Have you ever wondered why the head of the monarchs appear to look either to the left or the right – and if there is a system with it? Short answer, it’s both complicated and fun.
Long traditions for facing right
Faces on coins first appeared in the 6th century BC, but it was during the following century that profiles of gods and goddesses appeared frequently. The most famous is probably the Owl tetradrachm of Athens. The much-copied tetradrachm and stater of Alexander the Great also looked right. There were exceptions to this rule, for example the Corinth Pegasus stater, but the dominating coins looked right.
Roman emperors almost always looked to the right. Given the significance of these coins, this made right-facing coins dominant both in Rome and in many countries copying them. The outwards-looking solidus coins of the Byzantine Empire did not catch on, and right was the direction to look.
There might be an easy explanation: We write from left to right. This means that this is the “preferred” way of looking. We also know that the devil is associated with the left, and the word “sinister” comes from the Latin word for “left”.
The English Switch
Another interesting development is that queens like Elizabeth I of England and Christina of Sweden often looked to the left. And this might have been the reason for a typical English tradition.
Henry VII and Henry VIII both looked right and straight ahead in some cases. Mary I and Elizabeth I both looked left. James I faced both left and right depending on the coin. Charles I looked left, but Charles II looked both ways. Finally, his younger brother, James II, looked only to the left – and the monarchs that followed him have alternated between looking left and right, all the way down to our current monarch…
Of course, there is one interesting exception to the rule, and it is our old friend, Edward VIII. He was supposed to look to the right, but preferred the left side of his face, and insisted on looking the “wrong” way. The tradition from 1685 onwards did not seem to bother him. The coin was prepared, but no coins made it into circulation. When he abdicated, the Royal Mint pretended that his coin was made with him looking to the right. Therefore, the George VI coin was made with him looking to the right again to keep in tradition.
What could be more British than insisting that a coin never circulated was made with the opposite design to the one it had so that tradition was upheld?
The Emperor and the King
When it comes to portraits, Scandinavia did a bit of everything. Denmark insisted on always looking to the right, whereas Sweden from 1907 onwards always looked to the left. With all due respect to the Anglo-French enmity, this is the real long-standing feud in Europe. Norway, on their part, did exactly like Britain and switched sides.
France, however, is where things get very confusing. It seemed as they alternated every other turn, because Louis XIII and XIV looked to the right, and Louis XV and XVI predominately looked to the left. Then you have the cat among the pigeons: Napoleon. He decided to look to the right, probably to symbolize a new time in opposition to Louis XVI. When he was deposed and Louis XVIII took over, the new king was quick to look to the left again. This is hardly surprising. Louis XVIII was the brother of the deposed and executed Louis XVI. Making a break with Napoleon made sense. When he died, his brother Charles X took over, also looking to the left. When he was deposed in the 1830 revolution, the once-radical Louis Philippe was made king, and perhaps to make a stand against the two conservative kings who preceded him, he faced right.
And now we end up with the wisest fool in Christendom, Napoleon III. In 1851 he was crowned emperor. This made him the second emperor in traditional counting, however the Bonaparte family claimed that Napoleon Bonaparte’s son was emperor for a couple of weeks. This meant that either Napoleon I looked right, and an imaginary coin of Napoleon II would look to the left and Napoleon III should look to the right again or that all emperors, like in Ancient Rome, should look to the right.
Napoleon III looked to the left. Because of course he did.
This might have meant that he considered himself a continuation of the kings of France rather than an abomination with his own rules. It could have had another explanation. After all, Napoleon III was the man who Karl Marx had in mind when he coined the phrase “History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, then as a farce“. Napoleon III was in either case the last monarch of the French.
Andreas Kolle is a Norwegian historian cum laude and the resident historian for Samlerhuset Norway. A professional copywriter with 10 years of experience, Andreas also keeps the Samlerhuset blog active by covering a range of numismatic and historical topics. He has a contagious love for all things numismatic and historical and adheres to the QI adage that there is no such thing as an uninteresting item.
There are not many coins that can legitimately claim to have changed the world, but the Spanish escudo is one. Struck using the abundance of gold found in the New World, the escudo (which means “shield”) quickly became a trusted international trading coin, transforming the fortunes of Spain and delivering economic prosperity to Europe. By doing so, the iconic Spanish coin can be said to have financed the Renaissance and ignited the Industrial Revolution. The world would never be the same again.
At all costs, get gold!
When Spain agreed to finance Christopher Columbus’ dangerous voyage into unchartered waters, they could hardly have imagined what a sound investment this would prove to be. Columbus (1451–1506) mentions gold at least 65 times in the diary that he kept during his historic journey of discovery.
