In post-Norman Conquest England, currency consisted entirely of silver pennies, and it remained that way for hundreds of years. Although amounts of money might have been given in pounds, shillings and pence, or in marks (worth ⅔ pound), the only physical coin in circulation was the silver penny. As such, large quantities of money could become difficult to hold and move around.
During King John’s reign, his dispute with the Church made him rich, but that meant storing and transporting whole barrels of coins. The situation only changed during the reign of Edward III (1327-1377), when gold coins were introduced for the first time since the Anglo-Saxon period.
Edward may have introduced them as a marker of prestige for England, or to make the payment of alliances and armies during the Hundred Years’ War more efficient. Here’s the story of why Edward III started minting gold coins in England.
The return of gold coinage
In 1344, Edward released a new set of coins, the first gold coins seen in England since the Anglo-Saxon period. The coin was called a leopard and was minted from 23-carat gold. The coin would have helped facilitate trade with Europe, and demonstrated prestige for the English crown.
The gold leopard coins may well have been introduced out of necessity, because Edward III was engaged in the wars with France that would become known as the Hundred Years’ War, and moving large quantities of silver pennies to pay for alliances and armies was impractical. Also, France used a gold florin, and Edward may also have felt England needed an equivalent to ensure it appeared on an equal footing with its rival.
The leopard was withdrawn from circulation almost as soon as it was created, so any that exist today are incredibly rare. Only three examples exist in public collections, and one was discovered by a metal detectorist near Reepham in Norfolk in October 2019. The leopard had a value of 3 shillings, or 36 pence, which was around a month’s wages for a labourer, or a week for a skilled tradesman. The National Archives Currency Converter gives it an equivalent value of about £112 (in 2017). The coin was therefore highly valuable and intended only for those at the highest ranks of society.
A short-lived coin
The leopard was only in circulation for about seven months in 1344. It was minted alongside a double leopard and a half leopard, other gold coins of different values. It was thought for a long time that there were no examples of the double leopard, worth 6 shillings, or 72 pence, that survived until schoolchildren in 1857 found two of them by the River Tyne. Both are currently part of the British Museum’s collection.
It must have proven a failure as a new form of currency. Withdrawn coins would usually be collected by the government to take them out of circulation and to recover the valuable gold. The short time in circulation, meaning not many examples were minted, explains the rarity of these coins today. However, it has been suggested that finds such as the one in Norfolk might mean the coins remained in circulation longer than has been believed. The leopard was discovered with a gold noble, minted in 1351. They show little wear and tear, so may have been lost soon after that, but it means the leopard was still in someone’s purse 7 years after it had been withdrawn.
The Black Death
Another reason why the new coin may not have succeeded after 1344, if it remained legal tender, might be the emergence of the Black Death, the plague that swept from the East across Europe and killed around half the population in some areas. The Black Death didn’t arrive in England until 1348 though. The devastation caused by the plague put an end to the Hundred Years’ War for a time.
Edward III persisted with the idea of gold coinage, introducing the noble, including coins struck in the 1360s after the Treaty of Brétigny saw a cessation of the Hundred Years’ War as part of which Edward renounced his claim to the French throne. By this point, the coin was less about helping to fund war and may have been more about international prestige and trade.
From angel to guinea
During the reign of Edward’s grandson and successor Richard II, gold coinage continued. The gold noble was valued at 6 shillings and 8 pence, or 80 pence, in 1377. The gold noble remained in production until the reign of Edward IV (1461-1470, 1471-1483). In 1464, after efforts to revalue the coins as gold prices rose, a gold angel was introduced. This reset the value of the coin to 6 shillings and 8 pence. Its value was altered throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.
The last gold angel was minted in 1642 at a value of 10 shillings. In 1663, Charles II replaced all of the existing coinage with new designs that were milled – struck by machine rather than by hand – and the new gold coin was the guinea.
The gold leopard discovered in Norfolk in 2019 was sold at auction in March 2022 for £140,000. Clearly, Edward III’s first attempt at gold coinage has lost none of its value.