By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
Portugal, a small, narrow country on the Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula … was created during the Christian reconquest of the peninsula from the Moors. Unlike other lands that eventually became Spain, Portugal asserted and maintained its independence, emerging at the end of the Middle Ages as a formidable maritime power.
On July 25, 1139, Count Afonso Henriques defeated a large force of Almoravid Muslims at the Battle of Ourique. Five enemy warlords were slain in combat, and Afonso placed an image of their shields, arranged in a cross, on his coat of arms, which still appears on the Portuguese flag. After this victory, Afonso declared himself king, proclaiming Portugal’s independence from the Kingdom of Leon and Castile. It was the start of a long struggle for Portuguese national identity, not only against the Muslims to the south but also against the neighboring Spanish Christians.
The coinage of this era consisted mainly of the dinheiro, weighing about a gram or less, made of billon, an alloy of copper, containing less than 50% silver. Afonso also issued a rare half dinheiro (meio dinheiro or mealha). High-value transactions used Islamic silver dirhams or gold dinars.
Afonso was succeeded by his son, Sancho, aged 31. At this time, the capital of the kingdom was Coimbra, today a college town with a well-preserved medieval quarter. Sancho is known as “the Populator” (o Povoador in Portuguese) because of his efforts to increase the population in remote parts of the kingdom.
Sancho introduced a handsome gold coin of about 3.7 grams called the morabitino, because it was based on the weight standard of the Muslim Almoravids (al Murabitun in Arabic). The obverse bore a crude image of the king in armor charging on horseback. His name is rendered in Latin as SANCIUS. On the reverse, five shields in a cross are surrounded by an abbreviated Latin inscription that means “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
This type did not circulate much and is often found in nearly mint condition.
Nicknamed Afonso “the Fat” (o Gordo) the eldest surviving son of Sancho I was an unwarlike ruler, who spent much of his short reign (1211-1223) in conflict with the Catholic Church over revenue and the privileges of the clergy. He was eventually excommunicated by Pope Honorius III.
Dying at the age of just 37, Afonso II was succeeded by his son, Sancho II. Subsequently, Afonso’s coinage is quite scarce.
Unlike his father, Sancho “the Pious” (o Piedoso) was a warrior who devoted his reign to fighting the Muslims. He proved to be unpopular with the nobility and was deposed and exiled after a civil war (1245-1247). His dinheiro, crudely struck in poor-quality billon, is common. The nobles installed Sancho’s brother as Afonso III.
The younger son of King Afonso II married a French countess, becoming the count of Boulogne. When his brother was deposed he became king, nicknamed Afonso “the Boulonnais” (o Bolonhês). He divorced his French wife to marry a daughter of his neighbor, Alfonso X, King of Castile (I know, I know, all these Afonsos and Alfonsos can be confusing… Welcome to Iberian history!). In 1249, he completed the conquest of Algarve, the southern region of Portugal, making his title: “King of Portugal and Algarve”.
Billon dinheiros of this long reign are common and affordable. The gold morabitino, however, is extremely rare; an apparently unique example brought over 50,000 euros in a recent French auction.
Afonso died at the age of 68 and was succeeded by his son Diniz.
Remembered as the “Farmer King” (o Rei Lavrador) and the “Poet King” (o Rei Poeta), Diniz (or Denis) ruled for a remarkable 46 years; from 1279 to 1325. His queen, Isabella of Aragon, “was blessed with such great personal and moral qualities that the Church canonized her as Saint Isabella of Portugal (1516).” He planted a great pine forest, which still exists, to ensure a supply of ship timber.
A patron of art and literature, Diniz made Portuguese rather than Latin the official language of government. He negotiated an alliance with the kingdom of Castile that endured for 40 years of peace. His later years were troubled by a struggle over the succession between two of his sons, both named Afonso: one the legitimate heir, the other illegitimate but favored by his father.
Alongside the low-value billon dinheiro, Diniz introduced a large coin of 90% silver, the tornes, weighing almost four grams, modeled on the contemporary French gros tournois. An example of this rare type — only about 20 are known — brought over $12,000 in a recent auction.
Nicknamed “the Brave” (Afonso o Bravo), the son of Diniz came to the throne in 1325 at the age of 33 and ruled for 32 years. He joined King Alfonso XI of Castile in an offensive against the Muslims, winning a major victory at Rio Salado in 1340. His son, the future King Pedro, loved and secretly married Inês de Castro, a woman considered unsuitable by Afonso, who ordered her assassination in 1355. This provoked Pedro to revolt against his father.
The scarce dinheiros of Afonso’s long reign can be distinguished from those of Afonso III by small details such as the spelling of the inscription ALF: REX: PORTVGL.
Known as “Pedro the Cruel” or “Pedro the Just”, when he came to the throne in 1357, Pedro avenged the murder of his wife by executing the men who had killed her. The only known coins from Pedro’s 10-year reign are crudely struck billon dinheiros.
Fernando “the Handsome” (Fernando o Formoso) was just 22 years old when he became king in 1367. In 1373 he negotiated a treaty of “perpetual friendship” with King Edward III of England – one of the world’s longest-enduring international agreements.