Upon his arrival in the Caribbean in 1492, the Italian explorer’s first question was apparently to ask where he could find it! When it became clear that the New World had gold in plentiful supply, Spain quickly dispatched more expeditions. In 1511, King Ferdinand of Spain instructed his conquistadors to “get gold, humanely if you can, but at all costs, get gold”.
When Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) arrived in Mexico, he was amazed to find that the Aztecs had so much gold that they used it to decorate childrens’ toys, walls, ornaments and plates. They prized brightly coloured feathers, cacao beans and cloth far above the yellow metal, and Cortés excitedly reported that half a kilo of gold could be purchased for just 250 cacao beans!
A document to history
In 1537 the Holy Roman Emperor, King Charles I of Spain (r. 1516–58), constructed the first mint in the New World at Mexico City and ordered them to strike escudos with gold mined from the region. The new coin was inspired by the Venetian Ducat, a popular trading coin due to its identifiable design, constant weight and consistent purity.
As Spain grew to become one of the world’s first major superpowers, the importance of the escudo as the chief gold coin of Spanish-America grew with it. Escudos were produced throughout the New World, in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Peru.
The Spanish escudo remained the most widely used currency in the Americas for over three centuries. Its popularity only waned after 1857 when it ceased to be accepted as legal tender in the United States. In 1864 Spain relaunched the escudo in silver as the official currency of Spain, but just four years later, they joined the Latin Monetary Union and introduced the Peseta. This brought over three hundred years of escudo production to an end.
Reborn as a commemorative
In 2018, 150 years after the last circulating escudo was issued, the Royal Mint of Spain struck their most iconic gold coin again, this time as a 24-carat gold commemorative. All four original escudo denominations were struck in their original sizes, each with a reworked design that charts the unique history of this remarkable coin.
The Spanish King of England
Gold from the New World began to arrive in Spain after 1503, and it is estimated that twenty-five tons went to the Seville Mint during the 16th Century alone. Built during the reign of King Philip II (r. 1556–98), the first Escudos struck by the Mint bore his shield, and this design appears on the 2018 Four Escudos.
Under King Philip II’s reign, Spain enjoyed its “Golden Age”, with an empire upon which it was said that the sun never set. For four years between 1554 and 1558, the King also ruled England jointly with his second wife, the Catholic Queen Mary I. Theirs was clearly a political union, as they married only two days after their first meeting!
When Mary I died in 1558 without producing an heir, Philip automatically lost his rights to the English throne, and he was to spend the rest of his life trying to get it back! He immediately proposed marriage to his dead wife’s Protestant sister, the new Queen Elizabeth I. When she rebuffed his advances, he supported her cousin Mary Queen of Scots in a Catholic plot to seize the English throne. When the plot was exposed, he sent an Armada to invade England. But the Spanish fleet was routed at sea before they could land, thereby sinking his dream of ever possessing England again.
The 2018 Four Escudo depicts the Royal Coat of Arms of King Philip II and the official crowned “M” privy mark of the Royal Mint of Spain together with the new face value (200 EURO). The legend reads “PHILIPPUS.DEI GRATIA.” (Philip by the Grace of God).
The obverse depicts the Cross of Jerusalem within a quatrefoil and a leaf in each corner. This symbolised the King’s official determination to carry the Christian message to the four corners of the world. Of course, a cynic might argue that this noble intention was also a useful pretext to justify the conquest and plunder of foreign lands full of exploitable natural resources. The legend “HISPANIARUMN.REX” means “King of Spain”.
The Two Escudo was known as a Doubloon (Double), and they were minted throughout the Americas as well as in Spain. Until 1732, all coins produced in the New World were crudely fashioned “cobs” struck on irregularly shaped pieces of gold. Most were shipped across the Atlantic to be melted down, and the metal used to create Escudos of a much higher standard.
In 1586, new coining machines were installed at the Segovia Mint in Spain to strike escudos with the gold received from the New World. However, the Spanish galleons transporting this vast wealth through the Caribbean and across the ocean were always vulnerable to attack from pirates seeking to relieve them of their precious cargo. No other coin in the world evokes stronger images of pirate ships and treasure maps than the Spanish Doubloon.
The 2018 Spanish Doubloon features an original design that was struck at the Segovia Mint in 1607 during the reign of King Philip III (r. 1598–1621). Like his father, Philip III’s Doubloon also depicts the distinctive Cross of Jerusalem as a symbol of his “official” intention to spread the faith.
