World Coins

Black Death era treasure coins located in UK

Folded gold coins dating to the reign of Edward III were discovered, traced to the period of the bubonic plague.

Images courtesy of the British Museum.

In the general scheme of things, a find of two medieval gold coins, each folded in half, would receive little if any attention.

They were discovered near the small market town of Reepham in the county of Norfolk in October 2019 by a metal detectorist. The Portable Antiquities Scheme has only recently published their assessment of the find.

The delay was caused by COVID-19, ironic since the two pieces found their way into the ground when England was feeling the effects of another pandemic, the Black Death, or bubonic plague.

That plague is thought to have killed from one-third to possibly 60% of the European population during the period 1346 to 1353. That pandemic returned every 10 to 20 years for the next four centuries.

Finding the treasure

Reepham is 12 miles northwest of the city of Norwich. It was mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, a survey ordered by William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy who defeated the English King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

He became William I, the first Norman king of England and parts of Wales. In medieval times, Reepham church was an important place of pilgrimage to visit the image of Our Lady of Reepham, to which many miracles were attributed. Neither the form of those miracles nor the image is known to day.

Both coins were gold issues of Edward III 1327 to 1377.

He was the first English monarch to issue a regular gold coinage in England. The early Anglo Saxon kings (600 to 775) issued a few very small gold coins known as thrymsas.

Rulers of the Anglo-Saxon middle period (780 to 973) issued the very occasional gold coin. Otherwise, the circulating coinage was the silver penny, with rare silver halfpennies for southern England for the reigns of Alfred to Eadgar 871 to 973.

Henry III had a premature issue of a gold penny of 20 pence in 1257, following the introduction of the popular gold florins being struck by Florence and Venice at the time. However, Henry’s pure gold pennies of 20 pence are extremely rare.

First gold coins of Edward III

Edward III’s gold coins were not issued until his third coinage (1344 to 1351).

The first gold issue of this coinage comprised the double-florin (which was also known as the double-leopard and valued at 6 shillings), the florin or leopard, and the half-florin (also known as a helm). These three denominations were issued for only a few months beginning in January 1344.

One of the discovered coins was a florin featuring on its obverse a leopard sejant (seated on its haunches) with a banner, while its reverse bears a royal cross with a quatrefoil (a design with four rounded projections) and a leopard in each angle of the cross.

Its reverse legend reads DOMINE NE IN FURORE TUO ARGUAS ME, which translates from the Latin as “O Lord, rebuke me not in Thine anger,” which is a line from Psalm 6. The coin does not show much wear, but it is folded in half.

The florin circulated at 3 shillings, which was equivalent to 36 silver pence. Generally, prior to the 20th century, the circulating value of coins was approximately the same as the intrinsic value of the metal from which they were made.

The florin was struck in 23-karat gold (i.e. having a content of 95.8 per cent pure gold with 4.2 percent alloy) and weighs 3.51 grams. In the 14th century, that much gold had a value considerably below 3 shillings. Its face value over-valued its gold content against silver. In other words, it was better to have 36 silver pence with an intrinsic value of 3 shillings than a florin with an intrinsic gold value of considerably less than 3 shillings.

This meant that Edward’s first regular gold coinage had to be withdrawn. Indeed only small numbers from this coinage survive. For example, only three Edward III florins are known in United Kingdom public collections — two are in the British Museum in London, and one is in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Even bent, the find is therefore very significant.

Second coin in the find

In July 1344, a new .958 fine gold coinage was issued based on the noble, which circulated at a third of a pound sterling — that is, 6 shillings and 8 pence, in the old pre-decimal system where a shilling was 12 pence, and 20 shillings equaled £1.

The second coin found was a noble struck in Edward III’s fourth coinage (1351 to 1361) and it weighs 7.69 grams, more than twice the weight of the florin.

Technically, the coin is from Series C, issued in 1351 and 1352 (as cataloged by J.J. North in English Hammered Coins — No. 1144, for English hammered coin enthusiasts).

The obverse features the king standing in a ship and facing the viewer. He is crowned and wears armor. He holds a sword in his right hand and a shield in his left that is quartered with the arms of England and France.

The reverse features a floriated cross with a lis at the end of each limb and a central ornamental compartment containing the monarch’s initial. In each angle of the cross is a lion passant guardant (a walking lion with its right paw raised) with a crown above. All this is within a tressure (border) of eight arches.

The reverse legend is IHC AUTEM TRANSIENS PER MEDIUM ILLORUM IBAT, which translates from the Latin as, “But Jesus passing through their midst went His way.” This is taken from Luke 4:30 in the Bible.

Where they were found

The two coins were found about 150 meters (165 yards) apart. Normally, the find of a single coin containing 10% percent or more of gold or silver and 300 years or more old is not considered to be treasure as defined by the Treasure Act 1996.

This means that after being reported, it normally becomes the property of the finder and landowner. In this situation, however, the Portable Antiquities Scheme concluded, “It seems likely that both coins went into the ground at the same time, either as part of a purse loss or as part of a concealed hoard.”

The Portable Antiquities Scheme consider the date of the loss or concealment was circa 1351 to 1375.

The folded coins will go through the Treasure Act process, meaning they will be offered to museums. Should one be interested, the finder/landowner will receive an award of the sum the Valuation Committee places on the pieces. If no museums want them, they will be returned to the finder. Normally the sum on disposal is shared 50:50 between the finder and the landowner.

Likely, a museum will want the two bent coins. It had always been thought that Edward III’s failed florin coinage was quickly withdrawn. This find appears to be the first indication that some of the failed coinage remained in circulation for longer than thought, at least into the early years of the fourth coinage.

Why this happened is strange, as clearly it was in the interest of those who owned double-florins, florins or half-florins to get rid of them as quickly as possible. The Black Death plague in progress may have been a contributory factor for the lack of action.

Tokens of love?

What the PAS did not consider was why the coins were bent double.

In olden days, a coin was often given as a love token. To preserve its amuletic properties and to prevent its being accidentally spent, the gift coin was often bent, or “bowed,” to use an old English term. The 1512 Will of Sir Edward Howard, for example, refers to a string of bent gold angels, a denomination introduced by Edward IV in 1465 (with the last one being issued by Charles I in 1632).

This custom could perhaps explain why the florin was not exchanged at the mint.

One might imagine the folded coins were tokens of two lovers — did they have an almighty falling-out, throw them to the ground and storm off in different directions?

That scene is unlikely, as the two coins had considerable purchasing power in the 14th century.

In early July 2021, the coins would scrap at around £430 ($594 U.S.), just for the melt value, not something lightly discarded. Even more impressive however, using and based on the wages of an average 14th century worker, the folded coins’ value of 9 shillings and 8 pence (£0.48) in 1363 (the mid-point of the PAS’s date of loss or concealment) would have the buying power of £4,084 ($5,646 U.S.) today.

We will very likely never know for sure why these two folded gold coins from the 14th century were lost, to be found hundreds of years later in rural Norfolk.

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