By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
History is an account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.
— Ambrose Bierce (1842 -1914)
COINS OF THE last known type issued by a ruling dynasty seem to have a particular fascination for collectors. Events surrounding the collapse of a long-standing regime are often dramatic and frequently tragic, and coins provide a tangible link to that history.
For example, the scarce but otherwise unremarkable gold coins of Romulus Augustus, the child puppet ruler deposed by a bloodless coup on September 4, 476 CE, command fabulous prices because of the special cachet attached to his status as the “last Roman emperor” in the West.
So when CoinWeek asked me to write about the last coins issued by a variety of medieval ruling dynasties, I was all for it. Here we go!
The Visigoths were a Germanic tribe that migrated into the Iberian Peninsula during the chaotic sixth century, creating a Christian kingdom that endured until the Muslim Invasion two centuries later. Most sources consider Roderic (Rodrigo in Spanish) the last Visigothic ruler in Spain. He was a grandson of King Chindaswinth (ruled 642-653).
When King Wittiza died or was assassinated in 710 or early 711 (the facts are unclear), a dispute over succession divided the kingdom, with Roderic in the west, holding the capital of Toledo, and Achila II in the northeast (he struck coins at Girona, Zaragoza, Tarragona, and Narbonne). Roderic also faced a Basque rebellion, and an invasion by Muslims from North Africa. At the Battle of Guadalete in 711 (like many things in Visigothic history, the date and locate are uncertain), Roderic and much of the Visigoth nobility were killed.
Less than 20 authentic gold tremisses of his brief reign are known; none have appeared at auction in recent years except for some collectible forgeries, notably by the famous German counterfeiter Carl Wilhelm Becker (1772-1830.)
The Lombards, another Germanic tribe, carved out a kingdom in northern Italy beginning in the sixth century. The region of Lombardy preserves the memory of their name.
Born about 720, Desiderius became king at the age of 36. He unwisely went to war against Pope Adrian I (reigned 772-795), who in turn called on the Frankish king Karl–better known by his French name, Charlemagne–for aid. Ironically, Desiderata, a daughter of Desiderius, had become one of Karl’s numerous wives in 770. The political marriage lasted only a year and there were no known children. Karl invaded Italy and besieged Pavia, the Lombard capital. Forced to surrender and abdicate in 774, Desiderius lived out the rest of his life in exile at a French monastery. Karl added “King of the Lombards” to his titles.
Desiderius issued rare debased gold tremisses at several mints. The obverse bears a “starburst in circle” design surrounded by the mint name, to which the honorific FLAVIA (of uncertain meaning) is added. The reverse bears a cross potent, surrounded by the king’s name and title.
Remembered as Louis Le Fainéant (“the Lazy,” or “the Do-Nothing”), Louis V misruled part of France from 979 to his death in a hunting accident in 987 at the age of 20 or 21. Dying childless, he was the last direct descendant of Charlemagne (the Carolingian dynasty), although that much-married emperor left such an enormous number of collateral-line offspring that most modern-day European royals can trace some line of descent back to him.
Because the numbering of kings with the same name did not become a common practice on coinage until the 15th century, coins of Louis V cannot be distinguished from those of his grandfather, Louis IV (ruled 936-954). The silver denier of this era, weighing about 1.4 grams, bore the Latin form of the name “Louis”, LUDOVVICVS around the title of “king”, REX in a circle. The reverse bore a plain cross surrounded by the name of the mint city. In a 2015 New York auction, an example of this rare type brought $3,000 USD, against an estimate of $1,000.
Harold II Godwinson was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. He was chosen to succeed his brother-in-law, Edward “the Confessor” (ruled 1042-1066), who died without an heir.
In September 1066, Norwegian king Harald Hardrada, who had a claim to the English crown, invaded England. Harold force-marched his army north from London and crushed the invaders at the battle of Stamford Bridge. A few days later, Duke William of Normandy, another claimant to the disputed English crown, landed his army on the southern coast. At the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066, Harold was struck in the eye by an arrow and killed, a scene depicted on the famous Bayeux Tapestry.
He had reigned for only 10 months and his silver penny is quite rare, “plagued by flat, weak, uneven strikes and poor states of preservation.” His crowned profile portrait, facing left, (or rarely right) appears on the obverse with the inscription + HAROLD REX ANGLO (“Harold king of the English”). Ironically for such a warlike king, the reverse bears the Latin word PAX.