The reverse presents his Royal Coat of Arms together with a distinctive mintmark to show that the coin was initially struck at the Segovia Mint. Built by the Romans in the First Century to carry water to the town, the impressive Segovia aqueduct was an appropriate choice for a mintmark, as the Mint used giant water wheels to power its state of the art coin press. The legend reads “PHILIPPUS.III.D.G.” (Philip III by the Grace of God).
The Golden Fleece
The largest Spanish gold coin struck in the New World was the Eight Escudo. Often referred to as the “Onza” (ounce), the coin was first produced in 1610 and became the standard for large monetary transactions in the New World.
The 2018 Eight Escudo commemorative coin uses a design that was struck at the Mint of Madrid in 1719 during the reign of Spain’s longest-reigning monarch King Philip V (r. 1700–24, 1724–46). There were several public and private mints in Spain until Philip V decided to make striking coinage a state monopoly in 1718.
The official intention of the Spanish monarchs to spread their religious faith around the world had not diminished after more than a century. The obverse still bears the distinctive Cross of Jerusalem with four leaves. The reverse depicts the King’s Royal Coat of Arms and the legend “PHILIPPUS.V.DEI.GRA” (Philip V by the Grace of God).
An interesting feature of the shield is the inclusion of the mythical Golden Fleece on a chain. Philip V was the first head of the Spanish branch of the Order of the Golden Fleece, a Roman Catholic order of chivalry founded in Bruges in 1430. Since its establishment, the order has only had 1,200 members and is often referred to as the most prestigious and exclusive order of chivalry in the world.
The Golden Fleece was a highly appropriate image to feature on the largest gold coin of the New World. In Greek mythology, Jason and his crew of Argonauts travelled the seas to unexplored lands, searching for the fabled golden treasure. Now, centuries later, the Spanish were reaping the spoils of their own explorations, and the magnificent Eight Escudo was the proof that, like Jason, they had also found a golden treasure that exceeded their wildest expectations.
The amount of gold and silver produced in the New World was phenomenal. An estimated 70 million gold coins and over 2 billion silver coins were struck during the 17th and 18th centuries. The 2018 One Escudo pays tribute to this abundance of gold by depicting the design struck at the Popayán Mint in Colombia in 1758 during the reign of King Fernando VI (r. 1746-–59).
By 1758, all of the mints in the New World were striking coinage of a very high standard. The first milled coins struck in the Americas were produced in Mexico in 1732, and the technology quickly spread to the other mints. The last rough “cob” coins were produced in 1749.
Under monetary reforms initiated by his father, King Philip V, a portrait of the monarch was introduced onto the obverse of gold coins struck after 1728, replacing the Cross of Jerusalem. As a result, the 2018 coin has a portrait of Ferdinand VI on its obverse, with the legend “FERDND.VI.D.G.HISPAN.ET IND.REX.” (Ferdinand VI by the Grace of God, King of the Spains and the Indies).
The reverse presents the King’s lesser Royal Coat of Arms and the unique mint mark of the Popayán Mint (PN) to show where the coin was initially struck. Popayán was a strategically important location as a transfer point for gold and other riches going to Spain, and it continued to produce gold escudos and silver reales until 1819. Completing the reverse is the legend “NOMINA. MAGNA. SEQUOR” (I follow the Greatest Ones).
The first coins to bear the King’s image with his long, flowing hair became known, somewhat unkindly, as peluconas, because peluca is the Spanish word for a wig!
The Currency of Conquest
The Spanish Escudo provided the wealth that enabled the transformation of European society. But it came at a high cost. The Spanish conquistadors forced many indigenous communities into dangerous mines to extract the precious metal as quickly as possible under the most atrocious conditions. In addition, they confiscated their gold ornaments, jewellery and decorations, which were almost always melted down and struck into coins or ingots before being sent across the sea to the mother country. Those fortunate enough to examine the craftsmanship of the Aztec goldsmiths reported that they were more skilled than their European counterparts. The loss of their cultural and artistic treasures from the historical record is incalculable. It will forever be a matter of great regret that the Spanish Kings preferred to receive their gold from the New World in coins and ingots.
However, without the influx of gold from the New World, it is hard to see how the intellectual, cultural and artistic Renaissance that swept through Europe after the 15th Century could have been financed. Likewise, the Industrial Revolution that began in Britain in the 18th Century required a prosperous economy to sustain it. The reliable gold coin helped to facilitate this by lifting Europe out of the grinding poverty in which it had languished for centuries.
The Spanish Escudo, with its stable weight, trusted purity, and distinctive design, can be said to have paved the way for the international trading coins, such as the Dutch Ducat (from 1586), the modern British Sovereign (from 1817) and the American Double Eagle (from 1907) that came after it.