Fernando also launched a major coinage reform, creating a flurry of new denominations – including the gold dobra and its half; the silver real and forte and their halves; and the billion real branco, tornês, barbuda, and pilarte. Some of these were issued to finance his wars against Castile.
An extremely fine tornês, bearing a crowned portrait of the king, sold for €9,500 in a recent Lisbon auction. A very rare gold dobra, modeled on the contemporary franc a pied of the French king Charles V, brought €110,000 in a recent German auction. About 21-carats fine (87.5% gold), this was the first gold coin issued in Portugal since the morabitino of Sancho II.
When Fernando died in 1383, possibly from poison, he left no male heir, and his daughter Beatriz, about 12 years old, claimed the throne. She married King Juan I of Castile (ruled 1379 – 1390.) This would have united the two kingdoms, but many Portuguese nobles refused to accept this. The conflict raged for two years until the Castilians were decisively defeated at the Battle of Aljubarrota (August 14, 1385).
Some very rare silver reales in the name of Beatriz, bearing her crowned portrait were issued at Santarém, northeast of Lisbon. The obverse Latin inscription quotes Psalm 118: “The Lord is with me, He is my help and I will triumph over my enemies.” The elaborate reverse quarters the royal arms of Portugal with those of Castile and Leon. Only about four examples are known; one sold for over $114,000 in a 2012 London auction.
John I’s reign was afflicted by economic crisis. The high cost of the war with Castile, the need to reward his supporters, a skewed balance of trade, and speculative drainage of the currency by the Genoese were among the principal causes of the country’s economic problems…
Remembered as “John the Good” (João o Bom), he ruled for a remarkable 48 years (1385-1433.) He was the half-brother of King Fernando. With French and English assistance he defeated the Castilians to secure his throne. He married Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of an English duke, John of Gaunt. In August 1415, João led a surprise attack to capture the port of Ceuta on the North African coast. It was the beginning of the Portuguese global empire.
A bewildering variety of denominations were issued during John’s long reign. They commonly bear the crowned abbreviation of his name in Latin: IHNS (for Iohannes). The billon “real of three-and-a-half libras” fell from 25% silver to just 8% or less. The first coins of pure copper, with no precious metal content, appeared during this reign and would become an increasingly important part of the currency in years to come.
Duarte “the Eloquent” was the son of King João. He is often known as “Edward”, the English version of his name, which appears as crowned initials ED on his scarce coins. Only small denominations were issued, the real branco in poor-quality billon and the copper ceitil or real preto. Along with his brothers and sister he is remembered in Portuguese history as part of the “Illustrious Generation” (Ínclita Geração), which included his famous brother, Prince Henrique, better known as Henry the Navigator.
Duarte died of plague at the age of 46 and was succeeded by his young son, Afonso.
Afonso V, who ruled from 1438 to 1481, came to the throne at the age of just six. Until he came of age, the kingdom was governed by his mother and later by his uncle as regent. Because of his conquests in North Africa, he is known as “the African” (Afonso o Africano).
On his gold cruzado, introduced in 1457 and struck to the same 3.5 gram standard as the ducat and florin, he is identified by his ordinal number spelled out in Latin: ALFONSVS QVINTI (“Afonso the Fifth”). An example of this coin pedigreed to the famous Archer Huntington collection sold for $2,250 in 2014.
John II did however make one notable poor decision: he refused the services of Christopher Columbus, who was thought by one and all to be a mere dreamer.
The son of Afonso V, João II (or “John”) became effective ruler of Portugal when his father retired to a monastery in 1477 but was not crowned as king until his father’s death in 1481. João strengthened the monarchy by curtailing the power of the nobles. This made him the target of numerous conspiracies, which he crushed harshly.
Profits from overseas trade and exploration he promoted gave Portugal the soundest currency in Europe, and so João introduced new gold denominations like the justo in 22-carat gold (valued at two cruzados), and the rare half-justo or espadim (“sword”), depicting a hand holding a sword, rather dangerously, by its blade. The inscription IOHANES II R P ET A D GVINEE identifies John II as “King of Portugal and Algarve, and Lord of Guinea.” Guinea in West Africa was the source of the gold that poured into the economy as a result of trade.
Long after his death at the age of 40, João was remembered as the “perfect prince” (o Príncipe Perfeito), a reference to Niccolo Machiavelli’s handbook for rulers, The Prince, first published in 1532.
There is one coin that seems to sum up magnificently the glorious extent of Portuguese expansion at the dawn of the modern age: the gold português, equivalent to 10 cruzados. The coin weighed 35.12 grams and was 35 mm in diameter, dimensions that would have been unthinkable until then…
João II died in 1495 without a legitimate male heir; his only son, Prince Afonso, was killed in 1491 at the age of 16 by a fall from his horse. John was succeeded by his cousin, remembered as “Manuel the Fortunate” (Manuel o Venturoso), who reigned for 26 years. Manuel sponsored the voyages of Vasco da Gama, who found the sea route to India (1498); and Pedro Álvares Cabral, who discovered Brazil (1500). Manuel’s powerful fleet captured some of the key chokepoints of global trade, including Malacca (1511), Aden (1513), and Hormuz (1507).