Manfred was the last king of Sicily of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, reigning from 1258 to 1266. Our (highly inaccurate) stereotype of Sicily today is an impoverished, crime-ridden region, but in the medieval era, the island was rich, with fertile volcanic soil and a diverse multi-cultural society combining Norman, Arabic, Greek, and Italian influences.
This was reflected in an abundant gold coinage, the tari, struck in variable sizes and valued according to weight.
Manfred’s coins bear the imperial eagle on the obverse, and a cross, with the Greek abbreviation IC XC NIKA (“Jesus Christ Conquers”) on the reverse. Manfred was the natural son of German emperor Frederick II. Manfred seized the throne of Sicily from his nephew Conradin and came into conflict with the Church, being excommunicated by three successive popes. On February 26, 1266, Manfred was killed and his army was annihilated by the forces of Charles of Anjou at the Battle of Benevento.
Casimir III “the Great” (Kazimierz III Wielki in Polish), King of Poland from 1333 to 1370, was the last ruler of the Piast dynasty, which had ruled Poland since the time of Mieszko I, c. 960. Inheriting a kingdom exhausted by his father’s protracted war against the Teutonic Knights, Casimir doubled the size of his domains, restored prosperity, promulgated a new code of law, and founded Poland’s first university at Krakow. He gave protection to persecuted Jews, welcoming them to settle in Poland. He fortified almost 30 towns and built 50 castles. Married four times, Casimir fathered five daughters, but no sons.
He also inherited a fairly chaotic monetary system, with a variety of tiny regional denars in debased silver weighing 0.3 grams or less. Around 1360, Casimir introduced a high-quality silver coin modeled on the Prague groschen (grosz in Polish) of the neighboring kingdom of Bohemia. An exceptionally rare specimen sold for over $20,000 in a recent Polish auction.
When Casimir died as a result of a hunting accident at the age of 60 he had no son, and was succeeded by a nephew, King Louis of Hungary (Lajos in Hungarian) of the Anjou dynasty.
Casimir’s portrait appears on the modern Polish 50 zloty banknote.
“…[T]he last of the Greek Caesars was a fascinating figure, not so much because he was a great statesman, as he was not, and not because of his military prowess, as he was neither a notable tactician nor a soldier of exceptional merit… Yet in sharp contrast to his numerous shortcomings, his military defeats and the various disappointments during his reign, posterity still fondly remembers the last Constantine. (Philippides, ix)”
By the mid-15th century, the Byzantine Empire had been reduced to the city of Constantinople and a few scattered islands and fortresses. Local coinage consisted of a silver stavraton of about 6.5 grams and its fractions (half, quarter and eighth). The last emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos, died on the city walls fighting the final Ottoman assault on May 29, 1453, and for centuries, numismatists believed he issued no coins.
In the 1980s, however, a hoard of about 80 pieces turned up in Istanbul. These were siege coins, struck with crude dies on silver hammered out from church altar vessels, to pay Italian mercenaries and workers desperately repairing the city walls under bombardment. The obverse bears a sketchy stick figure of Christ; the reverse is an even sketchier image of the emperor, with an inscription that translates to “Despot Constantine Palaiologos, by the Grace of God, Emperor of the Romans.”
As the very “last” Byzantine issue, these sad coins command high prices. In a 2021 London auction, an exceptional example brought over $46,000. An exceptionally clear specimen brought $80,000 in the Gemini VII sale (January 9, 2011). In recent auctions, tiny one-eighth stavrata, weighing about 0.6 grams each, have gone for $19,000 to $30,000.
Generally regarded as the last tsar of the Second Bulgarian Empire, Ivan Sratsimir, born about 1324, was the eldest surviving son of Tsar Ivan Alexander (ruled 1331-1371). The son was passed over in the succession in favor of his brother, Ivan Shishman (ruled 1371-1395). This split the empire, with Shishman ruling from the central capital of Tarnovo and Sratsimir ruling a breakaway region from the western town of Vidin.
“While the Tsar of Tarnovo, Ivan Shishman was still making an attempt to resist the Ottoman invasion, Ivan Sratsimir remained an indifferent spectator of events. Not only did he not support his own brother, but he took advantage of the situation to expand his possessions. (Radushev, 176)”
Sratsimir’s silver denar bears the familiar Byzantine-style image of Christ, raising His hand in a gesture of blessing on the obverse, and the figure of the tsar enthroned on the reverse. In 1396, when King Sigismund of Hungary led a large army against the Turks, Sratsimir finally joined the resistance. Following Sigismund’s disastrous defeat at Nicopolis, the Turks occupied Vidin and captured Sratsimir, who was later strangled in prison. The Bulgarian lands would not regain their independence until the 19th century.