A fascinating chapter in the history of Irish coinage occurred between 1689 and 1691 when the deposed King James II authorised the striking of token money made from melted-down guns to finance his army as he tried in vain to recover his crown. It was the largest regal issue of base metal coinage since the Roman Empire, and the impact of his actions are still felt in Ireland today.
King James II (r. 1685-1688) deeply divided his people with his determination to return the British Isles to Catholicism. Believing that he had a divine right to govern, he tried to overrule Parliament when they opposed his plans, and used increasingly violent and unconstitutional methods to arrest and imprison Protestants.
Many of his subjects prayed for the day when the King’s eldest daughter Mary would succeed him. She had been raised a Protestant to marry her first cousin, the Dutch Stadtholder William Henry of Orange and cement an alliance with the Netherlands. However, when the King’s wife gave birth to a son and heir in 1688, the baby automatically became the next in the line of succession. Fearing the prospect of a Catholic dynasty, seven English nobles then took matters into their own hands and begged William to come to Britain and restore order.
The Glorious Revolution
William assembled a formidable invasion fleet larger than the Spanish Armada, but such a show of force was not required when he landed in England and received a hero’s welcome. After promising that he would maintain “the liberties of England and the Protestant religion”, English nobles, politicians and army officers joined the crowds in cheering his triumphant arrival.
William’s uncle and father-in-law found his support dissolving all around him. Realising that he had lost his grip on power, the King fled London, allegedly dumping his great seal of office into the River Thames as he did so. William permitted him to leave England and go into exile in France.
Parliament then invited William and Mary to reign together as joint sovereigns. The successful transition of power was hailed as the Glorious Revolution because it was accomplished with very little loss of life in England. Sadly, this was not to be the case in Ireland.
James was not prepared to give up the crown without a fight. His cousin, King Louis XIV of France, provided him with a substantial army, and on 24th March 1689, he arrived in Ireland, where many Catholics still considered him their lawful King and were prepared to fight to see him restored to the throne. Lacking funds to pay his soldiers (who called themselves Jacobites), he created a token coinage struck in base metal (copper, brass or pewter) which they could later redeem for silver coins after he had regained his crown.
A mint was established at 61 Capel Street, Dublin. In July 1689, the Secretary of State, Lord Melfort, ordered Lord Mountcashel, Master General of the Ordnance at Dublin Castle, to deliver to the mint old brass guns which were in the castle yard. A request was also sent to King Louis XIV asking for “forty guns to coyne money”. Cannons from Limerick, Athlone and Brest in France were melted down and turned into coins, and workers at the mint worked in shifts to ensure that production continued around the clock. Such was the demand for money that a second mint was established in Limerick to strike emergency coins between March and October 1690.
Today, the coins that were produced are referred to as gun money, but they were made with metal from other sources too. By August 1689, appeals for metal were being sent throughout Ireland, and it was said that Jacobite soldiers would knock on the doors of homes, take the pots and pans they found inside and then walk off with the door knockers too! The Archbishop of Dublin, William King, described how coins were struck from “a mixture of old guns, old broken bells, old copper, brass, pewter, old kitchen furniture (utensils) and the refuse of metals molten down”.
The coins displayed the month and the year of issue to allow a gradual and orderly replacement when James was restored to the throne. Their value was displayed in Roman numerals on their reverse; ‘VI’ on the sixpence, ‘XII’ on the shilling (12 pence) and ‘XXX’ on the half-crown (30 pence).
Despite the best efforts of the authorities to acquire metal, a proclamation was issued on 21st April 1690 to increase the value of the coins to make the metal go further. Rather than being smelted, the old coins were simply heated up and restruck with a higher value. Shillings were struck over sixpences, half-crowns on shillings and crowns on half-crowns. The crown (60 pence) bore the image of the King on horseback to distinguish it from lower value coins which bore his portrait.
It is an interesting feature of gun money that many of the 1690 dated second issue coins were restruck at incorrect temperatures. This caused them to bear traces of their original designs after being struck for a second time.
The Battle of the Boyne
Unfortunately for James, his Jacobite army was no match for William’s ‘Grand Alliance’ made up of English, Dutch, Danish, German and French Protestants. On 1st July 1690, the two armies faced each other on either side of the river Boyne, about thirty miles north of Dublin. After several hours of fierce fighting, William’s army crossed the river and drove the Jacobites back. James then gave the order to retreat, abandoned his troops and hurried back to exile in France, with all hope of regaining his throne lost forever.
As James never regained his crown, his promise to replace the gun money with silver coins never occurred. The emergency coins circulated at reduced values until the early eighteenth century, when they were finally withdrawn from circulation. Today, each surviving piece of gun money serves as a unique and valuable historical document to a turbulent period of British and Irish history.
