the flawed Carbon dating results indicate. It also provides compelling evidence that the Cloth of Edessa and the Shroud of Turin are one and the same. It is frankly inconceivable that there were two linen cloths present in Christendom at the same time, both containing a mysterious image of Jesus not made by human hands.

There is an additional, intriguing implication of this research. According to legend, the holiest relic protected by the Templars was the Holy Grail, a mysterious vessel that Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy follower of Jesus, used to collect Jesus’ blood in at his crucifixion.  The grail is often associated with the cup that Jesus used in his last supper with his disciples before his death.  But why the Romans executing Jesus would have permitted one of his followers to catch his blood in a drinking cup makes no sense at all.  So, could this vessel be something else? 

The New Testament may provide us with the answer. Could it be that the vessel that Joseph of Arimathea used to contain Jesus’ blood in was not a drinking cup at all, but the blood-stained linen cloth that wrapped around Jesus’ crucified body in the tomb?    

“As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate (the Roman governor), he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock.” (Matthew 27:57-60 NIV)

Does the face of Jesus struck onto the coins of the Byzantine Empire reveal that the lost Cloth of Edessa, the legendary Holy Grail and the mysterious Shroud of Turin are, in fact, the same historical artefact? 

Maundy Money

Every Maundy Thursday, Her Majesty the Queen distributes small leather purses to a selected group of men and women. Each purse contains a gift of money, which include four small legal tender silver coins, struck especially for the ceremony at the personal request of the monarch.

Maundy coins are very special. They are steeped in royal tradition and no other coins can claim to have such a direct personal connection to the monarch. She signs the order for The Royal Mint to produce them and personally distributes them to the recipients, chosen for their service to the church or community.

With so few Maundy coins struck each year, and their recipients naturally keen to treasure a gift that has been personally presented to them by their sovereign, these treasured pieces of British history rarely appear on the market, making them highly collectable. They are so rare that few people ever get to see them, much less hold them in their hands.

A Gift of Love

The ancient ceremony of Royal Maundy can be traced back to the Bible, and specifically to the last instructions given by Jesus to his disciples on the Thursday night before his crucifixion the following day.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this, all will know that you are My disciples if you have love for one another.” (John 13: 34-35)

This instruction forms the opening words of the Maundy ceremony and the word Maundy is derived from the Latin ‘mandatum’ meaning command. The Royal Maundy gifts are to fulfil Jesus’ command given to his followers to love one another.

Royal Maundy

The practice of demonstrating Christ’s love to the poor on Maundy Thursday can be traced back to the fourth century when deserving recipients had their feet washed and were presented with gifts of food and clothing. The first recorded instance of a monarch personally taking part in the ceremony was in Rochester in 1213, when King John presented 13 poor men with 13 pence and washed their feet on Maundy Thursday. By the time of the Tudor era, the monarch’s attendance at the Maundy ceremony had developed into a regular custom, and the event had become known as “Royal Maundy’.

The tradition of making the number of Maundy recipients equal to the monarch’s age appears to have started in 1363 when the then fifty-year-old King Edward III presented gifts to fifty poor men. This tradition was made an official decree by King Henry IV and has been a central part of the Maundy service ever since. It is why in 2019 the then 93-year-old Queen distributed Maundy money to 93 men and 93 women.

An Evolving Tradition

The Tudor monarchs introduced a custom in which one particularly deserving Maundy recipient was given their Maundy robe at the end of the ceremony. This practice was stopped by Queen Elizabeth I who substituted the gift of her robe for twenty silver shillings. Henceforth, it became the custom for the monarch to bestow a second monetary gift, which meant that a second purse was required. The red purse that had been used to contain the gift of pennies was now used for silver shillings and a new white purse was introduced to contain the pennies. The additional monetary allowance in place of the Maundy robe was suspended in 1731 but reinstated in 1759, where it has survived to the present day.

