Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Monday, 18 January 2021

Gold penny of King Henry III

The Mailonline website has a report about the forthcoming sale of a gold coin penny issued by King Henry III in 1257. Seemingly the first substantive attempt to establish a gold coin in circulation I assume the coins, valued at 20d, were a casualty of the challenge to the King’s authority the following year with the Provisions of Oxford and which lasted until 1265-6, followed by a period of slow recovery. It was not until the 1340s that King Edward III established a regular gold currency with the briefly minted florin and then the immensely successful noble valued initially at 6s 8d.

I am not sure how the gold penny with its 1: 20 ratio fits into the economic models for the 1250s - I have not the books to hand at present. To what extent it was ever intended as a piece in general circulation or as a special issue is not, I think clear. To understand it perhaps one should see it as representing something of the grandiloquent nature of King Henry III and his kingship. Here is a tangible and precious realisation of a vision of kingship - magnificent, serene and authoritative, and able to issue a coin of such high value and high artistry. Not until the middle fourteenth century did gold currency become something like the European norm. The only other mid-thirteenth century gold coin I can think of is the Augustalis of the Emperor Frederick II. That was consciously modelled on Roman forms, with a laureate bust of the Emperor and a classically inspired Roman eagle on the reverse. The English coin draws not upon the Classical past but the world of contemporary western gothic art.

King Henry’s gold penny is an exceedingly beautiful piece or work, with the monarch shown crowned and enthroned as on the ‘Majesty’ side of the Great Seal, and on the reverse a delicate flower motif between the arms of the cross. The figure of the King may not be a portrait but it is a personalised image of the bearded ruler. Seated in golden splendour he appears blissfully unaware of the challenges his authority was about to face as its weak foundations were laid bare. In that respect historical hindsight adds to the fragile beauty of the piece.

The report about the sale, the possible price - rather more than 20d or 20p - and photographs of the coin can be seen at One of England's 'first ever' gold coins is expected to sell for £700k

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