Coins and the Importance of Where to Look

by Andreas Kolle

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.

Spanish Gold – The currency of conquest

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.

Columbus arrives in the New World

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.

Philip II

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 2018 commemorative gold Four Escudo

Pirate Treasure!

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 2018 commemorative gold doubloon (Two Escudo)

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 2018 commemorative gold Eight Escudo

Abundance

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 2018 commemorative gold One Escudo depicting King Ferdinand VI

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.

Gold Escudos

Irish Gun Money

King James II

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. 

King WIlliam III and Queen Mary II, who reigned as joint sovereigns

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.

Emergency Money

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). 

Gun Money Sixpence (1689)
Gun Money Shilling (1689)
Gun Money Half Crown (1689)

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.

Gun Money Crown (1690)

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.  

Restrike showing the original undertype

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.

William at the Battle of the Boyne

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 Greatest Polish Gold Coin is Already 400 Years Old!

by Marcin Brzeziński

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.

Polish flag on Kremlin, Stanisław Nowakowski, National Museum in Warsaw

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.

Najwspanialsza polska złota moneta ma już 400 lat!

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.

The Coins of the Irish Free State

Yeats in 1923

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”.

The Irish Harp on the obverse

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.

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 coins of the Irish Free State designed by Percy Metcalfe

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