The presence of the monarch at the Maundy ceremony waned during the later years of the reign of King Charles I and between 1649 and 1660 there was no monarch in England to participate in the ceremony. Following the Restoration of the Monarchy, the new King, Charles II was very keen to revive the Royal Maundy tradition and personally distributed money and gifts to the poor. He even restored the practice of washing the feet of the poor in person, though this did not last. It is believed that his brother and successor King James II was the last monarch to personally wash the feet of the poor in 1685.

Until the joint reign of William and Mary in 1689, the sovereign had participated in annual Maundy ceremonies for four centuries. However, there is no record of any participation by a monarch at a Royal Maundy ceremony after 1698 until the Twentieth Century. Queen Anne was too infirm to attend and the Hanoverian monarchs were content to send a representative from the Royal household. While George III and a young Queen Victoria both attended the Maundy ceremony on at least one occasion as spectators, neither took an active part in the service.

At the start of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1838, the decision was made to replace the gift of food with money. Clothing was still distributed as part of the ceremony until 1882 when this was replaced by an additional monetary gift. From then on, only coins have been presented to recipients during the ceremony.

To avoid the Royal Maundy becoming an ‘empty’ ceremony, it was deemed essential to restore royal connections with the service. In 1932 King George V became the first monarch since the 17th Century to personally present Maundy purses to their recipients. In 1936 King Edward VIII distributed Maundy money at Westminster Abbey, one of the very few public commitments undertaken during his short one year reign. The coins used in the ceremony bore the image of his late father; he abdicated before any coins could be issued bearing his likeness.

During the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, the Maundy ceremony has been firmly re-established. Before 2020, there had only been four years when the Queen had not presented the Maundy money in person: twice when she was about to go into labour, and twice when she was away visiting countries in the Commonwealth. When the global Covid pandemic forced the 2020 and 2021 Royal Maundy services to be cancelled, the chosen recipients received their Maundy purses in the post with a letter from the Queen instead.

Today, following centuries of evolving tradition, the monarch will present each recipient with one red and one white purse. The red purse contains a total of £5.50 in circulating currency representing the robe, food and clothing allowances. The white purse contains the Maundy money minted especially for the ceremony. A set of four coins has a total face value of ten pence, and each purse contains a set for every decade of the monarch’s reign to date, with any remaining years represented in single coins.

Maundy Design

As the gift of money was always intended to be spent by the recipients, coins used before 1670 were no different from those struck for circulation. In medieval times only the penny and the groat (fourpence) were presented to the deserving poor. In 1551, the threepence was added, and in 1662 King Charles II issued an undated set of hammered coins comprising the fourpence, threepence, twopence and penny. However, it was not until 1670 that a dated set of all four especially struck coins appeared together for the first time.

The design of Maundy coins varied under the first eight monarchs to strike them. Charles II’s Maundy coinage displayed an interlinked letter ‘C’ on the reverse of the four silver Maundy coins, with the number of initials corresponding to the face value of the coin. For example, the fourpence featured four initials, the penny just one. This style continued under James II until 1688, replacing the letter ‘C’ with the letter ‘I’.

During the reign of William & Mary in 1689, an unnamed artist changed the reverse design to depict a crowned numeral. After the 59 year reign of King George III which saw four different designs used, coin engraver Jean Baptiste Merlen placed the crowned numeral within an oak wreath for the 1822 Maundy coinage. The crown was slightly altered in 1888 but since then the reverse design and size of the Maundy coins have remained unchanged making it the longest continuous coin series in British history.

Maundy coins were the only four British coins that did not change shape, size or design when the nation adopted the decimal currency. On Decimal Day, 15th February 1971, the old system of 20 shillings and 12 pence to the pound was replaced with 100 new pence in the pound. A new set of decimal coins were introduced, but the Maundy coins remained unaffected by the change. Each coin simply retained its numerical value as ‘new’ pence.

