Tudor royals strategically deployed images of themselves to legitimize claims to the throne and to project authority and power. This is no less true of large painted portraits in palaces and official settings than of imagery on their coins. Thanks to the generosity of the late donor and board trustee Emery May Norweb, the Cleveland Museum of Art has gold coins representing every Tudor monarch, each with its own story to tell. (To learn more about her complete collection see Heads or Tails? The Tales and Portable Art of Coins.)
The gold sovereign is a Tudor invention, initially commissioned in 1489 by Henry VII (r. 1485–1509), the first Tudor monarch. Sovereigns were struck for over a hundred years by all of Henry’s descendants, going out of production only in 1603 upon the death of the final Tudor ruler, Elizabeth I (r. 1533–1603). In that year, Elizabeth’s cousin and successor, James I of the house of Stuart, issued a proclamation for a new gold coin, the “unite,” to replace the sovereign.
Remarkable for being larger than previous coins, the sovereign was worth one pound sterling and one shilling, or twenty-one shillings, a value too great to have practical use in circulation. (In 1490 it was equivalent to over a month’s wages for a skilled tradesman; or by another measure, nearly $1,000 in today’s currency.) Sovereigns were therefore used more often as diplomatic gifts by members of the court. The name derived from the imagery, which, in a departure from earlier coins, boasted a full image of the enthroned monarch, or sovereign, on one side. In this way it associated the coin with the monarch, an effort by Henry VII to show the crown’s financial stability.
Sovereigns feature two other potent symbols of the Tudor monarchy: the portcullis and the Tudor rose. On one side of this coin, the portcullis, or vertical gate, can be seen beneath the feet of Henry VII and represents his mother’s family, the Beauforts. The association was an effort to legitimize the king’s claim to the throne; as descendants of Edward III, the Beaufort family could be considered valid successors. On the reverse, the Tudor rose symbolizes the union of the Lancaster and York royal families, represented by two superimposed roses. Henry VII designed the image to illustrate how he successfully brought peace and harmony to the two previously warring houses that had battled each other for control of the English throne in the civil war known as the War of the Roses. Every subsequent Tudor monarch adopted and used both symbols frequently.
Subtle changes in portraiture occurred on the sovereign throughout its life. For instance, after a long reign, Henry VIII (1491–1547) was visibly different in appearance; in a departure from his predecessors, he allowed this to be reflected in his portrayal on coins. By comparing sovereigns minted early and late in his reign we can see the king turn from a slim, unbearded young man into a portly, bearded older individual. Like Henry VIII, Elizabeth I was young when she came to the throne, but her later portraits on coins do not represent the aging process. Rather, her jewelry and clothing became more elaborate, and her crown increased in size.
Another of Henry VIII’s digressions from tradition was his acknowledgment of several of his many wives in coinage — the only English monarch to do so. Three of his six wives were represented: Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour, all to legitimize their often-contested positions as queen. This coin, for instance, features a crowned Tudor rose with a letter “H” for Henry and a “K” for Katherine of Aragon, his first wife. The inscription reads, “Henry VIII, a dazzling rose without a thorn.” The coin is not a sovereign but rather a less valuable type known as a crown (more specifically, the Crown of the Double Rose), which was worth five shillings.
Sovereigns and crowns, however, were largely out of reach for the ordinary citizen. These small half crowns of Elizabeth I, worth 2 shillings and 6 pence (less than a week’s wages for a skilled tradesman, or about 30 pounds today) would have been more accessible to the general population, allowing citizens the opportunity to carry a portrait of the queen in the palm of their hand. Although minted 30 years apart, the queen does not appear older. On the other side each has a crowned shield with the Tudor coat of arms and the phrase, “The shield of faith shall protect her.” The French fleur-de-lys, a symbol the Tudors favored, can be seen in the shield; it signified their continued claim to the crown of France despite the loss of Calais, the last French city that England occupied, in 1558.
An infamous episode of monetary history occurred during the reign of Henry VIII, who managed to squander the enormous wealth that his father had accumulated through lavish spending. In a scheme to raise money that began in 1542, he launched the Great Debasement by diluting the gold and silver used to make coins with cheaper base metals, including copper. The debased sovereigns of Henry VIII are recognizable by their design. First, the Tudor rose was replaced by a simpler shield of royal arms. Later, in 1544, the coin’s diameter was reduced, causing further modification in the design. Most conspicuous was the removal of one of the rings of decoration around the seated image of the king (see previous image of Sovereigns of Henry VIII). The debasement triggered dire economic consequences and a loss of confidence in English money that took years to rectify. The value of coins was not restored until 1560, when Elizabeth I was queen. Henry VIII’s was not the first debasement, but it was one of the significant monetary manipulations in English history.
During the 118 years of Tudor reign, technological advances in minting also occurred. Coins were hammered by hand until around 1560, when Elizabeth I tried to introduce a revolutionary invention, the French screw press. The press could produce coins that were perfectly round and thus more difficult to counterfeit. Originally powered by humans, the screw press later employed horses or water mills, leading to the term “milled money.” In England it was a short-lived experiment: mint workers objected strongly, fearing their livelihoods were in danger, and they successfully ousted the technology and the individual who brought it. Milled coins would not reappear in England until the reign of Charles I (r. 1625–49).
Small, easy to carry, and used daily, the carefully controlled images on coins allowed many people to be able to gaze at the Tudor monarchs, a far greater number than those individuals with access to the great painted portraits of the time. As Emery May Norweb said, “It is a great temptation to continue with the stories of love and hate, war and peace which influenced the coinage, but there is neither time nor space. If this brief introduction stimulates anyone to reading history as reflected in coins, they will have sleepless nights and stimulating thoughts.”