Coin of the Moment

Gold Double Leopard of King Edward III, 1344

The Double Leopard is one of the rarest and most beautiful of English medieval gold coins. It was issued for a period of only six months between January and July 1344, and until recently only two examples of this coin were known, found by boys scavenging in the mud of the River Tyne in 1857. This new specimen of the Double Leopard was discovered by a metal-detector user in February 2006, and sold at auction in London in June 2006. It is now on loan to the Fitzwilliam Museum from Avarae Global Coins plc, and may be seen in the Rothschild Gallery of Medieval and Renaissance Art.

the Double leopard    Click image to see larger version

The Double Leopard: a false start

England had no gold coinage of its own between 1257 and 1344, but merchants and the aristocracy used Italian gold Florins and French gold coins. When King Edward III (1327-77) decided to issue his own gold coinage in 1343, he appointed George Kirkyn and Lote Nicholyn of Florence as masters of the London mint for this purpose. The Double Florin was one of three different denominations these Florentine mint-masters were to produce: the Double Leopard worth 6 shillings, the Leopard of 3 shillings and the Helm or Half Leopard of 1 shilling 6 pence. The 3-shilling unit was chosen because the popular Italian Florin, widely used in England, had an official value of 3 shillings.

The new coins, which were first produced by the royal mint in the Tower of London in January 1344, were a commercial failure, because the official valuation of the Florin was too high. In July 1344 production of the new gold coinage was halted, and a royal proclamation decreed that people were no longer obliged to take it in payment. In August 1344 a further proclamation demonetised the new coins, reducing them to their bullion value, and most of them were quickly recycled into a new and successful gold coinage based upon the Noble (worth 6 shillings 8 pence or one third of a pound). The three surviving Double Leopards were probably lost by their owners in 1344, before the failed coinage was completely removed from circulation.

Edward III as Solomon

The royal proclamation authorizing the issue of the new gold coins in January 1344 specified 'one coin of two leopards, the piece current for six shillings', and these two leopards (or, more correctly, two heraldic lions of England) gave the Double Leopard its name. These two leopards or lions are shown crouched at each side of King Edward III's throne, deliberately recalling the throne of King Solomon described in the Old Testament, which had 'pillars on each side of the sitting place and two lions standing by the pillars' (2 Chron. ix.18). Many inhabitants of fourteenth-century England, versed in Biblical imagery, may have understood the implied connection between Edward III and the wise King Solomon. The magnificent depiction of Edward III on his throne, under an elaborate Gothic canopy, has similarities to Edward III's sixth Great Seal, made in 1340. This design was an unmistakable symbol of royal authority.

obverse of Royal Seal    Click image to see larger version

Edward's claims to the French throne

England had been at war with France for seven years in 1344, a war that was to last more than a hundred years, and the imagery of the coin also reflects Edward's claims to the French crown. The figure of the king enthroned resembles that shown on the gold Masse d'or of King Philip IV of France (1285-1314), issued in 1296, and also valued at a double florin. The many small fleurs-de-lis in the background are taken from the royal arms of France.

Masse d'or    Click image to see larger version

A protective charm?

The Latin inscription on the reverse of coin is taken from the Vulgate version of the Bible (Luke iv.30), and it can be translated as 'Jesus, passing through the midst of them, went on its [his?] way'. In the Bible this refers to Jesus passing through a hostile crowd of pharisees, and it was widely used in medieval England as a charm against thieves or the other perils of travel. Superstitious medieval travellers may have felt slightly safer on the roads of medieval England with this inscription on their coins, although it did not save the owner of this Double Leopard from its loss.