Heads without kings: Henry VIII, Charles I and Louis XVI
(Click on images for full size.)
A basic assumption of most studies on numismatic portraits and symbols is that they always have a major political importance as an instrument of propaganda, and assert the legitimacy of the current ruler. It should therefore be expected that important political changes would be immediately recorded and transmitted through a renewed coin design especially after momentous changes of political regime. This essay presents three cases of major political upheavals followed by a surprising survival of royal portraits after the deposition and/or death of English and French monarchs, from the Renaissance to the French Revolution.
The first case is that of Henry VIII, King of England from 1509 to 1547. In his late years Henry confronted his financial difficulties by issuing a very large quantity of debased silver coins, with a low weight and limited silver content. They were sometime referred to as "Old Copper Nose", because once worn by circulation the coins revealed their true content, turning Henry's nose copper red. After his death his son Edward VI, ten years old, ascended to the throne and England was governed through a Council of Regency. The Council recognized the need to stop the inflationary effects of debasement but did not have the means to restore immediately the quality of coinage. It therefore decided to continue Henry's monetary policies for a time, leaving the blame on the deceased king. It continued to mint coins with his image for four more years, in order to preserve the credit of the new king. The illustration here is of a silver groat of 1544-47, with the last portrait of Henry, rather close to the Holbein paintings, swollen by disease and aged, managing to convey the brutality, cynicism and weariness of the character. This is the portrait replicated in his posthumous coinage.
The second coin presented here is a silver halfcrown of Charles I (1625-49) produced by the Mint located inside the Tower of London during the civil war, while it was in the hands of Parlamentarians. While fighting the King in battles, detaining him and finally executing him, Parliament refused the Royal claim to absolute powers of divine right and ultimately created a Republic under the name of the Commonwealth. At the same time it recognized Charles' position as Head of State until his execution and replicated in coinage his equestrian portraits in which Charles paraded with full regalia, in armour, drawn sword and crown. During wartime, new issues were particularly abundant but also of poor quality because some of the main engravers and technicians had defected from the Parliamentary camp to follow the King.
The third and most paradoxical example is that of the silver coins bearing the portrait of Louis XVI that were still minted in France during the Terror, many months after his execution. In August 1792 Louis was deposed after the uprising of the Parisian Sans Culottes. A new assembly was elected (the Convention), the Republic was proclaimed in September and the former King was tried and guillotined in January 1793. Despite the momentous transformations of the French revolution large silver écus de six livres kept being minted with the likeness of King of the French well into the latter part of 1793, throughout the whole first year of the Republic. The Convention had taken pains to order that the royal seal, crown and scepter be broken and brought to the mint to be transformed into ordinary coinage, but then they were reminted with the likeness and symbols of the same deposed tyrant.
Many ideas for new republican images were being proposed and the Convention finally adopted a simple temporary transformation of the existing silver piece in February 1793. It accepted a proposal by the engraver Dupré, who argued that it was better to wait for the conclusion of the full debate over a general monetary reform before implementing a complete iconographic change (the complete reform only arrived in 1803 with the adoption of the franc germinal by Napoleon). The decree of February 1793 innovated in respect of only one side of the silver and gold coinage, in a very plain fashion, replacing the royal portrait with the value and the words Republique françoise, inside a crown of foliage. The image created in 1791 for the constitutional monarchy was maintained on the other side. It represented the winged genius of liberty, busy inscribing the Constitution on the tables of law, using the scepter of reason, symbolized by an open eye on its extremity. The allegory was completed by fasces crowned with a red cap, symbols of freedom and unity, and by a rooster, symbol of vigilance and of France.
By November 1793 the Société des Jacobins was still complaining that it had been impossible to obtain from the mints anything other than monarchical coins, as the February decision had not yet been implemented. It seemed an excess of bureaucratic inaction or maybe even passive resistance by covert monarchists. The persistence of new issues with the portrait of Louis XVI was a rather striking situation in a country at war with most of Europe and threatened by internal uprisings by monarchists (chouans and vendéens) or federalists (girondins). Heads were rolling for much less than open disobedience to a decree of the Convention. It seems likely that authorities were discouraged from clamping down on the managers of the mints by the fact that paper money, in the form of the depreciated assignats, was dominating the circulation and reduced the use of silver coins, which were hoarded. It is possible that the Comité de Salut Public, which also refrained from attacking the technicians of the Treasury, had no desire to tamper with a form of traditional money which still benefited from the confidence of the public, unlike emergency novelties such as assignats, private tokens and experimental coins made out of melted church bells.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics
Centre for History and Economics,
Cambridge CB3 0AG, UK
email@example.com | Tel. +44 (0)1223 331197
© 2021 Centre for History and Economics