The Wars of the Roses [Stamp and Coin Mart, November 2009, Pages 96, 97]
The various battles between the rival houses of Lancaster and York can be confusing to follow for the amateur historian, but the period produced an array of intriguing coins for the collector, as Brett Hammond of TimeLine Originals explains
We can all follow the relatively straightforward history of WW2, or the American Civil War; but that plural Wars in the Wars Of The Roses complicates matters. We have to deal with the causes, events and outcomes of a series of small, though occasionally extremely bloody conflicts ( 14 great battles and a number of lesser engagements) that sprawl across more than forty years and provide a stage and backdrop for some of the most colourful figures in English history. At the same time, we must keep in mind that the deeper roots of all the wars in the series lay in a dynastic struggle between the rival houses of Lancaster and York for the throne of England. And that on the final battlefield a new name emerged victorious and went on to become its own dynastic house of Tudor.
Fortunately, as coin collectors our focus narrows to the money of those tempestuous times. But the pieces in our collections become so much more interesting when we have a few facts about the figures whose busts gaze out from the obverses; or when we know the meanings of symbols and lettering on the reverses.
Form a small collection covering the years 1399 - 1509 and you will encompass all three of those dynasties, as well as owning portraits of Henry Bolingbroke, who took the crown in 1399 and went on the defeat the Percys of Northumberland and Owen Glendower of Wales. Hold a coin of Henry’s son between your fingers and you will be in touch with Henry V, hero of Agincourt, and one-time drinking companion of Shakespeare’s Falstaff. A coin of Henry VI will reflect some of the tragedies of those times; he lost Normandy, then lost his throne to a Yorkist who had him put to death in the Tower of London.
Edward IV, the first Yorkist to sit on the throne, was a headstrong, but extremely brave youth of eighteen when he became king. He threw down the gauntlet at the feet of Henry of Lancaster and challenged him to a fight to the death in a battle to end all battles that would decide once and for all the question of who ruled England. The encounter took place at Towton, Yorks - the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil, with no quarter given on either side. The Yorkists won, but Edward IV missed the opportunity to kill the Lancastrian claimant, who fled the battlefield and escaped to Scotland.
The next and last Yorkist king was born Richard of Gloucester, and became Richard the Third, probable assassin of the Princes in the Tower; also the monarch who lost his horse so dramatically at the Battle of Bosworth, where he also lost his life. Enter Henry Tudor, who picked up the crown, put it on and declared himself Henry VII, king of England. When his son, Henry VIII, became king he has the bones of Yorkist Richard dug up and scattered to the winds.
The previous few paragraphs have sketched the strife and bloodshed; but let us not lose sight of the rest of England, away from the battlefields, where folk from further down the feudal social scale used the coins of the realm when they went about their lives as businessmen or labourers. England had an unhealthy economy during much of the 15th century, partly as a result of expenditure on wars; but wool and cloth exports helped some clergymen, merchants in bigger towns and most of the landed gentry to become relatively well-off. Their wealth paid for conspicuous consumption of imported luxuries; and some cash went on wages to the small private armies lords had to maintain and make available to their king because that was how the social system worked in those days. (Pay for an archer was 6d per day; one shilling for a mounted man who brought his own horse.)
Wars drained away money. So, too, did the practice of bullion smuggling. It occurred because the English silver penny - the sterling, as Continentals often called it - had a high reputation for its weight and silver content. Foreign traders who came to our shores insisted on payment in the best coins. On arrival back in France or the Low Counties they promptly melted down the English money and debased the silver with tin, lead and copper. The resulting greyish alloy was then used to strike esterlings - copies of English pennies which the traders carried back to England and slipped into everyday currency at markets and fairs. English poor folk sometimes welcomed these coins, which they referred to as black money or crockards, for use as the equivalents of sorely needed halfpence and farthings. But the practice did not please kings.
One of the first acts of Henry IV (1399-1413) when he took the crown was to reissue the nation’s coinage so that his own portrait became known to his people. Unfortunately a dire shortage of silver in 1412, a result of the aforementioned smuggling, obliged the king to issue silver coins that were 16% lighter. The obverse legend on some of his lighter groats declared: HENRIC DI GRA REX ANGLE Z FRACIE ( Henry By The Grace Of God King Of England And France ). On the reverse he delared: POSVI DEUM ADIVTOREM MEUM. CIVITAS LONDON ( I HAVE MADE GOD MY HELPER. CITY OF LONDON) The words make clear his determination to rule France; they also let his enemies know that he holds the nation’s capital and the only mint that issued his groats and halfgroats. He also allowed pennies to be minted at York and Durham.
His son, Henry V (1413-1422), always in need of money to make war on France, kept to his father’s light coinage and the same denominations. He also introduced a system of mintmarks and privy marks to maintain production standards at his mints. In turn, his own son, Henry VI (1422-1461 and 1470-1471) followed the same monetary policies. But when Yorkist Edward IV (1461-1470 and 1471-1483) took the crown he slashed the weight of English sterlings by 20% and minted huge numbers at newly opened mints in Bristol, Coventry, Norwich and York, as well as London. These measures considerably reduced bullion smuggling - at least in the short term. Coins produced at his provincial mints can be identified by the name of the mint within their reverse legends: VILLA BRISTOW, CIVITAS COVETRE, CIVITAS NORWIC, CIVITAS EBORACI, CIVITAS CANTOR, CIVITAS DUNOLM.
Richard III (1483-1485) had only two years on the throne. Desperate for acceptance as king, he used the heraldic emblem associated with his title Duke of Gloucester - a wild boar’s head - as a prominent mintmark on his pennies.
The man who took his crown, Henry Tudor, became Henry VII (1485-1509). As well as continuing with issues of groats, halfgroats and pennies, Henry also introduced new coins: a testoon with a bold profile portrait. This was followed by profile groats and halfgroats; and by a penny which depicts the king sitting on his throne and looking out upon his subjects.
If you decide to form a small collection of coins associated with the Wars Of The Roses, you might like to add one or two antiquities from the same period. Among the most popular and reasonably priced are small enamelled pendants and mounts that often show heraldic designs. Some would have been worn by men and horses as the went into battle.
by Brett Hammond
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