During her long reign, Queen Elizabeth II’s portrait has undergone five changes on ordinary circulating coins. However, every Maundy coin issued during her reign has used the original circulating portrait by artist Mary Gillick first issued in 1953, the year of the Queen’s coronation. Gillick’s iconic depiction of the young monarch wearing a laurel wreath is now the longest-serving Royal portrait in British coinage history.

A Legacy in Silver

Maundy money provides an important connection with the very first coins struck in Britain over 1,300 years ago. Silver began to be used in English coinage in the Seventh Century and, for almost five centuries the silver penny was practically the only coin issued in England. The fourpence was added in 1279, the twopence in 1351 and the threepence in 1551. All were struck in sterling silver, with only a brief interruption when Henry VIII debased the coinage. When the nation’s circulating coinage moved from silver to copper in 1797 the four Maundy coins continued to be struck in sterling silver.

In 1920 the price of silver had risen dramatically and the silver content of all British silver coins, including Maundy money, was reduced from sterling silver (92.5%) to 50% silver to ease the financial burdens caused by the First World War. In 1947, the decision was made to replace all silver circulating coins with silver-coloured cupro-nickel coins. However, the original silver content of the Maundy money was reinstated, as it was felt that a gift from a monarch should be in sterling silver. This indicates the significance of the Maundy coinage and its unique place in British history.

Today’s silver Maundy money is an enduring legacy of a coinage standard maintained, with one brief interlude, from Saxon times. Given their unique royal connection and place within British coin history, it is easy to see why Maundy coins are considered so special.

Blood Money – The Shekel of Tyre

The silver tetradrachm (shekel) struck by the mint at Tyre features prominently in several pivotal events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth as documented in the New Testament. It is likely to be the coin that Jesus told his disciple Simon Peter that he would find miraculously in the mouth of a fish. It was probably one of the coins that tumbled to the ground when Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple courtyard. And perhaps most significant of all, it is believed to be the coin that Judas Iscariot received thirty of in exchange for betraying his master to the authorities.

By the time the ancient Phoenician port city of Tyre was conquered by the Macedonian King Alexander III “the Great” in 332 BC, it had already acquired a reputation within the region for the quality of its silver coinage. Coins continued to be struck there under the authority of the Greek kings, and when the Romans arrived in the Eastern Mediterranean, they permitted the mint to strike an ‘independent’ silver coinage from about 125 BC comprising silver tetradrachms (shekels) weighing about 14 grams, and didrachms (half shekels) weighing about 7 grams.

With only minor exceptions, the design of the coin remained constant for nearly two centuries. It was modelled on the tetradrachm struck by their last Greek king, Demetrius II, who was executed near Tyre in 125 BC. His portrait on the coin was replaced with the Tyre god Melkart, son of Baal. The reverse depicts an eagle with a palm branch over its shoulder and perched on the bow of a ship. The inscription can be translated, ‘Tyre, the Holy and Inviolable’ together with the date of issue, which allows them to be dated accurately.

Despite depicting the head of a pagan god and a graven image, both of which were deeply objectionable to neighbouring Jews, the silver coin struck at Tyre became the only currency accepted by the Jewish religious authorities to pay the annual temple tax. This is because it was struck in the purest silver available in the region (about 95%) making it significantly more valuable than the Roman silver coins imported from the Far East that contained only about 80% silver.

The temple tax was introduced by Moses the lawgiver, who instructed every adult male over the age of twenty to make the annual contribution of half a shekel. This was about two days wages for a skilled labourer, and the tax was to be used for the building and upkeep of the temple.

“The rich are not to give more than a half shekel, and the poor are not to give less when you make the offering to the Lord to atone for your lives.” (Exodus 30:15 – NIV)

The modest sum enabled Jews of all economic levels to take part in the building of the temple, and when the construction was completed, the tax continued to be collected from every household to pay for the running costs of the temple.

