By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek …..
The late medieval monarchies of Europe were fundamentally fragile and prone to civil disorder. Political stability and harmony depended ultimately on the personal capacity of individual kings. In the second half of the fifteenth century, the western kingdoms all endured upheaval and civil war as a result of disputed, ineffective or overbearing rule…
AFTER YEARS OF hard campaigning in France, the English king Henry V died suddenly on August 31, 1422 at the age of 35, leaving an infant son of the same name. Unlike his father, Henry VI proved to be timid, mentally unstable, and utterly incapable of ruling his troubled kingdom.
The 15th century was a tough time for coinage. England was in the grip of an economic depression, sometimes called the “Great Slump”. Across Europe there was a severe shortage of gold and silver, known to economic historians as the “Great Bullion Famine”.
The Wars of the Roses were a struggle for power between two shifting factions of aristocrats, the House of Lancaster (the red rose) and the House of York (the white rose). Each side based its claim to the throne on descent from sons of King Edward III (ruled 1327-77): John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and Edward of Langley, Duke of York. Centuries of intermarriage within a narrow elite meant that everyone was related to everyone else, so like most civil wars this was a bitter struggle of cousin against cousin, and often brother against brother. A common battle cry of the era was “Spare the Commons, Slay the Nobles”; by the end of the conflict the old aristocracy had been nearly exterminated.
The medieval coinage of England was based on a silver penny (roughly the price of a live chicken), reduced in 1412 to 15 grains (0.97 gram). Coins included the groat (valued at four pence, typically the price of a sheep), the half groat, the half penny, and the tiny farthing (one quarter of a penny, the price of a loaf of bread in a year of good harvest). The shilling of 12 pence, the “mark” of 160 pence, and the pound of 240 pence were accounting units during this era, not actual coins. Gold, issued in very small amounts, was based on the noble of 108 grains (about seven grams) valued at six shillings and eight pence.(or 80 pence).The gold to silver ratio hovered around 10 to one during most of this era.
Henry V conquered a large part of northern France, and the English had held the rich wine-growing region of Gascony in south-western France since the mid-12th century. Henry V married a French princess, Catherine of Valois. Henry and his son claimed the French throne (something many French, including St. Jeanne d’Arc, rather vigorously disputed) and issued “Anglo-Gallic” coins from a number of mints in France.
The gold Salut d’or of Henry VI is one of the most beautiful medieval coins. At 3.5 grams, it was struck to approximately the same weight as the English half-noble (also the ducat of Venice and the florin of Florence, standard medieval trade coins). The obverse depicts the Annunciation, with the Archangel Gabriel handing a scroll inscribed AVE (“Hail”) to the Virgin Mary. Below the figures, shields display the royal arms of France and England. The Latin inscription translates as “Henry, by the Grace of God, King of the French and English.” On the reverse, a cross stands between the French fleur-de-lis and the English lion, surrounded by a Latin inscription that translates as “Christ Conquers, Christ Reigns, Christ Rules.”
A silver coin of about 3.2 grams, the Grand blanc aux ecus bore a similar design without the Virgin and Archangel, but with Henry’s name inscribed boldly across the field on both sides.
The English gold coinage of Henry VI’s long first reign (1422-61) included the noble (about seven grams). Scarce fractional denominations were the half noble and quarter noble. The obverse shows the king standing on the deck of a ship, holding a shield emblazoned with the royal arms. The surrounding abbreviated inscription proclaims (in Latin) “Henry, by the Grace of God, King of England and France, Lord of Ireland.” The reverse is an ornate cross, surrounded by a Latin quotation from the Gospel of Luke (4:30): “But He, passing through the midst of them, went his way.”
Examples of Henry VI’s gold noble typically sell at auction for $3,000-6,000 USD, with exceptionally high-grade coins going for as much as $15,000. The half noble goes for about $2,000-3,000, and the rare quarter noble for about $1,500-2,000.
