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European Coins

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Following the fall of the Roman empire in the west in A.D. 476, the barbarians spread over western Europe and proceeded to adopt the Roman system of currency. The solidus, a gold coin derived from the earlier Roman aureus, was the basis for their coinage and many tribes such as the Ostrogoths, Lombards and Merovingians made copies of these coins. During the seventh century supplies of gold in Europe became short and it became necessary to debase the gold coinage by the addition of silver, the Merovingians in particular striking silver in addition to gold coins. These silver coins, known as sceats, are of a small, rather dumpy appearance and weigh some twenty grains, their designs being derived from Roman coin types.

The Merovingian dynasty, descended from the Frankish king Merovech, was succeeded by the Carolingian and it was Pepin I (752-68) who introduced a coin quite different from the sceats; the Novus Denarius or new denier. This was on a thinner flan and formed a prototype for the deniers and silver pennies that subsequently circulated in Europe and finally in England. By 814, on the death of Charlemagne, the Carolingian empire extended from the Bay of Biscay in the west to Bavaria and Carinthia in the east and from the channel coast down to the borders of Spain and some miles south of Rome.

Charlemagne struck a very limited number of gold solidii at his mint at Uzes in Provence and Louis le Debonnaire also struck solidii at Aachen. The latter were the last gold coins to be struck in Europe until Friedrich II (1197-1250) struck his gold Augustale. Silver deniers and oboles were virtually the only coins struck by the Carolingians and by far the commonest deniers were those of Louis le Debonnaire (814-40) and Charles le Chauve (840-77). The obverse is usually devoted to a single central cross surrounded by the king's name, thus the coins of Louis read HLVDOVVicvs m; the reverse has a similar design with the name of the mint town around it, i.e. METALLVM (Melle).

Internal struggles for power towards the end of the ninth century split the empire principally into the separate kingdoms of France and Germany and each began to strike coins that were in some way peculiar to their own country. In France, the Capetian family succeeded to the throne and like the Carolingians before them, were content with only striking deniers and oboles, the denier being heavier than the obole by about one-third. Both deniers and oboles were struck at the Paris mint and other mints outside the royal domain also struck both types in the name of the king.

Louis IX (1226-70) struck the first gold coins for France. The gold ecu was at first struck in very limited quantities; in appearance it is an attractive coin bearing the shield of France within a tressure of arcs surrounded by the legend LVDOVICVS : DEI GRACIA:FRNCOR:REX. The reverse bears the design of eight L'S ending in ornate fleurs-de-lis crosswise with a rose in the centre and a fleur-de-lis in its angles. The legend is XPC.VINCIT.XPC. REGNAT.XPC.IMPERAT. Louis also struck a silver coin valued at twelve deniers and this he called the gros tournois after the mint of Tours where the coin was first struck. Billon coins were also issued.

Philippe le Hardi who succeeded Louis is noteworthy for introducing another type of gold coin, the gold denier which weighed seventy-three grains and which bore the figure of the king seated upon the throne holding the sceptre in one hand and a fleur-de-lis in the other. In the reigns that followed, other gold coins were added to the coinage; Louis X-the Angel d'or; Philippe VI-the Parisis d'or, Royal d'or, Pavillon d'or, Florin-Georges and the Chaise d'or.

The right to strike coins was, as in other countries, not only a royal prerogative; many of the French nobles, who in some cases were perhaps more powerful than the king himself, also issued coins in their own name. The counts of Anjou and Bordeaux and the dukes of Aquitaine and of Brittany are numbered among these.

During the fourteenth century the economy of France expanded considerably and as a result more mints were set up to strike coins in the king's name. By 1389 some twenty mints were in operation and to distinguish coins from one mint and another, a system of marking the dies was evolved whereby a pellet was punched under a particular letter to denote a certain mint. This system of marking is known as points secret. Other forms of mint marks were used at later periods, for instance, during the reign of Henry VI a lozenge, fleur-de-lis and a rose were used to indicate the mints of Arras, St Lo and Troyes respectively. It was during the reign of Frangois I that a further system was adopted which formed the basis of the system which is still used in France today. This was the practice of placing a particular letter on the coins to indicate the mint, i.e., A-Paris, E-Rouen, c-St Lo, etc.

Frangois II succeeded to the throne in 1559 and continued to strike testoons in the name of his father Henri II; although patterns for coins were produced depicting the facing portraits of himself and Mary Queen of Scots to whom he was married in 1558, no coins were ever struck for circulation before his death at the age of sixteen in 1560. Some of the most attractive coins in the whole French series are those struck during the reign of Louis XIII. This is partly due to the fact that three of the finest contemporary engravers were employed by the Paris mint at that time, namely Nicholas Briot, William Dupre and Jean Warin. It was the latter who was responsible for the first silver ecu or Louis d'argent as it was then called, to be issued regularly in the French series. These coins are now rare and command a high price. In the following reign-that of Louis XIV, no less than twenty-four different types of ecus were struck and bear such names as ecu a la meche longue, ecu an buste juvenile and ecu aux Palmes.