In 18 BC, the letters’ KPA’ or ‘KP’ were added to the reverse of the coin, which has led some scholars to believe that the coin’s production moved from Tyre to a location in or close to Jerusalem itself. Given their reliance on the coin for the temple tax, if Tyre did stop producing the coins, the Jewish religious leaders would most likely have requested permission from the authorities to carry on making them in or near Jerusalem. The Romans prohibited the minting of local currency in Judea but may have been prepared to make an exception to keep the peace as long as they continued to use the same design. It has been suggested that the new letters may have been an acrostic that stood for “By Authority of the Roman Constitution”.

If true, then we have the astonishing spectacle of Jewish religious leaders seeking permission to strike a coin that they considered blasphemous, bearing a design that was expressly prohibited by the Ten Commandments. They would compel devout Jews to use this coin to pay their annual contribution for the upkeep of God’s Holy temple. One can only imagine what Moses would have made of that!

One Tyre shekel would pay the temple tax for two men, which is illustrated in Jesus’ exchange with his disciple, Simon Peter. When a tax collector challenged the disciple to say whether his master paid the temple tax, Simon Peter affirmed that he did. After pointing out that the sons of rulers are exempt from the taxation demanded by their fathers, Jesus gave him an unusual task to demonstrate both his miraculous power and his humility;

“But so that we may not cause offence, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” (Matthew 17:24-27 NIV).

The coin that the disciple found in the mouth of a fish was most likely a Tyre shekel, as only this would have been sufficient to pay the temple tax for both men.

For Israelites, the design of the Tyre shekel violated the first two of the Ten Commandments given to them by Moses, which forbade the use of foreign deities and graven images. Consequently, no self-respecting Jew would use this coin in their day-to-day transactions, particularly one which described a foreign city as holy. Nonetheless, since this was the only currency accepted by the Jewish religious leaders for the annual temple tax, it meant that the temple vault would have been filled with silver coins depicting a foreign god!

To pay the temple tax, devout Jews were compelled to exchange their regular currency for the ‘blasphemous’ silver coinage of Tyre. To facilitate this, a thriving market of money changers set up shop in the temple courtyards and charged hefty commissions for their services. Since Jews wishing to pay the temple tax had no alternative but to pay their inflated rates to obtain Tyre shekels and half shekels, this also violated Moses’ instruction that no individual should pay more or less than half a shekel.

This was the scene that greeted Jesus when he arrived at the temple shortly after making a triumphant arrival in Jerusalem in circa AD 30.

“Then Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple and overturned the tables of the money changers … And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.'” (Matthew 21:12-13 NIIV)

Jesus’ outrage at finding money changers profiteering from the temple tax, together with his authoritative teaching and miraculous healings, alarmed the religious leaders who felt threatened by his popularity. As they began plotting how to have Jesus arrested and put to death, one of his disciples came to them with an offer they couldn’t refuse.

“Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.” (Matthew 26:14-16 NIV)

Since shekels from Tyre were the only currency accepted at the Jerusalem Temple, these were likely to be the coins that Judas received for betraying his master. Within hours of betraying Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas realised the enormity of what he had done and, filled with remorse, tried to return the thirty silver coins to the chief priests, claiming that he had betrayed innocent blood. Now that they had their prize, the chief priests were indifferent to his anguish and told him that this was his responsibility. The New Testament informs us that Judas threw the shekels into the temple, went away and hanged himself.

Judas’ suicide presented the religious leaders with the dilemma of what to do with the coins;

“The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury since it is blood money.” So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day.” (Matthew 27:6-8 NIV)

Given the prominent role that the Tyre shekel played in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, it is hardly a surprise that the coin is highly desirable today. It is certainly a strange feeling to hold one in your hands and ponder that this is a design that Jesus and his followers would have known well.

Production of the Tyre shekel appears to have come to an end in about AD 66, possibly as a result of the outbreak of the first Jewish revolt which began that year. By that time, Rome had begun producing silver coinage with a significantly improved purity in neighbouring Syria.

Devout Jews continue to pay the temple tax to this day. Today, the sum is translated into local currency and donated to the needy.