The year 1587 began the reign of the Swedish Vasa dynasty in the history of Poland. The times of Sigismund III Vasa are a period of unprecedented momentum in coin minting. Never again in Polish history has there been such an abundance and variety of numismatic items. More than a dozen mints worked on an extremely extensive coinage system, covering the entire coin catalog, from the magnificent one hundred ducats in gold to the modest denarii.
Ruler of Two Kingdoms Overlooking the Third
Sigismund III Vasa (1566-1632), the son of the Swedish king Jan III Vasa and Katarzyna Jagiellonka, sat on two thrones, which did not prevent him from aspiring to a third. He was elected King of Poland in 1587. After the death of his father, in 1592 he hurried to Sweden to assume the throne there and to look after dynastic issues. In 1599, he was dethroned by the Swedish parliament, the Riksdag, although he formally used the royal title until the end of his life.
The third throne that Sigismund tried to conquer this time for his son Władysław—was the Moscow throne. Poland intervened in the internal affairs of its eastern neighbor during the so-called of great sadness, after the end of the Rurkovich dynasty, and before the accession of the Romanovs to the throne. In 1610, the troops of Hetman Stanisław Żółkiewski captured Moscow and the Kremlin, which they occupied for two years. In 1611 in Warsaw, the former Russian Tsar Vasyl IV Szujski pledged an oath to the Polish king, which went down in history under the name of the “Ruthenian Homage“.
Mint Policy of a Great Country
Sigismund III ruled over a large area of Europe, with an sophisticated and complex fiscal system. It is therefore not surprising that the numismatic heritage of his time includes not only the coins of Poland and Lithuania, but also the Swedish thalers and öre, and even the Moscow kopecks of his son Władysław. These were issued in the years 1610-12 during the occupation of the Kremlin by the Polish army.
The beginning of the reign of young Vasa coincided with a great financial crisis in Western Europe. In the countries of the German empire, divided into many small state organisms, and in the Crown of Bohemia, there was an increasing devaluation of the small silver coin. The rulers benefiting from the mint’s profits bought their own coins as well as foreign coins in order to re-mint them into inferior numismatic items with a lower silver content. As a consequence, this practice led to a significant price disproportion between the “thick” coins: ducats and thalers, and the small ones. In some areas, inflation was above 1,300%!
This phenomenon left an indelible mark on the Polish economy. Trade exchange meant that weak, foreign coins were flowing over the Vistula, and good coins (suitable for melting) were flowing out of the country. To prevent this from happening, Sigismund III was forced to lower the silver content in coins and to introduce new denominations to the market. This is all to adjust the Polish currency to the changing thaler exchange rate.
During the times of the first of the Vasa, fascinating numismatic novelties appeared on the market. The so-called “Półtoraki”, ie coins worth 1.5 groszy, which were to improve the trade with Brandenburg. An “orth” was introduced, corresponding to a quarter of a thaler. For a short time, the “Trzykrucierzówki” were also minted, which equaled the three countrymen and served trade with Silesia and the Crown of Bohemia.
The Monetary System of the Republic of Poland (c. 1623)
The aforementioned financial crisis, deepened by the monetary chaos, forced the need for reforms. In 1623, the exchange rates of market denominations were stabilized. It was assumed that one “heavy” thaler is worth 80 groszy. Apart from it, a smaller version of it, known as the “light” thaler, remained in the market. In the following years, the issue of the small coin, the most prone to devaluation, was limited. Half-thalers and quarter-thalers were also put into circulation.
Around 1623, the country’s monetary system included the following denominations: gold ducat and its derivatives (Portuguese, donatives), in silver: thaler and its derivatives, orth (1/4 thaler), sixth (6 groszy), threefold (3 groszy), one and a half (1.5 grosz), penny, penny (1/3 grosz), third (1/6 grosz), two-dollar (1/9 grosz) and denarius (1/18 grosz). The unit of account was the Polish zloty, equal to thirty groszy. Sigismund III flooded the country with a gold coin. Not only single ducats were issued, but also their multiples.
Seventeen mints operated for the needs of the expanded monetary system. These mints were located in: Bydgoszcz, Drezdenek, Kraków, Królewiec, Lublin, Malbork, Mitawa, Olkusz, Poznań, Warsaw, Vilnius, Wschowa, Łobżenica, Elbląg, Gdańsk, Riga and Toruń.
Samuel Ammon’s Golden Masterpiece
Among the list of mints just cited, Bydgoszcz deserves special mention. It is there that the largest coin in the history of Polish coinage was created – 100 ducats in gold, which is one of the greatest numismatic items in the world.