The reign of Louis XVI (1774-93) may be divided into two parts, the royal coins issued prior to the enactment of the constitution in 1791 and those struck after it. The constitution separated the legislative, executive and judicial powers of France, that of the executive theoretically remaining vested in the king, whereas in fact he was virtually only a figurehead. The obverse of the coinage of this period continues to bear the portrait of the king but instead of the royal coat of arms or a similar device appearing on the reverse, the silver coins bear the figure of an angel inscribing the constitution on a tablet with the fasces (a bundle of rods with an axe in the middle) surmounted by the cap of liberty to the left and the legend REGNE DE LA LOI;, below is the date in the legend I,'AN 3 DE LA LIBERTE. The copper coins of this period are of various designs.

During the first three or four years of the new republic many types of coins were in use, all of them making some reference to the newly-won liberty; one of the commonest is the brass two sols bearing the head of Louis on the obverse and the fasces surmounted by the cap of liberty surrounded by a laurel wreath on the reverse.

The Directory period of 1795-9 put the coinage on a more uniform basis and in the months of April and August 1795 two directives were made establishing the decimal system for the currency, the unit of which was to be the franc. The highest denomination was the silver five francs which has the denomination with a wreath surrounded by REPUSLIQuE FRa.xcnlsE, the mint letter appearing below. The reverse depicts the figure of Hercules supporting those of Liberty and Equality.

In 1802 the first coins appeared bearing Napoleon's title as Premier Consul. The highest denomination was the gold forty francs and the largest coin the silver five francs. The legend on the coinage was changed to read NAPOLEON EMPEREUR when he assumed this title in 1804.

Following the abdication of Napoleon in 1814 the monarchy was restored and Louis XVIII remained on the throne (with the exception of the `Hundred Days' reign of Napoleon in 1815) until his death in 1824. The royal portraits thus reappeared on the coinage until the inauguration of the Second Republic in 1848. Both the Second and the Third Republics-the latter following the second empire of Napoleon III (1852-70)-made use of the group of three figures design for the five francs originally used in the First Republic. The head of Ceres was also used as an obverse design during the Second and Third Republics. Since then, each of the succeeding republics has introduced new designs into the coinage, the Third Republic in particular introducing the design of a sower walking which has since been copied on the new `heavy' coinage of 1960, one heavy franc being equal in value to one hundred old francs.


In common with other European countries during the tenth and eleventh centuries the coins struck in Germany were mainly of one denomination, the denar or pfennig as it later came to be called. By the twelfth century the denar had degenerated from the silver penny-sized coin to a somewhat smaller piece that was of wafer-like thinness bearing a design only on one side. These coins, known as bracteates (from the Latin bractea-metal foil) were struck from dies in the usual way, although possibly the dies may have been wooden, and because of the extreme thinness of the coin, the design appears raised on one side and incuse on the other. Many of these bracteates bear only a head, castle or animal design on them, but others are much larger, sometimes up to nearly an inch and a half in diameter and bear the most artistic designs together with legends that enable them to be identified exactly; the bracteate, is from the bishopric of Hildesheim.

During the thirteenth century, European trade with the Middle Eastern countries began to increase and by the middle of the fourteenth century the whole of western Europe was using a bi-metallic currency of gold and silver. Coins of a larger denomination than the pfennig, such as the groschen (generally accepted at twelve pfennigs) and the gold-gulden made their appearance.

The division of Germany into the various principalities, each with its own ruler who issued coins and owed only nominal allegiance to the Emperors provides us with a most interesting and complex series; individual free cities and ecclesiastical authorities also issued their own coins.

Towards the latter part of the fifteenth century substantial silver deposits were discovered in Germany and this, together with the effects of the Italian Renaissance and the general shortage of gold led to the introduction in 1484 of a crown-sized coin. Originally called the guldiner (or, in the Tyrol, guldengroschen) these coins were subsequently called thalers, the name generally accepted as being derived from the word Joachimsthal, the mines from which large deposits of silver were obtained principally for the counts of Schlick, and Louis, the last independent king of Bohemia.

By the beginning of the sixteenth century practically every principality and free city was issuing talers, either in the name of its own ruler or in the emperor's name, one of the most prolific of these being the dukedom of Saxony. Formed from the Saxon tribes who occupied the north-west portion of Germany during the reign of Charlemagne, the area became a dukedom in 961 under Herman Billung, founder of the Billung dynasty. In 1485 Ernst and Albrecht, joint rulers of Saxony, having inherited Thuringia from their uncle Wilhelm III, divided the dukedom between them, thus forming the Ernestine Line of which Ernst became the first elector and the Albertine Line under Albrecht. Subsequent additions and alterations to the areas ruled by the Dukes of Saxony produced other principalities, each with their own coinage, i.e., Saxe-Altenburg, Saxe-Weimar, Saxe-WeimarEisenach, Saxe-Gotha, Saxe-Hildburghausen, Saxe-Meiningen, Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

By the peace of Posen in 1806 Saxony was created a kingdom, the duke Friedrich August III becoming Friedrich August I, king of Saxony. The following year he was elected duke of Warsaw re-establishing the relationship between Saxony and Poland which had been originated in the seventeenth century by Friedrich August I, duke of Saxony, who was also created king of Poland in 1697.