The Tyre Shekel
Judas attempts to return the silver coins he has received for betraying Jesus
Simon Peter pays the temple tax with the coin he found in the mouth of the fish

Who is the soldier on the Dutch Ducat?

The first Durch Ducat, struck in 1586

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.

William of Orange

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.

Assassination of William of Orange in 1584

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

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester in 1575

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.

Leicester’s Legacy

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.

Queen Elizabeth I

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.

The changing shape of the soldier on the Dutch Ducat since 1586

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.

Robert Dudley as Governor General in 1586

 

Saint George and the dragon. A classically inspired composition?

The iconic image of Saint George fighting the dragon on the British gold sovereign is arguably the most famous battle scene depicted in modern numismatic history. It was created by the Italian sculptor and engraver Benedetto Pistrucci (1783-1855) for the first modern sovereign in 1817. 

Pistrucci arrived in London in 1816 and quickly found himself embroiled in a minor scandal after he was introduced to Richard Payne Knight MP, a wealthy scholar, author and numismatist. Pistrucci described him in his unfinished autobiography as “a great connoisseur in gems, cameos, and intaglios, bronzes, statues, medals, and antique vases”.

Knight was eager to show the Italian artist his “cabinet full of precious things”, but the meeting did not go well.  When the collector proudly showed the artist one of his most prized possessions, which he described as “the finest Greek cameo in existence”. Pistrucci replied that it was actually his own work and that he had created it just six years earlier!

Unwilling to believe that an unscrupulous art dealer had duped him, a furious Knight refused to believe Pistrucci until the artist happily prepared a superior version in just a few days to demonstrate his mastery of the craft. Despite the accusations of fraud hurled at him, Pistrucci had not intended to deceive. Before arriving in Britain, he had innocently sold his work through a business partner, who had, without his knowledge, fraudulently passed them off to collectors as ancient artworks.

In his eagerness to set the record straight, Pistrucci quickly attracted the attention of many wealthy admirers who came to examine his work for themselves. Lucrative work soon followed.  One request came from Sir Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society, who ordered a cameo of King George III cut in red jasper in return for a fee of 50 guineas. It was to prove a fateful commission.

William Wellesley-Pole, Master of the Mint

When Sir Joseph later showed his friend William Wellesley-Pole the finished cameo that Pistrucci produced, the Master of the Mint knew that he had found the right man to design Britain’s new coinage. He wrote to his superiors at the Treasury to advise them that he had employed, “Mr. Pistrucci, an artist of the greatest celebrity and whose works place him above all competition as a gem engraver, to make models for the dyes of the new coinage.”

Because Pistrucci was Italian, Wellesley Pole could not appoint him as the Mint’s Chief Engraver as only a British subject could hold the position. However, when the role fell vacant following the death of Thomas Wyon in 1817, Pistrucci assumed the responsibilities of Chief Engraver without the title.  When Wellesley-Pole asked him to propose a suitably majestic reverse design for the new gold sovereign, the artist suggested a dramatic image of England’s patron Saint fighting the dragon in the Greek style. 

He was already familiar with the design, having recently been introduced to Lord and Lady Spencer by his friend Joseph Banks.  Lord Spencer was a Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, a British order of chivalry with Saint George as its patron saint. Pistrucci later recalled that;

“her ladyship … showed me a large model in wax of a St. George, done by Marchant, and said to me: ” My husband would like you to make a model in wax, of the same size and subject: but I should like it in the Greek style” as that was the style in which naked figures were done; and the mantle in this beautiful white, would have a superb effect.”

Pistrucci had been delighted to accept the commission and produced his model of Saint George and the dragon in the Greek style as requested. To capture the naked horseman’s muscle tone, legend has it that he invited an Italian waiter at Brunet’s Hotel in Leicester Square, where he was lodging to model for him.

