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Coin of the Moment

Gold penny of King Henry III, 1257-58

the gold penny    Click image to see larger version

This gold penny of King Henry III (1216-72) marks the first attempt for some six hundred years to reintroduce a regular gold coinage in England, at a time when no other state north of the Alps was issuing such coins. The Fitzwilliam's gold penny, recently donated by Dr William Conte, is one of only eight known. This rarity is due to the short time for which the coins were issued: introduced in 1257, they were probably produced only for a little over a year.

An unsuccessful coinage

The issue of the new gold coinage was proclaimed on 16 August 1257, and the kingís goldsmith William of Gloucester made a first delivery of 466 marks of gold in the new coins (equivalent to 37,280 gold pennies) on 27 August. The new coinage was not a success, and in November 1257 the mayor and some representative citizens of London appeared before Henry III to present their objections to it. Professor David Carpenter has suggested that William of Gloucesterís production of the gold penny probably ceased some time before he made a further delivery of 190 marks of gold in new coins (equivalent to 15,200 gold pennies) in October 1258.

The short-lived nature of this coinage and its lack of commercial success must have made it likely to be reminted or simply melted down, and this presumably explains its rarity in finds. When Sir John Evans, President of the Royal Numismatic Society from 1874 to 1908 and a significant contributor to the Fitzwilliam's collections, published the first detailed study of the gold pennies of Henry III, in 1900, he was able to record only six specimens, and this new coin is the only additional specimen properly recorded since then. (An eighth coin is not available for study at present). Two of the specimens were acquired in Italy, and they may have been sent there by Henry III in diplomatic payments to the papal court. The remaining four coins recorded by Evans in 1900, which have known provenances beginning at various dates between 1762 and 1854, might possibly have come from an eighteenth-century hoard.

In the image of the Confessor

Henry III's depiction on this coin was a departure from established practice, which had for nearly two centuries confined itself to showing only a bust of the king. This superb depiction of the enthroned monarch is a splendid and ornate presentation of royalty, to match the prestige of the precious metal of the coin. The design seems to have been inspired by earlier coins of Edward the Confessor (1042-66), founder of Westminster Abbey (on which Henry lavished much attention) and an idealised type of king whom Henry was keen to be seen emulating. One of his coins of this type is shown below.

obverse of a silver penny of Edward the Confessor, showing him enthroned    Click image to see larger version

The gold penny and its portraiture thus tell us much about how Henry wished to be understood by those aware of such hidden communication, and adds an extra dimension to our sense of his rule.

Munificent donation

Henry III's gold penny is regarded as one of the most significant coins in the history of the English currency. This specimen was generously donated by Dr William Conte via Cambridge in America in 2007 after his acquisition of it in 1991. It joins here his magnificent collection of Norman coins and a selection of his Plantagenet coins, a total of 750 pieces including many of the greatest interest and historical value. The Museum was pleased to be able to place the gold penny on exhibition in the Medieval and Renaissance Gallery soon after its arrival.