The Groat and the Penny
A substantial silver piece, the groat, first minted under Edward I (ruled 1272-1307) was an important circulating coin. The Italian grosso, German groschen, and French gros tournois bore similar names, but were struck to diverse weight standards. Theoretically, the groat should have weighed 96 grains or four “pennyweights” (6.2 grams) but the standard steadily shrank to 72 grains (Edward III,) 60 grains (Henry IV) and 48 grains (Edward IV). In practice, the coins were often clipped and surviving examples weigh even less.
The design remained virtually unchanged for centuries, with a crowned, facing, long-haired bust of the king on the obverse. There was no attempt at a realistic individual portrait; that was beyond the skill of medieval die cutters. The reverse bore a long cross with an inscription in two concentric rings, the outer ring inscribed in Latin POSUI DEUM ADIUTOREM MEUM (“I have taken God as my helper”), the inner ring bearing the name of the mint, such as CIVITAS LONDON (“city of London”).
Groats of Henry VI’s first reign (1422-61) typically sell at auction for $200 or less, while the scarce, lighter weight coins of his brief second reign go for two or three times as much.
The penny was quite similar, but the reverse provided only enough space for the name of the mint. Small denominations took a beating in circulation, and high-grade examples are scarce.
In May 1455, Richard Plantagenet (Duke of York; lived 1411-60) rose in revolt, demanding the removal of King Henry VI’s inept advisors, who were blamed for a series of English defeats in France and the breakdown of law and order in England. After a battle at St. Albans, 20 miles (32 km) northwest of London, the king, suffering from mental breakdown, was captured, and Richard became the de facto ruler of England.
But Henry’s formidable queen, Margaret of Anjou, retained the loyalty of many powerful nobles, and her army crushed the Yorkists at the Battle of Wakefield (December 30, 1460). Richard and his son Edmund, Earl of Rutland, were killed. Richard’s surviving son Edward, Earl of March, just 18 years old, inherited the Yorkist cause:
[C]ontemporaries… described him as handsome, affable, and energetic. Unusually tall for the period at 6 feet 4 inches (193 centimetres), he was an impressive sight in armour, and took care to wear splendid clothes. This was done deliberately to contrast him with Henry, whose physical and mental frailties undermined his position.
On February 2, 1461, Edward defeated the Lancastrians at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross. Entering London, a month later, Edward was proclaimed king. On March 29, 1461 at Towton, the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil, he won a decisive victory over the Lancastrians. Henry VI, his wife, and his son fled to Scotland.
In 1464, Edward ordered a major reform of the coinage. The weight of the silver penny was reduced from 15 grains to just 12 (0.77 gram.) A new gold coin was introduced: the “Ryal”, or Rose Noble, of 120 grains valued at 10 shillings, with fractions of a half and a quarter. The reverse bears a sunburst within an elaborate border of crowns and fleurs-de-lis.
To replace the old noble, a new gold coin of 80 grains (5.18 grams) valued at six shillings and eight pence was issued, the “Angel”. The obverse of the angel bears a dramatic image of the Archangel Michael slaying a dragon. The archangel wears curious scale armor that resembles feathers. On the reverse, a ship bears the shield of the Royal arms, surmounted by a cross, flanked by a rose and the letter E. The abbreviated Latin inscription translates as “By Thy Cross, Save Us, O, Christ the Redeemer” (PER CRUCEM TUA SALVA NOS CHRISTE REDEMPTOR).
The silver coinage of Edward IV is complex, with “heavy”(c. 1461-1464) and “light” (1464-1470) varieties from Bristol, Coventry, Norwich and York, as well as the main mint at the Tower of London. A “heavy” groat graded Very Fine brought $275 in a recent US auction. The small denominations can be hard to find in high grade; a rare variety of the heavy penny sold for $1,700 in another US auction.
Henry VI Restored
In October 1470, a powerful noble, Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (known as the “Kingmaker”), turned against Edward IV. With support from King Louis XI of France, Edward was forced into exile, and Henry VI was restored to the throne for a brief second reign of six months.