Many of the coins of Saxony, particularly during the eighteenth century, have fine examples of portraiture and these, together with a variety of square and even hexagonal coins struck to commemorate shooting festivals, form an attractive series.

Prussia, too, provides us with a lengthy series of coins, perhaps not so attractive as those of Saxony, but nevertheless equally important. Originally a duchy formed from the Mark of Brandenburg, it became a kingdom in 1701, the title having been granted to the Elector Friedrich III (1688-1713) in recognition of his support of Austria in the Wars of the Spanish Succession. Further additions to the territory were acquired by Friedrich the Great (1740-86) when he obtained Silesia from Maria Theresia after the War of the Austrian Succession.

The coins, almost without exception, bear the bust of the elector (or king) on the obverse with his titles around. The Prussian eagle holding the orb and sceptre sometimes appears on the reverse, although there is often a coat of arms or the crowned royal monogram, depending on the denomination.

During the seventeenth century much of the German coinage was debased due to the expense of paying for the Thirty Years War; measures which led to inflation were taken and some of the silver coins became only copper plated with silver. Coins produced by this method are usually referred to as `Kipper and Wipper' and were struck between 1618 and 1623.

The Leipzig Convention of 1690 provided that henceforth the taler should be reduced in fineness from 27-4 grammes of pure silver to 19-35 grammes and that twelve talers instead of eight were to equal one fine mark. This was accepted as the basis for the coinage of the empire in 1738 and the new states or `Neu-fuerstliche' Houses which had been mainly set up by the emperor as rewards for services soon found that the new specifications made striking coins unprofitable and therefore ceased coining.

The duchy of Brunswick-Luneburg is important both historically and numismatically from the point of view of English numismatists. Georg Ludwig, elector of Hanover, became George I of England in 1714 on the death of Queen Anne because his mother Sophia was a grand-daughter of James I and all other claimants to the throne were Roman Catholics. The AngloHanoverian series of coins which commenced from this date lasted until the death of William IV in 1837. These are sometimes to be found listed in the catalogues of British colonial coins because of their being struck by a king of England. Included in this series are the rather attractive talers of George I as elector bearing the Hanoverian coat of arms surmounted by the electoral cap and his titles GEORG LUD:D:G:BR:&LUN:S.R.LEL. on the obverse and a prancing horse, the badge of Hanover, and IN RECTO DECUS on the reverse. Another series of coins issued concurrently with the preceding were the `St Andrew' talers so-called because the figure of St Andrew is depicted on the reverse and the `Wild Man' talers, so named for similar reasons. In 1715 following George's succession to the throne of England, many of his coins depict his portrait facing right, surrounded by his titles both as king of England and elector of Hanover. The reverse of these coins is usually devoted to the royal coat of arms that now incorporates the Hanoverian arms, the horse and the semee of hearts.

The military activities of Friedrich the Great caused a new drain on the resources of the empire and further debasement of the coinage became necessary. In Prussia, the director of the mint, Johann Philip Graumann, formed a new standard for the coinage in which the taler was to equal 16-704 grammes of silver; and this was accepted in 1750. Many of the states, however, preferred to coin on the basis of a convention signed in 1753 between Austria and Bavaria by which convention talers or specie talers were to be coined of a lighter weight. The confusion was added to when subsequently in the nineteenth century further conventions were signed establishing new standards for the taler which only made matters worse. It was not until the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1 that the whole system was abandoned in favour of the gold standard, the mark being taken as the monetary unit.

The coins minted to the new standard are in many ways similar to the talers, etc. that preceded them in that the obverse is usually devoted to the head of the ruler surrounded by his titles and the reverse either bears the Imperial eagle or the coat of arms of the state. Gold coins equalling ten and twenty marks were also struck by most states and in some instances, gold five marks as well.

At the end of the First World War Germany became a republic and in the years of inflation that followed, savings became practically worthless almost overnight. Aluminium, bronze and other base metals were issued for the coinage and aluminium coins the size of an English shilling, valued at 500 marks, were quite the accepted thing. In Westphalia, a series of bronze coins was struck valued at up to a billion marks; even higher denominations were used in note form.

When the economy was stabilized once more in 1925, an extensive series of coins was issued, commemorating various events in the history of Germany. This issue, consisting of fiveand three-mark pieces, depicts such events as the centenary of the City of Bremerhaven, the thousandth anniversary of the founding of Meissen, the centenary of the death of Goethe and the world flight of the "Graf Zeppelin". The art form of these coins is typically Germanic and makes quite an attractive series.

The Nazi regime left its mark on the coinage by the addition of the swastika to the reverse design and the post-war coinage struck after 1948 is somewhat unusual in that it makes use of brass-plated steel as a coining medium for some of the smaller denominations.