Although Bydgoszcz obtained the privilege of minting coins in the Middle Ages, organized production dates back to 1594. Initially, the mint operated as a private mint, and from 1613 as a royal one. Three years later, the Dutchman Jakub Jacobson von Emden became its leaseholder. Under his excellent management, the mint became one of the best coinage centers in the country, specializing in the minting of half-thalers, thalers, ducats and Portuguese. It was here in 1621 that a gold stud, weighing about 350 grams, with a diameter of 70 mm, was minted.
It was an example of the so-called medal coin intended for awarding to meritorious people. Its break coincided with the victory over the Turks at Khotyn. The project was made by Samuel Ammon, a medalist from Gdańsk. This master from Switzerland became famous as the creator of great portrait medals and numismatics.
On the obverse of the 100 Ducats coin, the medalist showed a bust of the king in majesty. Sigismund III does not wear a crown, his features are realistic. He is wearing sumptuous armor, decorated with the head of a lion. He is girdled with the commander’s sash. On the chest is the Order of the Golden Fleece, the highest decoration of the House of Habsburg awarded to monarchs. The inscription in the rim gives the title – by God’s grace, the king of Poland and Sweden. A seasoned eye will also notice, among the richness of armor ornaments, the medalist’s monogram: SA and the date of issue: 1621.
The reverse is decorated with a nine-field coat of arms under the royal crown. It features the emblems of Poland and Lithuania, as well as the intermediate shield the coat of arms of Sweden – Three Crowns and the Folkung Lion – and finally on the heart shield the coat of arms of the Vasa bunch. The whole is surrounded by a chain of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Along the rim, the next part of the titles of Sigismund III – the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Ruthenia, Prussia, Masovia, Żmudj, Livonia. Next to the cross, on the crown of the royal crown, date: 1621. On both sides of the coat of arms, among the ornaments, there is a monogram of the general manager of the mints: IIVE (Jakub Jacobson von Emden).
The same stamp every one hundred ducats was made in gold, in Bydgoszcz, also other denominations, including silver. Over the last decades, the studukatówka has rarely appeared at numismatic auctions, arousing great interest from collectors. It was sold for the last time in 2018 for the sum of over $2 million US dollars – setting a new auction record for any Polish historical coin.
Rok 1587 otworzył w dziejach Polski panowanie szwedzkiej dynastii Wazów. Czasy Zygmunta III Wazy to okres niebywałego rozmachu menniczego. Nigdy w historii Rzeczpospolitej nie było takiej obfitości i różnorodności numizmatów. Kilkanaście mennic pracowało na potrzeby niezwykle rozbudowanego systemu menniczego, obejmującego cały katalog monet, od wspaniałych stu dukatów w złocie aż po skromne denary.
Władca dwóch królestw z widokiem na trzecie
Zygmunt III Waza (1566-1632) syn króla szwedzkiego Jana III Wazy i Katarzyny Jagiellonki, zasiadał na dwóch tronach, co nie przeszkadzało mu spoglądać w kierunku trzeciego. Został wybrany na króla Polski w 1587 r. Po śmierci swego ojca, w 1592 r. pospieszył do Szwecji, aby objąć tamtejszy tron i dopilnować kwestii dynastycznych. W 1599 r. został zdetronizowany przez szwedzki parlament Riksdag, choć tytułu królewskiego formalnie używał do końca życia.
Trzecim tronem, który Zygmunt próbował zdobyć, tym razem dla syna Władysława, był tron moskiewski. Polska zaingerowała w wewnętrzne sprawy wschodniego sąsiada w okresie tzw. wielkiej smuty, po wygaśnięciu dynastii Rurykowiczów, a przed wstąpieniem na tron Romanowów. W 1610 r. wojska hetmana Stanisława Żółkiewskiego zajęły Moskwę i Kreml, które okupowały przez dwa lata. W 1611 r. w Warszawie były car rosyjski Wasyl IV Szujski złożył polskiemu królowi przysięgę homagialną, która przeszła do historii pod nazwą „hołdu ruskiego”.
Polityka mennicza wielkiego kraju
Zygmunt III panował nad wielkim obszarem Europy, z całym złożonym systemem fiskalnym. Nie dziwi więc fakt, że mennicze dziedzictwo jego czasów obejmuje nie tylko monety Polski i Litwy, ale także szwedzkie talary i öre, a nawet moskiewskie kopiejki jego syna Władysława, emitowane w latach 1610-12 podczas zajęcia Kremla przez wojska polskie.