Coinage of this restoration is quite rare. An extremely fine gold angel brought £20,500 in a 2011 British auction, and an “almost very fine” half angel, or “angelet” went for £15,000 in 2016.
In exile, Edward IV raised a new army with help from Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy (a bitter rival of the French king), and returned to defeat the Lancastrians at the Battle of Barnet on April 14, 1471 (where Warwick was killed) and decisively at the Battle of Tewkesbury on May 4, where Henry’s son and heir Prince Edward of Westminster, was killed. Poor King Henry was imprisoned in the Tower and probably murdered on the orders of Edward IV.
When Edward IV died unexpectedly on April 9, 1483, leaving a 12 year-old son, his brother Richard Duke of Gloucester became Protector of the Realm, with custody over young Edward V and his younger brother. Before the child king could be crowned, Parliament, under political pressure, declared him illegitimate and therefore ineligible for the throne.
A few very rare coins are attributed to his three month reign. Since inscribing a ruler’s Roman numeral after his name on coins did not become customary until the next century, the difference between coins of Edward IV and Edward V depends on small details that can be precisely dated. A gold angel of Edward V brought £42,000 ($51,332) in a 2017 British auction.
Few figures in British history are as controversial as Richard III.
Born in 1452, he became Duke of Gloucester in 1461 when his brother took the throne as Edward IV. Richard was crowned on July 6, 1483. He has long been suspected of having his nephews secretly killed in the Tower of London, although this is vigorously disputed.
Coins of Richard III’s brief, 29-month reign are quite rare and closely resemble the coins of his predecessors. Some bear a tiny boar’s head – his personal emblem – as an “initial mark” before his name in the inscription. Others bear a halved sun and rose. A gold angel, graded very fine brought $17,000 in a recent US auction. An “about uncirculated” silver groat went for $10,000 in 2018.
Though a competent ruler, Richard proved to be unpopular with the aristocracy. He defeated one revolt in 1483, but when Henry Tudor, who had a distant claim to the throne through his Lancastrian mother, invaded England with French and Scottish support, Richard was deserted by many of his allies. He was killed at Bosworth on August 22, 1485 – the last English king to die in battle. Richard’s hastily buried remains were discovered under a parking lot in Leicester in 2012, and he is now entombed in Leicester Cathedral.
Henry Tudor was crowned as King Henry VII, beginning the brilliant Tudor dynasty that would rule England until 1603
Collecting the Wars of the Roses
In troubled times, people hide their wealth. A number of hoards survive from the Wars of the Roses and are well-documented thanks to Britain’s sensible antiquities laws.
In 1966, the “Fishpool Hoard”, rated as one of the top 10 treasures of the British Museum, was unearthed by construction workers in Nottinghamshire. It contained 1,237 gold coins (including a few plated counterfeits) and some high-quality gold jewelry. The latest coins in the hoard were struck between 1460 and 1464. The very high value of the coins (£400 at the time, roughly equivalent to £300,000 or almost $400,000 today) suggests that the hoard might have been part of the Lancastrian war chest (Ghey, 108).
Another hoard of 186 groats, buried in 1465, was found in 2005 by a metal detectorist at Brackley, 87 km (54 miles) northwest of London. The coins realized over £29,000 at auction in 2009.
In the English-speaking world, England’s medieval coins have always been popular with collectors. These are often described as “hammered” coins, in contrast to the “milled” or machine-made coins that gradually replaced them in the 17th century (metal detectorists in the UK, who often find such coins in farm fields, nickname them “hammies”).
Shakespeare’s plays Henry VI (1591; in three parts) and especially Richard III (1593), although not always reliable as history, have maintained a steady interest in this period.
The essential standard reference, cited in most auction listings, is Coins of England and the United Kingdom, published annually by Spink. The complex chronology of the coinage was unraveled in a series of articles in British Numismatic Journal between 1945 and 1947.
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 “The European Context of the Wars of the Roses”, Posted on September 16, 2020:
 The rival towns of York and Lancaster–about 24 miles (38 km) apart in southern Pennsylvania, United States–still use the white and red rose as civic emblems.