The coinage of this reign is complex, with three denominations in gold, eight in silver, and three in copper.
The massive português de ouro bore a crowned shield of the royal arms on the obverse with a long inscription in two concentric rings, that grandly proclaims: “Manuel I King of Portugal and the Algarves, of the Lands before and beyond Africa, Lord of Guinea, and the Conquest, Navigation and Commerce of Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia, and India.” A cross on the reverse is surrounded by the Latin inscription IN HOC SIGNO VINCES (“By This Sign You Will Conquer”), the vision seen by Roman emperor Constantine before his fateful victory at the Milvian Bridge (October 28, 312). An exceptional example of this coin brought $240,000 in a recent US auction.
Manuel had some presentation pieces of 500 escudos (weighing an estimated 1,650 grams, or 52 Troy ounces each) struck as gifts for the Pope, but none have apparently survived.
With Manuel’s death from the plague in 1521, the medieval era of Portuguese history came to a close.
Collecting Medieval Portugal
As you might expect, medieval Portuguese coins appear mainly in auctions from Portuguese and Spanish dealers and only sporadically in other sales. There is strong collector demand for the gold and high-quality silver, but little interest in the common but usually poorly struck billon and later copper issues. The standard reference in Portuguese is Gomes (there are many editions). In English, Crusafont (2013) is the most authoritative reference, placing the coinage in the wider context of the Iberian region.
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 Cantor, page 354
 “Dinheiro” is still the common word for money in Portuguese.
 Roma Auction XIX, March 26, 2020, Lot 1077. Realized £2,400 (about $2,912 USD; estimate £1,000).
 CNG Triton XXI, January 9, 2018, Lot 1130. Realized $3,750 USD (estimate $1,000).
 He fathered 11 legitimate children and, like most rulers of his era, numerous offspring out of wedlock.
 CNG Triton XXIII, January 14, Lot 1198. Realized $18,000 USD (estimate $25,000).
 Numisma Auction 125, December 3, 2020, Lot 113. Unsold (estimate €600).
 Numisma Auction 124, September 30, 2020, Lot 146. Realized €70 (about $82 USD; estimate €70).
 MDC Auction 5, November 14, 2019, Lot 1030. Realized €50,000 (about $55,012 USD; estimate €30,000).
 Crusafont, page 440
 VAuctions 333, November 13, 2018, Lot 768. Realized $100 (estimate $175).
 Numisma SA, Auction 124, September 30, 2020, Lot 147. Realized €10,500 (about $12,311 USD; estimate €9,000).
 Numisma SA Auction 125, December 3, 2020, Lot 133. Realized €500 (about $608 USD; estimate €500).
 Pegasi Auction 41, November 12, 2019, Lot 831. Unsold (estimate $135).
 Numisma SA Auction 124, September 30, 2020, Lot 151. Realized €9,500 (about $11,138 USD; estimate €6,000).
 Künker Auction 331, January 30, 2020, Lot 928. Realized €110,000 (about $120,999 USD).
 Morton & Eden Auctions 59 and 60, November 12-13, 2012, Lot 65. Realized £72,000 (about $114,407 USD; estimate £80-100,000).
 Crusafont, page 458
 Ceuta was ceded by Portugal to Spain in 1668, and remains today under Spanish control.
 CNG Electronic Auction 482, December 16, 2020, Lot 716. Realized $140 USD (estimate $100).
 Roma Numismatics E-Sale 77, November 26, 2020, Lot 2023. Realized £550 (about $736 USD; estimate £150).
 Agora Auction 95, February 4, 2020, Lot 259. Unsold (estimate $100).
 CNG Triton XVII, January 8, 2014, Lot 1388. Realized $2,250 USD (estimate $500).
 Crusafont, page 479
 Hess-Divo Auction 330, May 21, 2016, Lot 168. Realized CHF 12,000 (about $12,091 USD).
 Crusafont, page 483
 Heritage Sale 3096, March 25, 2021, Lot 30430. Realized $240,000 USD (estimate $60-90,000).
Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages (Norman Cantor, ed.). New York (1999)
Crusafont, Miquel, Anna Balaguer and Philip Grierson. Medieval European Coinage Volume 6: The Iberian Peninsula. (2013)
Gomes, Alberto. MOEDAS PORTUGUESAS E DO TERRITÓRIO QUE HOJE É PORTUGAL. Lisboa (2003)
Grierson, Philip. Coins of Medieval Europe. London (1991)
Linehan, Peter. “Castile, Navarre and Portugal”, New Cambridge Medieval History, Volume VI (2008)
de Sousa, Armindo. “Portugal”, New Cambridge Medieval History, Volume VII (2008)
Trigueros, António M. “Portuguese Coins in the Age of Discovery”, The Numismatist. (November 1991)
Walker, Ralph. Reading Medieval European Coins. Fairfield, CT (2009)
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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.