The great Italian seaport of Genoa was a major maritime power in the medieval Mediterranean world. As a reward for assistance to Byzantine emperor John V Palaiologos (ruled 1341-1391) the Genoese family of Gattilusio was granted the lordship of the Aegean island of Lesbos, which was often referred to in contemporary sources as Mytilene, the name of its main city. This included the right to issue their own coinage.
By the mid-15th century, this coinage consisted mainly of the small copper denaro, weighing about one gram. The obverse bore a bold “Gothic” initial of the lord’s name, and the reverse was a cross with the letter “B” in the angles (adopted from the arms of the Palaiologos dynasty, which was closely related by marriage across several generations).
After the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the Gattilusi briefly retained control of their territory by paying an annual tribute of 4,000 gold pieces to the sultan. In 1458, Domenico Gattilusio was deposed and strangled by his brother, Niccolo. Three years later, the Turks captured the island and deposed Niccolo the sixth and last lord of Mytilene, who was, in turn, strangled in prison.
The author is grateful to his friend, Joseph Dantona, owner of the rare coin of Domenico Gattlusio, for suggesting this remarkable story.
Charles the Bold
Charles, Duke of Burgundy, was killed at the Battle of Nancy on January 5, 1477, ending his bid to establish a kingdom.
Remembered as Charles “the Bold” (Le Temeraire, sometimes translated as “the Reckless”), he belonged to the House of Valois, a branch of the Capetian dynasty. Under his father, Philip “the Good” (reigned 1419-1467), the scattered Burgundian territories–including parts of the modern Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and eastern France–flourished in social, economic, and cultural domains.
In 1474, Charles introduced a 1.5 gram silver coin, the briquet. The name briquet means “fire steel”, a metal implement used with a piece of flint to strike sparks in order to start a fire. Looking like a capital letter “B” lying sideways, it was a personal emblem of the Dukes of Burgundy. There were also double briquet and half briquet coins.
Charles also issued handsome gold florins, bearing the image of St. Andrew, and the complex Burgundian coat of arms over a long cross. The pure gold florin of about 3.5 grams, introduced in the 13th century by the prosperous Italian city of Florence, was widely imitated, becoming a standard international trade coin, along with the very similar ducat of Venice.
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 Heidelberger Münzhandlung Auction 76, May 14, 2019, Lot 474. Realized €100 (about $112 USD; estimate €100).
 CNG Triton XVIII, January 6, 2015, Lot 1448. Realized $3,000 USD (estimate $1,000)
 Spink, Auction 22004, January 23, 2022, Lot 123. Realized £5,000 (about $6,830 USD; estimate £3,000 – 4,000).
 CNG Electronic Auction 486, February 24, 2021, Lot 889. Realized $1,600 USD (estimate $500)
 Warszawskie Centrum Numiszmatyczne Auction 71, November 17, 2018, Lot 161. Realized 80,000 zloty (about $21,165 USD; estimate 56,000 zloty).
 Roma Numismatics Auction XXI, March 24, 2021, Lot 1061. Realized £34,000 (about $46,652 USD; estimate £17,500).
 Roma Numismatics, E-sale 79, January 14, 2021, Lot 1122. Realized £340 (about $465 USD; estimate £50).
 CNG Electronic Auction 433, November 28,2018, Lot 517. Realized $320 USD (estimate $200).
 Savoca Auction 100, April 18, 2021. Lot 456. Realized: €340 (about $407 USD).
 CNG Auction 117, May 9, 2021, Lot 778. Realized $950 USD (estimate $200).
 Spink Auction 1010, June 24, 2010, Lot 665. Realized £600 (about $898 USD; estimate £500-600).
Cantor, Norman (editor). Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages. New York (1999)
Frynas, Jedrzej George. Medieval Coins of Bohemia, Hungary and Poland. London (2015)
Grierson, Philip. Coins of Medieval Europe. London (1991)
Oman, Charles. The Art of War in the Middle Ages: AD 378 – 1515. Ithaca NY (1953)
Philippides, Marios. Constantine XI Dragaš Palaeologus (1404–1453): The Last Emperor of Byzantium. New York (2018)
Radushev, Angel and Gospodin Zhekov. Katalog na Bulgarskite Srednevokovni Moneti, IX – XV vek (Catalog of Bulgarian Medieval Coins, 9th – 15th centuries). Sofia (1999)
Vico, Jesús, et. al. Corpus Nummorum Visigothorum. Madrid (2006)
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Mike Markowitz is a member of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.
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