 Roma Numismatics E-sale 73, July 23, 2020, Lot 1125. Realized £1,700 (about $2,165 USD; estimate £850).
 CNG Electronic Auction 477, September 23, 2020, Lot 934. Realized $150 USD (estimate $150).
 Spink, September 15,2020, Lot 4. Realized £5,000 (about $6,427 USD; estimate £2,500-3,500).
 Roma Numismatics Auction XIX, March 26, 2020, Lot 1040. Realized £2,400 (about $2,912 USD; estimate £2,000).
 CNG Triton XXII, January 8, 2019, Lot 1410. Realized $1,900 USD (estimate $1,500).
 CNG Electronic Auction 477, September 23, 2020, Lot 831. Realized $180 USD (estimate $200).
 CNG Auction 115, September 16, 2020, Lot 117. Realized $375 USD (estimate $400).
 CNG Auction 109, September 12, 2018, Lot 896. Realized $3,250 USD (estimate $3,000).
 Heritage New York Sale, January 6, 2014, Lot 24057. Realized $8,500 USD (estimate $8,000 – 10,000).
 CNG Electronic Auction 477, September 23, 2020, Lot 837. Realized $275 USD (estimate $400).
 CNG Triton XXXII, January 8, Lot 1411. Realized $1,700 USD (estimate $1,500).
 St. James Auction 17, May 24, 2011, Lot 64. Realized £20,500 (about $33,172 USD; estimate £8000 – 12,000).
 Spink, Auction 16014, March 22, 2016, Lot 423. Realized £15,000 (about $21,325 USD; estimate £15,000-20,000).
 Dix Noonan Webb Auction 140, March 15 2017, Lot 280. Realized £42,000 (about $51,332 USD; estimate £12,000 – 15,000).
 CNG Triton XXIII, January 14, 2020, Lot 1296. Realized $17,000 USD (estimate $10,000).
 Ira & Larry Goldberg, Auction 104, June 12, 2018, Lot 4051. Realized $10,000 USD (estimate $8,000 – 9,000).
Allen, Martin. “The English Crown and the Coinage: 1399-1485”, The Fifteenth Century. Linda Clark (editor). Woodbridge UK (2014)
Blunt, C. E. and C.A. Whitton. “The Coinage of Edward IV and Henry VI (Restored)”, British Numismatic Journal 25 (1945 – 1947)
Allen, Martin. “Silver production and the money supply in England and Wales, 1086-1500”, Economic History Review 64 (2011)
Bicheno, Hugh. Battle Royal: The Wars of the Roses 1440-1462. New York (2017)
Brooke. G. C. English Coins. London (1950)
Ghey, Eleanor. Hoards: Hidden History. London (2015)
Grierson, Philip. Coins of Medieval Europe. London (1991)
Horrox, Rosemary. “Yorkist and Early Tudor England”, The New Cambridge Medieval History. Christopher Allmand (editor). Cambridge (2008)
Mayhew, N. J. “The monetary background to the Yorkist recoinage of 1464-1471”, British Numismatic Journal 44 (1974)
McMurtry, Jo. Understanding Shakespeare’s England: A Companion for the American Reader. Hamden, CT (1989)
Neilands, Robin. The Wars of the Roses. New York (1992)
Penn, Thomas. The Brothers York: A Royal Tragedy. New York (2019)
Powell, Edward, “Lancastrian England”, The New Cambridge Medieval History. Christopher Allmand (editor). Cambridge (2008)
Seward, Desmond. The Wars of the Roses. New York (2007)
Skingley, Philip (editor). Coins of England & the United Kingdom (46th edition). London (2010)
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Mike Markowitz is “Second Consul” 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, who writes for StrategyPage and Defense Media Network. He designed the game Alexandros, which won the 1991 Charles Roberts Award for “Best Pre-WWII Wargame”. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. He has worked as a technical writer, editor and trainer for a variety of aerospace and defense firms. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.