In addition to appearing on paintings and statues, Saint George’s legendary encounter with the dragon had occasionally appeared on coins before.  In the twelfth century, a crude depiction was used on a coin issued by Roger of Salerno, Regent of Antioch.  In 1526, it appeared on the George Noble during Henry VIII’s reign, although production was not extensive, and there are few surviving examples.  Later, the scene appeared again on two trial pieces, the Reddite and Petition Crowns created in 1663 by Thomas Simon, the engraver of seals at The Royal Mint.  

However, there is little evidence that Pistrucci was inspired by medieval or modern interpretations of the famous confrontation between the saint and the dragon. His passion was for the classical, and it is said that he liked to “study Greek originals day and night“.  

Detail from one of the Elgin Marbles

There was no shortage of classical Greek art in nineteenth-century London to inspire his composition. He most likely drew inspiration from admiring the collection of marble sculptures originally from the Parthenon in Athens. They were saved from almost certain destruction by Lord Elgin, the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. He purchased the pieces from the Greek Government and turned down a generous offer from Napoleon to sell them to him. Instead, he donated them to the British Museum in London, where they continue to be admired by millions of visitors every year.

It is also possible that Pistrucci was inspired to create his composition by ancient coins, made centuries before the legend of Saint George arrived in Britain.  In Ancient Greece, the King of Paeonia, Patraos (c335-315BC), depicted a horseman with a plumed helmet spearing his vanquished enemy as he falls under the hooves of his rearing horse.  Even to a casual observer, the similarities in the composition of Pistrucci’s iconic masterwork created 2,100 years later are remarkable.

Six centuries later, the Roman Emperor Magnentius (c350-353 AD) also struck a coin with an uncanny resemblance to Pistrucci’s composition.  Largely forgotten today, Magnentius seized power from his predecessor Constans in a coup and ruled over western Europe for three years. In that time, he struck coins in his own image, and one of them, named ‘Gloria Romanorum’ (Glory of Rome), depicts on its reverse a helmeted rider on horseback trampling a barbarian underfoot.

Both the Greek and Roman coins depict a rider on horseback wearing a helmet with striking plumage and a spear in his right hand. The horse is wearing a bridle and is rearing up on two legs before his adversary, who falls back whilst looking up at the victor towering over him.  On the Magnentius coin, the similarities with Pistrucci’s Saint George are further accentuated by the appearance of a long flowing cloak which billows out behind the horseman and is fastened by a piece of fabric across his chest.

A further, startling similarity can be observed on the ground, depicted in both images as a horizontal line.  On the Roman coin, a broken spear is also clearly visible sticking up out of the earth. 

These uncanny similarities provide compelling evidence that Pistrucci saw at least one of these ancient coin designs. Many fine examples have survived to the present day, and so may have appeared in one of the private collections of classical antiquities that his wealthy customers and friends showed him. Perhaps he saw one in Payne Knight’s “cabinet full of precious things”. We also know that Sir Joseph Banks’ sister Sarah Sophia was an avid collector of coins and medals. Given the circles that Pistrucci was moving in, it does not require a giant leap of the imagination to suggest that he encountered an ancient coin with a similar composition that fired his creativity. 

The similarities do not end with the design. Measuring 22 millimetres in diameter, the Roman coin of Magnentius is almost precisely the same size as the modern sovereign. This may have attracted the Italian sculptor’s eye as he considered the most effective way to compose an intricate design on such a small table.  

Frustratingly, Pistrucci’s autobiography ends at the very moment he set to work on his model in the Greek style. Therefore, we are unlikely to ever know for certain which elements inspired him to create arguably the most famous coin design in numismatic history. However, the striking similarities between coins struck in classical antiquity, and Pistrucci’s Saint George and the dragon raise an intriguing possibility.

Did ancient coin designs inspire the brilliant nineteenth-century artist to create the neo-classical masterwork which still appears on sovereigns struck today?

Magnentius’ Gloria Romanorum (circa AD 350-353) 

 

Coin of Patraos, King of Paeonia, Patraos (circa 335-315 BC)
(Image courtesy of Baldwins)

 

Pistrucci’s original design for the George III sovereign (1817-1820)