Gold coins are something special. While silver coins were for the most part the common means of exchange in the mundane world, gold coins were destined for greater things, in this case the ransom of a captured king and in essence the arrival of two great powers, England and France.
In the 13th century, gold coins started reappearing in Europe. They were still scarce, but they at least existed. No longer were the Byzantine solidus coin, or is successor, the hyperpyron, the dominating gold coin. Northern Italian city-states took over the mantle, with especially the Florentine florin as the leading gold coin. First struck in 1255, was the first gold coin to be struck in significant numbers and for commercial use for about 600 years. In one coin lay the signal of a new dawn of European civilization.
Surprisingly quickly after the first florin, the French court introduced their own gold coin in 1266. King Louis IX, or Saint Louis, had the Coat of arms of France on the obverse, giving the coin its name, Écu, or “shield”. The coin was not popular, and disappeared again to make infrequent reappearances throughout the next century.
A Century to Forget
In fact, France was the richest country in Western Europe. The summers were long and warm, the winters mild and advances in agriculture gave a huge turnover. That, however, changed dramatically in the following century.
The Fourteenth Century was a saeculum horribilis, or horrible century, for Europe. The warm weather period which had lasted for two hundred years subsided, and a cold front took its place. These changes lead to bad harvests and a lack of food. The population, which exploded in the previous centuries, now faced several famines. As that was not enough, France and England were embroiled in a war from 1337 on which would take almost 116 years to resolve. Most of the fighting consisted of plundering of large areas in the French countryside. About ten years later, the extremely deadly plague, the Black Death, killed large amounts of the populous.
Gold for the King
In 1356, the French and the English clashed in the Battle of Poitiers. While they did fight honorably, the French forces were weakened by internal squabbles, and even though they had the numerical advantage, the English were both better tactically and better equipped. The English-Welsh-Gascoigne army, lead by The Black Prince Edward, captured the king of France, John II.
The French humiliation showed the open wounds in the French nobility for all to see. Outdated, divided and ineffective, they blamed each other, and mainly the king. When the English demanded first four, and then three million écu, many nobles balked.
The regent in the king’s captivity, Charles, had the unenviable task of raising money for the ransom and for the needed upkeep of the now weak army. The Estates General refused to grant the money, and ousted the regent. A civil war ensued, and Charles returned to power. He raised the money, and the king was set free.
Well, to be precise, the Black Prince treated the king to such luxuries during his captivity that the king probably saw little point in returning to the impoverished France. He would hunt pheasants, go to balls, eat lavishly, meet his family and converse with interesting people.
In fact, rumours have it that the king negated several reasonable demands made by the Estates General to prolong his stay. When he did return, it was in exchange for his second oldest son, Louis. As Louis escaped, John returned to England. If this was a matter of chivalry or longing for British hospitality is a matter of debate.
France would probably have produced gold coins faster and with much less opposition a century earlier, when the king was popular and finances were good. Now, however, the coins were minted in few numbers each year, and the amount was not met until the reign of Henry V about 60 years after the ransom was set.
The Majestic Coin
While the ransom was expressed in écu, it was paid in another currency. The coin had its own motif, and it did not feature a shield. To unite the French, Charles had made the image of King John II in full armor on horseback on the obverse. The motif was understood as the king free and on horseback, or in French: Franc à cheval. This, or possibly the legend “Rex Francorum” was the reason for the new name – the Franc.
The Franc lined the English coffers for a long time, and helped the English in their own development towards a sound money-based economy which was the backbone of the English Empire from the late 15th century onwards. The coin might have been French, but the fortunes were English.
It was also the start of a more sound financial policy for France. The Franc was fixed at a livre tournois, a specific weight, of gold. This predictability meant that for a good two hundred years, the French had a gold coin which could compete with both the Florin and the Ducat.
That is not all. The gold Franc followed the fortunes of the war. For while the gold coins did pay for the king who would defeat the French at Agincourt, it also paid for the 16 year old girl who rallied the French army to turn the tide and lift the siege of Orléans. Joan of Arc started the ousting of England from Europe and the defeat of their French allies.
This is therefore not only a coin, but also so much more. It is the start of sound French policy and unity. France had arguably never been in a more humiliating position than the one they were in when the coin was minted. When the Franc was discontinued in 1641, France was the strongest country in Europe militarily and arguably financially. It was feared by most and commanded the respect of all. This coin is quite simply French pride and honour minted in precious metal.