Początek panowania młodego Wazy zbiegł się z wielkim kryzysem finansowym na zachodzie Europy. W krajach rzeszy niemieckiej, rozbitej na wiele małych organizmów państwowych oraz w Czechach następowała coraz większa dewaluacja drobnej srebrnej monety. Władcy czerpiący zyski mennicze skupowali monety własne i obce w celu ich ponownego przetopu na numizmaty gorsze, o mniejszej zawartości srebra. Ten proceder prowadził w konsekwencji do znacznej dysproporcji cenowej między monetami „grubymi”: dukatami i talarami, a tymi drobnymi. Na niektórych obszarach inflacja przekraczała poziom 1300%!
Opisane zjawisko odcisnęło swe piętno na gospodarce polskiej. Wymiana handlowa powodowała, że nad Wisłę płynęły szerokim strumieniem słabe, obce monety, a z kraju odpływały dobre, nadające się do przetopu. Aby temu zapobiec Zygmunt III zmuszony był do obniżenia zawartości srebra w numizmatach oraz wprowadzenia na rynek nowych nominałów. To wszystko, aby dostosować polski pieniądz do zmieniającego się kursu talara.
Za czasów pierwszego z Wazów pojawiły się w obrocie nowinki numizmatyczne. Zaczęto emitować tzw. „półtoraki”, czyli monety o wartości 1,5 grosza, które miały usprawnić wymianę towarową z Brandenburgią. Wprowadzono „orta”, odpowiadającego ¼ talara. Przez krótki czas wybijano także „trzykrucierzówki”, które równały się trzem krajcarom i służyły wymianie handlowej ze Śląskiem i Czechami.
System monetarny Rzeczpospolitej ok. 1623 r.
Wspomniany uprzednio kryzys finansowy, pogłębionych monetarnym chaosem, wymusił konieczność reform. W 1623 r. ustabilizowano kursy wymiany nominałów pozostających w obrocie rynkowym. Przyjęto, że jeden „ciężki” talar jest wart 80 groszy. Oprócz niego w obrocie rynkowym pozostawała jego mniejsza wersja zwana talarem „lekkim”. W następnych latach ograniczono emisję drobnej monety, najbardziej podatnej na dewaluację. Wprowadzono do obiegu także półtalary i ćwierćtalary.
Około roku 1623 system monetarny kraju obejmował następujące nominały: złoty dukat i jego pochodne (portugały, donatywy), w srebrze: talar i jego pochodne, ort (1/4 talara), szóstak (6 groszy), trojak (3 grosze), półtorak (1,5 grosza), grosz, szeląg (1/3 grosza), trzeciak (1/6 grosza), dwudenar (1/9 grosza) oraz denar (1/18 grosza). Jednostką obrachunkową pozostawał złoty polski równy trzydziestu groszom. Zygmunt III zasypał kraj złotą monetą. Emitowano nie tylko pojedyncze dukaty, ale też ich wielokrotności.
Na potrzeby rozbudowanego systemu monetarnego pracowało siedemnaście mennic, zlokalizowanych w: Bydgoszczy, Drezdenku, Krakowie, Królewcu, Lublinie, Malborku, Mitawie, Olkuszu, Poznaniu, Warszawie, Wilnie, Wschowie, Łobżenicy, Elblągu, Gdańsku, Rydze i Toruniu.
Złote arcydzieło Samuela Ammona
Spośród wymienionych ośrodków menniczych na szczególną wyróżnienie zasługuje Bydgoszcz. Tam bowiem powstała największa moneta w historii polskiego mennictwa – 100 dukatów w złocie, będąca jednym z najwspanialszych numizmatów na świecie.
Choć przywilej bicia monety Bydgoszcz uzyskał w średniowieczu, to zorganizowana produkcja datuje się od 1594 r. Początkowo mennica działała jako prywatna, a od 1613 jako królewska. Trzy lata później jej dzierżawcą został Holender Jakub Jacobson von Emden. Pod jego doskonałym zarządem zakład stał się jednym z najlepszych ośrodków menniczych w kraju wyspecjalizowanym w biciu półtalarów, talarów, dukatów i portugałów. To tutaj w 1621 r. wybito złotą studukatówkę, ważącą ok. 350 gram, o średnicy 70 mm.
Był to przykład tzw. monety medalowej, przeznaczonej do obdarowywania zasłużonych osób. Jej wybicie zbiegło się w czasie ze zwycięstwem nad Turkami pod ChocimiemProjekt wykonał gdański medalier Samuel Ammon. Ten pochodzący ze Szwajcarii mistrz zasłynął jako twórca wspaniałych medali portretowych i numizmatów.
