English Gold Coins: Rise of the Gold Standard in 14th-century England
Coins of the first three Edwards & Richard II
Hammered English gold coins are so captivating in their designs, which invariably include intricate symbolism and Latin abbreviations of Biblical quotations favored by the respective monarchs, that many collectors focus too much on the coin designs, without understanding the historical motivations behind the coinages. Seen in their historical context, though, the coins become rich with meaning and a real reason for owning them occurs. A superb source of this information is C.H.V. Sutherland’s English Coinage 600-1900 (published 1973), which I condense here.
Prior to the 14th century, gold was rare in England. Almost no earlier English gold coins exist. In the reign of Edward III (1327-77), the next to last Plantagenet King, this all changed. All the silver coinage types continued, with little alteration other than title, as they had been under Edward I and II. A complicated system of privy-marks developed under the first Edward, called “Longshanks” because of his unusual height. A wicked man who waged war in Scotland, he set up numerous mints to issue large amounts of silver coins, and died leaving England a wealthy nation.
For 20 years the nation suffered under the second Edward but the coinage continued the same types, and the ongoing war with France had been disastrous for the national treasury.
Edward III had the qualities of his grandfather, and his 50-year reign ended with the following inscription engraved on his tombstone: “The glory of the English, the flower of kings past, a pattern for kings to come.” It was well deserved, for many challenges and even the Black Plague were overcome during his rule. Defying the French, he kept the title “King of France” on his coins, slaughtered them in a naval victory at Sluys in 1340, and expanded England’s horizons into international trade.
This latter development was the reason behind the first sizable gold coinage for the nation. Alliance with the Low Countries (Holland) had military value, but it also meant a new trade of England’s wool for foreign goods and money. Edward I had forged a trade agreement in 1274 while crusading in Europe. But this commerce was held back because Flanders used a gold-backed currency, England a silver-backed one, and the exchange rate between the two metals varied too much for merchants on both sides of the trade to be happy. Sutherland calls it bi-metallic disharmony. For this reason, Edward III introduced gold coins similar enough to those of Flanders to make trade exchanges equitable.
The first attempt did not last, despite their great beauty of design, because Edward’s new gold was of too high a quality. These were the famed Florins, Leopards and Helms, and it proved profitable in their day to melt them in exchange for more silver than they were worth in England. As a consequence, today they are all great rarities.
The second attempt at an English gold coin proved successful. We call these coins today the Nobles. Their fineness was decreased just a bit, to bring them into almost exactly the same exchange value both in the Low Countries and in England. They met with instant success and were made in large quantities. However, war with France again had an impact on the coins, this time creating a fascinating variety of “types” as the king’s title changed and mint initials were introduced, including a “C” for Calais, the port of France so long claimed as English soil. This time it became so English that an English mint was built there!
It is no coincidence that England’s wool-trade with the Flemish market gained sudden vigor right after the peace treaty of 1343, and the introduction of English gold in 1344. As already noted, the Florin series lasted only months before being withdrawn; but it broke an important tradition by not placing the king’s portrait on the coins, but rather the heraldry of England, readable all over Europe where the coins were intended to trade. In Edward’s mind, this strengthened his chance of becoming, in reality, king of France as well as of England. When the Noble was accepted, in late 1344, it again had a political impact because of the large cross shown on its reverse. As Sutherland says, “This was, in short, a Christian coinage ordered by a Christian king; and it deserved the acceptance due to any Christian coinage. . . .” Edward III aimed for his Nobles to be the gold currency of all of France, with himself as king.
From this ambition arises the fascinating array of types of Nobles seen during this reign. War ended in 1343 with the treaty of Malestroit, but broke out almost immediately again. As would be duplicated almost to the Nth degree in 1415 at Agincourt, the Battle of Crecy of 1346 saw a small army of English decimate a large French force. Victory was short lived, however, as the Black Death plague struck the same year and did not end until 1350, during which very little gold was needed, or made, for commerce. Battles resumed when the plague went away, and the King of England placed and removed various French titles on his gold Noble during the rest of his reign, which ended in 1377. His gold may be collected citing these changes, most notably divided into periods revolving about the 1360 Treaty of Bretigni and the establishment of the mint at Calais in 1363. Much of this Noble coinage in fact came from French gold, ransom paid to the English for the return of the captured French king, one of the terms of the Treaty. It was far from peace, however, and the king’s son The Black Prince continued to ravage France until outright war resumed in 1369. Large amounts of silver and gold coins were minted during the few years of relative peace, but output was sharply curtailed in time of war. Gem examples of the Noble therefore exist, caused by both output and fearful hiding of these insignia of wealth, which makes collecting them today all the more exciting.
“Edward III,” Sutherland concludes, “was neither the first nor the last man to discover that warfare, and especially protracted warfare, does terrible damage to the economy . . .” and when both Edward the king died in 1377, and his great warrior son The Black Prince died the year before him, England was inherited by a weak, fearful man, Richard II. He continued the Noble coinage but its output was meager, the nation suffered badly from the long war with France, and murderous politics put a sharp end to Richard’s claim to French lands. When the last Plantagenet died a prisoner in Pontefract castle, a new but divided Royal House came to England, that of Lancaster and York, and a new feud would erupt as an internal war. But war with France had not ended. Henry V would revisit the same argument over French sovereignty and again slaughter the French, at Agincourt in October 1415. It might fairly be said that the single best contribution of the last Plantagenets was the enduring glory and value of the gold Noble, ever a symbol of the struggle of kingship and the need for gold as an international money.