Richard III and Buckingham’s Angelic Treasure

For the past few months, I’ve had to down my academic tools and pick up some decorating ones, and instead of clutching my beloved history books every day I’ve rather boringly wielded little more of interest than a paintbrush. But this week I had a welcome break from all the sanding, sugar soaping and removing paint from my hair to visit my local museum, the excellent Buckingham Old Gaol, where a rare and radiant medieval artefact is on display at the centre of a new exhibition. The star attraction is a ‘half-angel’, a stunning gold coin from the reign of Richard III and one of only seven known to exist. But we in Buckingham are especially privileged, because not only are these coins as rare as hens’ teeth, ours is the only one on public display in the world.

Buckingham’s Old Gaol Museum, home to the rare Richard III half-angel

They say money talks, and this is certainly true of historical coins as they can tell us much about the societies, events and economies of the past. Buried hoards are usually associated with concealment of wealth for safekeeping to be recovered later, so we can imagine a desperate Anglo-Saxon swiftly digging a hole to hide his money as a band of marauding Vikings approached. Alternatively, some unearthed caches are thought to have been ritual deposits, perhaps as an offering to the Gods in return for some divine favour.

Coins could also be used for propaganda purposes by monarchs wishing to promote or legitimise their rule, as images on publicly circulating money was an effective way of putting messages out to a largely illiterate populace. During the Hundred Years War, Edward III (r.1327-77) took full advantage of the English currency to promote his claim to the French throne. As his campaign was hotting up in the middle of the fourteenth century, he awarded himself the title of King of England and France on his coinage and incorporated the fleur-de-lis, the emblem of the French crown, into the designs. Through his currency Edward was promoting himself to his subjects as the rightful king of both countries. His grandson, Henry IV, was also very keen to stamp his identity on the currency after he threw his cousin, Richard II off the throne in 1399. Deposing a monarch was a dodgy business in the Middle Ages, and Henry was effectively a usurper. His desire to spread the message to the masses of his new royal authority and his right to rule indicates just how important money could be as a tool of propaganda and spin.

Edward III’s Double Leopard coin depicting his claim to the French throne. Note the copious use of the fleur-de-lis French royal emblem surrounding his enthroned image on the left. (Source)

Medieval money came in several forms, but not all of them could be found rattling around in the pocket or purse. The most widespread coin was the silver penny, introduced by King Offa of Mercia in the eighth century, probably to align England with the similar currency in circulation on the Continent. As time progressed, pennies would be cut into halves or quarters to make literal small change for cheaper transactions, because although, for instance, in the fourteenth century a penny would buy you a gallon of ale, what happened if you only wanted to fill your tankard? Larger sums of money were recorded in shillings (12 pence), marks (160 pence) and pounds (240 pence), but these amounts had no physical coins to represent them, so were mere ‘units of account’. Still, it’s amazing to think that the reckoning of a pound being worth 240 pence held sway right up until the process of decimalisation in the twentieth century. Until then our currency could be said, in a way, to have been medieval…

Small change: coins were cut into halves and quarters to pay for lower cost items. These late medieval half and quarter pennies can be seen at the museum’s current exhibition.

In the Middle Ages coins were minted by hand, and it was hard physical work for the moneyer. A piece of blank metal was placed between two halves of a die before being struck with a hammer to emboss the design on the coin, which was then trimmed by hand into its circular form. This taxing work didn’t go unrecognised though, because from the Saxon period until the thirteenth century coins carried the name of the moneyer around the edge. At first, English coin production was fairly widespread, with around  70 ‘mints’ across the country – including one here in Buckingham – but by the reign of Richard III the work had become increasingly centralised and only a few remained. Money could also be recycled or upcycled. Periodically throughout the Middle Ages the Crown would recall, melt down and reissue the English coinage, and as silver eroded with regular use, people would often take their coins to the local mint to be restruck.

Buckingham’s coins: an enlarged image of a Saxon coin minted in Buckingham is surrounded by nine examples from the local Lenborough hoard. The moneyer’s name, Leofric, appears around the edge.

As politics and monarchs changed over time designs evolved and new coins were introduced, but the new looks could have other purposes other than to promote the current king. In 1247, Henry III replaced the ‘shortcross’ on the back of the penny with a ‘long cross’ extending to the outer rim. Aside from making it easier to cut accurately into halves and quarters, the move was in part an attempt to combat the increasing illegal practice of clipping, in which traders would trim off tiny amounts from the edge of coins and pass them on as underweight currency. The long cross didn’t entirely solve the problem, however, and in 1279, with the abused and worn out coinage in crisis, Edward I threw his toys out of the pram and ordered a complete currency overhaul. The design was changed to feature a better representation of the king and the long cross became more solid in a further attempt to prevent clipping, while the poor old moneyers lost the credit for their work when their names were removed. A range of new coins also entered circulation, including the groat (worth four pence), a proper halfpenny and the farthing (¼ pence).

My own personal pride and joy: a hammered penny from the reign of Edward I (r.1272-1307)

…complete with his new, improved long cross on the back. Coin clippers beware!

It was in the middle of the thirteenth century when the first gold coins appeared, initially in the form of a penny intended for alms-giving. It wasn’t until a century later during the reign of Edward III that the higher value coins were introduced for more general use. After the short-lived Leopard came the more successful Noble (worth 80 pence), followed in 1465 by the introduction by Edward IV of the equally valuable Angel, so named because of the image on one side of the archangel Michael slaying a dragon. Each of these coins also had their half versions, and this is where Buckingham’s prized medieval possession comes in.

Buckingham’s Richard III half-angel as it is currently being displayed at the museum. This side shows a galley ship with the king’s initial, R, on one side of a the central cross, with the York rose on the other.

…and the other side showing the archangel Michael slaying a dragon, from which the coin gets its name.

Half-angels are rare enough as it is, but examples from the reign of Richard III, which lasted only two years from 1483-1485, are even rarer, and those that have been found have often ended up in private collections. But we’re lucky here in Buckingham, because ours was found by local metal detectorist and supporter of the museum Dave Bethell, who having unearthed the coin in September 2019 felt it should stay in the town for all to see. With help from supporters and funds from organisations including the Richard III Society, the Old Gaol Museum successfully raised the £40,000 required to purchase the coin and secure it permanently for their collection. The half-angel is currently gleaming at the centre of a temporary exhibition placing it within the context of Richard’s reign, and when this closes on 26th February 2022 it will take up its new permanent residence in the museum’s Medieval and Tudor gallery.

The much misunderstood king Richard III, from whose reign the coin originates. The exhibition puts the half-angel into the context of the last Plantagenet king’s reign.

Buckingham’s Richard III half-angel is a delight to view, and I can recommend a visit both to locals and anyone passing through the town, because the Old Gaol Museum is the only place where you can see one on public display. As gold doesn’t corrode, the coin is as lustrous and vibrant today as it was when it went into the soil over 500 years ago, and even now it has a commanding presence all of its own. This precious object is a tangible link with a pivotal and tumultuous time in the history of England, and simply to stand before it now is like looking through a portal into Richard’s world, and those tragic closing years of the Middle Ages.