By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
First struck in 1497, the Spanish 8 Real quickly rose to prominence and became emblematic of a truly global empire and general financial stability. The high purity of this coin was so consistent that 8 Real coins were accepted as quality silver over time from Spain to Australia. Further proof of their universality can be extrapolated by the sheer quantity minted for over 450 years and the fact that many examples exist with countermarks from local authorities certifying their authenticity and purity.
In the mid-14th century, the king of Castile and Leon, known as Pedro the Cruel, established the silver Real. It would be over one hundred years until the 8 Real was first introduced by Isabella and Ferdinand in 1497.
After Isabella and Ferdinand completed the Christian Reconquista with the conquest of Muslim Granada, they undertook a sweeping monetary reform called the Pragmatica de Medina del Campo to shore up their joint reign. The new system was anchored by the maravedí, which served as the base unit. A silver Real was set equal to 34 maravedis. Interestingly, the early Real coin was equivalent to the later 8 Real type. In fact, the Pragmatica de Medina del Campo split the Real into eight fractional parts, which maintained it as a single large denominational coin while still providing for a series of smaller units of exchange. In his 1969 book Coins in History, John Porteous claimed that this was “one of the best-timed monetary reforms ever made” (Porteous, 153). It allowed the Spanish economy to expand and accommodate, at least initially, the massive flow of American silver that was primed to hit Europe after the early Spanish colonial voyages.
Ferdinand and Isabella’s 8 Real displayed the joint crowned coat of arms of Castile and Leon on the obverse and a garlanded yoke and bundle of arrows. The yoke and arrows were part of the monarchs’ personal emblem. When designing their coat of arms, Isabella chose a group of flechas (Spanish for arrows) as an alliteration for Ferdinand and he picked the yugo (Spanish for “yoke”) to represent Isabella.
Continuing their footsteps, Ferdinand and Isabella’s grandson, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain Charles V, ordered the first 8 Real coin to be struck in the new world. Previously, it was believed that the first 8 Real piece produced in America was struck by Philip II (r. 1556-1598), but three examples of Charles V’s early type were recovered from the shipwreck of pirate Joseph Bannister’s ship Golden Fleece (sunk c. 1550) in 1990. The three examples were all sold at public auctions in the early 2000s.
These coins were struck in 1538 at the Mexico City Mint by mint assayer Pedro de Espina only two years after the mint was established by royal charter in 1536. The earliest recorded mention of this type can be found in the 1545 mint report of Francisco Tello de Sandoval. The design of this coin was highly symbolic and influential in numismatic history. It first introduced the Pillars of Hercules to Spanish coinage. The trapezoidal banner with the word PLVS, meaning more, would become a staple of Spanish numismatic imagery and eventually evolve into the $ symbol. PLVS was a reference to the ancient motto of NE PLVS VLTRA as the Spanish monarchy was refuting the ancient Greek belief that nothing existed past the Straits of Gibraltar.
A more in-depth discussion of this fascinating type was written by Daniel Sedwick and can be found here.
Coming to the throne in 1556, Philip II moved away from the Pillar type design and settled on a new Shield type that displayed the crowned Habsburg coat of arms on the obverse and a cross design with the lions and castles of the Castile and Leon coat of arms. One variation of this type is that the Mexican mints always have pointed fleur-de-lis surrounding the cross. Below are two pieces; the first was struck in Segovia, Spain in 1589 and the second was struck in Mexico City in 1597.
This Shield type was the first type struck in the famous Potosí mint in Spanish Bolivia. Originally well struck on properly formed planchets, due to technical and manpower constraints, the quality of this type slowly declined. Ultimately, the quality declined to such an extent that, under Philip III, they gained the epitaph “cob” due to their crudely hand-cut planchets that were missing significant portions of the design. Many cobs, such as the example below, still display the original cut marks from when the mint workers hand-cut the planchets to weight.
The voracious demand for silver of the Spanish Habsburg state, fueled by a series of virtually unending wars with France, Portugal, the Ottoman Empire, and England forced Philip III and his son Philip IV to continue minting massive quantities of 8 Real coins. However, confidence in Spanish coinage was shaken in the late 1640s when the Great Potosí Mint Fraud was uncovered.
An investigation revealed that Potosí coins actually contained approximately 75% of the silver content prescribed by law. This was due to fraud perpetrated by officials and assayers such as Francisco Gómez de la Rocha and Juan Ramírez de Arellano. Both men were executed, and several other officials were fined and fired. The Spanish crown also ordered all underweight coinage to be recalled and melted down or devalued to match the actual silver content of each coin.
While continuing to strike the Shield type coins, Philip IV reinstituted a slightly altered Pillar-type 8 Real to boost confidence in the 8 Real denomination after the Potosí scandal. These coins were transitional issues and depicted the pillars of Hercules on the reverse with their bases covered by waves. Commonly known as the Pillars and Waves type, this coin combined elements from both the earlier Shield and Pillar types. The obverse displays a crowned version of the Castile and Leon coat of arms while the reverse bears the Pillars of Hercules with the motto PLVS VLTRA across the middle. A new development was that the coin also shows the mintmark, denomination, and assayer across the top and has the assayer, the date, and the mintmark repeated across the bottom in an attempt to hold the royal mint workers and assayers to account and prevent any future fraud.
While the mints of the last Spanish Habsburg monarch, Charles II, continued to strike both the famous Pillars and Waves as well as the Shield types until his death, they also introduced a new type into circulation. The first, known as the Maria type, was introduced as a result of the monetary reforms in mainland Spain, pushed by the Queen Mother, Maria Anna of Austria. Due to Charles’s multiple disabilities and chronic bad health, Maria acted as regent for most of her son’s reign. The reforms reduced the standard silver weight from 27.47 grams to a new standard of 21.9 grams. Maria type coins are recognizable by reverse monogram comprised of an overlapping M and A with the large cross above.
A rare subgroup of the Maria type depicts the standard monogram in the reverse, but on the obverse, the crowned shield of Castille and Leon is circled by the collar of the Golden Fleece. Charles II actually held the position of Grand Master of the Order.
The 8 Real denomination would outlive the Habsburgs by over 150 years under the Spanish royal House of Bourbon.
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Font de Villanueva, Cecilia. Monetary reform in the times of Charles II (1679-1686): aspects concerning the issued dispositions
Moisés, Rachel Piccolo. The Rise of the Spanish Silver Real. (2005)
Porteous, John. Coins in History. (1969)
Sumner, W. G. The Spanish Dollar and the Colonial Shilling. (1898)
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About the Author
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).