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)