Na awersie studukatówki medalier ukazał popiersie króla w majestacie. Zygmunt III nie nosi korony, rysy jego twarzy są realistyczne. Ma na sobie paradną zbroję, ozdobioną głową lwa. Jest przepasany szarfą dowódcy. Na piersi widać Order Złotego Runa, najwyższe odznaczenie domu habsburskiego przyznawane monarchom. Napis w otoku podaje tytulaturę – z Bożej łaski król Polski i Szwecji. Wytrawne oko dostrzeże także, pośród bogactwa ornamentów zbroi, monogram medaliera: SA i datę emisji: 1621.
Rewers zdobi dziewięciopolowy herb pod koroną królewską. Widnieją na nim Orzeł Biały i Pogoń Litewska, na tarczy pośredniej herby Szwecji – Trzy Korony i Lew Folkungów, wreszcie na tarczy sercowej herb Wazów Snopek. Całość otoczona łańcuchem Orderu Złotego Runa. W otoku dalsza cześć tytulatury Zygmunta III – wielki książę litewski, ruski, pruski, mazowiecki, żmudzki, inflancki. Obok krzyża na zwieńczeniu korony królewskiej data: 1621. Po obu stronach tarczy herbowej, wśród ornamentów monogram generalnego zarządcy mennic: IIVE (Jakub Jacobson von Emden).
Tym samym stemplem co sto dukatów wybito w złocie, w Bydgoszczy, również inne nominały, także srebrne. Na przestrzeni ostatnich dziesięcioleci studukatówka niezwykle rzadko pojawiała się na aukcjach numizmatycznych wzbudzając ogromne zainteresowanie kolekcjonerów. Po raz ostatni została sprzedana w 2018 r. za sumę ponad 2 milionów dolarów USA, ustanawiając tym samym rekord aukcyjny dla polskiej monety historycznej.
In 1924 a special committee was set up to select the designs for the first currency of the Irish Free State. The committee was chaired by the Nobel Prize winning poet William Butler Yeats, who had been appointed to the Irish Senate two years earlier in 1922.
Born in Sandymount on 13th June 1865, Yeats was fascinated with poetry from childhood and published his first volume of verse aged just 22. He went on to found the Irish Theatre, writing plays that dealt with his favourite subjects of Irish myths, legends and spirituality. Ironically, some of his greatest poetry was written after he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923, which cemented his reputation as one of the world’s greatest twentieth-century poets.
The committee was well aware of the enormity of the task that faced them. Though a committed nationalist, Yeats deplored violence and had no wish to antagonise the predominantly Protestant north and the Catholic south.
For this reason, early suggestions that the coinage should feature patriotic symbols, politicians or Christian saints were quickly ruled out, fearing that it could inflame tensions and lead to the currency being turned into religious medals. Instead, Yeats wanted something that was “elegant, racy of the soil and utterly unpolitical”.
After lengthy discussions, the committee agreed that the Irish harp would remain the national symbol of the coinage, as it had been since the early sixteenth century. This would appear on the obverse of each coin, surrounded by the inscription, Saorstát Éireann (Irish Free State).
For the reverse designs, an agricultural theme was agreed upon, which was essential to the Irish economy. Yeats announced that they “decided upon birds and beasts … what better symbols could we find for this horse riding, salmon fishing, cattle raising country?“
Seven artists from Ireland, England, the USA, Italy and Sweden were invited to produce designs in plaster or metal. Marks that could identify the artist were removed from each of the sixty-six individual designs submitted so that the committee could not know who had submitted what. Eventually, after careful evaluation, they selected the “incomparably superior” work of a little known English artist, Percy Metcalfe.
Knowing that assigning the design of the first coins of the Irish Free State to an Englishman was going to be a controversial move, the committee took the unusual step of making all the designs that had been submitted public. This was done, they said, “because we believe any adverse criticism of the choice of Mr. Metcalfe’s designs could not survive such an inspection,”
The new designs were introduced into circulation on 12th December 1928 and comprised the woodcock (farthing),pig and piglets (halfpenny), hen and chicks (penny), hare (threepence), wolfhound (sixpence), bull (shilling), salmon (florin) and horse (half crown).
Inevitably, there was some opposition to the designs, with some critics protesting that they gave the impression that Ireland was little more than a giant farmyard. One priest even went so far as to denonce them as pagan symbols intended to “wipe out all traces of religion from our minds .. and beget a land of devil-worshippers where eveil may reign supreme.”
However, the animal designs were quickly embraced by the public at large. By celebrating the vibrancy, diversity and beauty found in Ireland, Yeats hoped that the coins would become, as he put it, “the silent ambassadors on national taste”. Having spent decades in our pockets and purses, it is little wonder that they are still remembered fondly by many people today.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.