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How Henry VII Used English Coinage to Project Power

With a history stretching over 1,100 years, The Royal Mint's history is entwined with the monarchs who have ruled England and Britain. Here we explore how and why Henry VII used English coinage to help convey his power across his kingdom.

Amy Irvine

01 Jul 2024
Main: Portrait of Henry VII of England (dated October 1509). Inset: Henry VII Gold Sovereign
Image Credit: Main: Wikimedia Commons / National Portrait Gallery / Public Domain. Inset: Royal Mint

Few artefacts encapsulate the potent fusion of power, propaganda, and currency like Henry VII’s gold sovereign. As a coin both tangible and symbolic, the gold sovereign of Henry VII not only reflected the economic stability of his era but also served as a formidable instrument in shaping his propaganda and consolidating his grip on power as England’s first Tudor monarch. An original specimen is held at The Royal Mint Museum.

Henry VII’s reign, commencing in the tumultuous aftermath of the Wars of the Roses, was characterised by the urgent need for stability and legitimacy. Amidst the political turbulence, the gold sovereign emerged not merely as a means of trade but as a meticulously crafted tool of statecraft, bearing the weight of monarchic authority and projecting an image of prosperity and control.

Here we explore how and why Henry VII used English coinage to help convey his power across his kingdom.

Henry VII’s rise to power

After defeating his Yorkist adversary Richard III, last of the Plantagenets, at the Battle of Bosworth Field, Henry Tudor was officially crowned King Henry VII on 30 October 1485. His coronation heralded the end of the bloody Wars of the Roses and brought in a new line of monarchs, with Henry VII being the first of the Tudor dynasty.

Henry VII was the last king of England to win his throne on the battlefield, and his coronation brought much-needed peace to the country after three decades of conflict. With it came the end of the medieval period. Such a monumental achievement spelled an equally monumental shift in power and – much like the monarchs that came before him – Henry VII was keen to convey this power and establish his authority.

Nathen Amin and Matt Lewis explore Henry VII's rise to power.
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Currency and its conveyance of power

Henry did this in part through the currency of his kingdom. As well as reintroducing more realistic portraiture on English coinage, a practice that had not been seen consistently since the Romans, Henry VII also brought several new coins into the English currency, including the iconic gold Sovereign – the first £1 piece in English history. Introduced in 1489 when Henry VII demanded a ‘new money of gold’, whilst the gold Sovereign wasn’t the first gold coin to be struck, it was the largest and most valuable English coin ever issued at that point.

The original design featured an image depicting Henry VII sat on his throne – complete with a crown, orb and sceptre – whilst the reverse displayed the Royal Arms atop a backdrop dominated by the unmistakable Tudor rose. This new coin symbolised power, and reinforced Henry VII’s authority as a new monarch. 

This Sovereign features a huge Tudor rose that covers the whole of one side (tails) of it – a symbol of Henry VII, his house and his reign. Everything about this coin is hugely symbolic, and all trying to solidify Henry VII’s power. On the head’s side of the coin is Henry himself, sat on the throne wearing all the royal regalia – including the crown and holding an orb and sceptre. Everything about this coin is trying to cement Henry’s power as the new king, which was particularly important given the country had been in civil war for the past 30 years.

Henry VII gold Sovereign, front and back

Image Credit: The Royal Mint

Henry VII’s impact on the exchequer

Indeed Henry VII’s reign was characterised by his success at restoring the power and stability of the English monarchy after the civil war, as well as his talent for replenishing the fortunes of an effectively bankrupt exchequer.

When Henry VII ascended the throne in 1485, he faced the immediate challenge of securing his reign – and the Tudor Dynasty – against political and economic rebellions. Recognising the pivotal role of revenue in establishing stability, he sought to finance a robust royal army. 

Historically, the Crown had relied on the slow-moving Exchequer for its financial needs, and initially Henry reverted to using this. However, audits could take years to complete, meaning the Crown was always short of money. By 1487, Henry’s financial struggles prompted him to modernise royal income collection by appointing the King’s Chamber as the principal institution managing royal revenue. 

This relatively new institution had previously been utilised by the Yorkist family, when Edward IV used it to run his finances. Whilst the Chamber lacked fully-established operating procedures, its comparatively more informal processes actually gave it greater flexibility. The Chamber went on to take charge of nearly all aspects of royal income, and effectively oversaw the national treasury, while the Privy Chamber handled Henry’s personal expenditure.

Henry was one of the few monarchs to process his own accounts, keeping meticulous records, and even counting bags of coins himself to scrutinise finances and balance the books. Henry ensured he appointed expert advisors with financial acumen, with two men, Sir Thomas Lovell and Sir John Heron, holding the post of Treasurer of the Chamber. However Henry also worked alongside both men, checking the accounts they had already gone over, and personally signing-off each page. Rather than this being a miserly act, Henry’s scrutiny reflected his focus on wealth accumulation for control, influence and power.

Bronze medallion of Sir Thomas Lovell in Henry VII Chapel, Westminster Abbey, 1911 – by Arthur Irwin Dasent.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Arthur Irwin Dasent / Public Domain

Henry VII’s tenure marked a departure from medieval financial systems, and he is credited with shaping the modern English Exchequer. As well as maximising tax revenue, Henry also gained wealth from an illicit trade in the dye-fixed alum, and benefitted from the peace facilitated by the end of the Wars of the Roses.

His resulting substantial wealth accumulation and financial prudence meant Henry was able to leave a considerable inheritance to his son and successor, Henry VIII. However, Henry VIII would not turn out to be as prudent.

Amy Irvine