If you are one of the 20 people in the world lucky enough to own a 1703 Queen Anne five-guinea gold piece, you are not only the possessor of a valuable asset, but also of a slice of British naval history. That’s because, on the obverse under the Queen’s bust, you will find the word VIGO, four letters which add up to at least $1,000,000 in today’s money.
Vigo, unlike the words Dei Gratia, which also appear on that side of the coin, is not Latin but the name of a Galician port on Spain’s west coast, just north of Portugal. In 1702, it was the scene of an impromptu naval battle between an Anglo-Dutch fleet under the command of Admiral George Rooke, and French and Spanish men-of-war, galleons and, consequentially, treasure ships.
Rooke and his Dutch counterpart Philips van Almonde had not set out to capture treasure. Ordered to establish a foothold on the Iberian Peninsula as one of the opening gambits in the 14-year War of the Spanish Succession, they tried and failed to take the Spanish port of Cadiz.
It was only on the return voyage that they encountered and caught a Spanish treasure fleet in Vigo Bay, some 660 nautical miles to the north, on 23 October.
Even though much of the gold and silver had already been unloaded, there was sufficient bullion remaining in the captured ships to enable Britain’s coinage of the following year to be minted from the spoils, and to record the victory.
Queen Anne 1703, five-guinea VIGO piece. Sold for $1,080,000 (including buyer’s premium) at Baldwin’s of St James’s, New York, on 13 January 2019, the record for a British coin. Source: Baldwin’s of St James’s
Cromwell’s Broads and Pierre Blondeau
Queen Anne was not the first English monarch whose silhouette appears on golden guineas above an unexpected symbol. That ‘honour’ was first taken 40 years earlier by Charles II on the coinage first seen in the third year of his reign, with the King’s head surmounting an elephant (of which, more later).
No Vigo for Charles then, although by a coincidence of fate, his predecessor Cromwell could, had he a mind for such things, have highlighted the very port that Rooke had failed to capture in 1702, Cadiz. For it was there, one might argue, that one of the keys to the birth of the guinea was forged.
According to the Royal Mint, the first gold coins to be minted in England appeared in the reign of Henry VII, following a royal order of October 1489. These were ‘sovereigns’, usually valued at 20 silver shillings, and they continued to be produced, reign after reign, until the accession in 1603 of James I. It was at this point that the practice died out, only to be revived in the 19th century.
The first gold coins to be minted in England appeared in the reign of Henry VII, following a royal order of October 1489.
James’s gold coins were called ‘broads’ although it’s uncertain whether that is a contemporary or later name. In any event, these thinner, ‘broader’ coins continued as the highest-value English currency unit in circulation for nearly 60 years, through the Civil War and into the Commonwealth or Interregnum.
There were problems with broads, and indeed with 16th century sovereigns, some of which were still around. They were poorly struck, and despite the fact that there had been experiments with milled-edged coins during Queen Elizabeth’s reign – to prevent chipping and counterfeiting – and again in the early 1630s, the practice had not caught on. One suggested reason for this failure was the fact that the two trialists, Eloye Mestrelle and Nicholas Briot, were French and were resented as interlopers by their mint workers. However, the fact that Mestrelle was subsequently hanged for counterfeiting can’t have helped matters either.
Fear of foreigners notwithstanding, it was nonetheless to a Frenchman, Pierre Blondeau, that the Cromwellian authorities turned in 1651 to work on a new issue of coinage. Blondeau’s process was machine-driven, which meant that he was able to produce (milled) coins to a high standard. However, the capital cost required to build a Blondeau mint was high, and more than the post-Civil War government could reasonably afford.
Fear of foreigners notwithstanding, it was nonetheless to a Frenchman, Pierre Blondeau, that the Cromwellian authorities turned in 1651 to work on a new issue of coinage.
Until, that is, the Battle of Cadiz in 1656, when an English squadron commanded by Captain Stayner successfully captured another Spanish treasure fleet, which among other rare commodities, yielded 45 tons of silver valued, at the time, at some £250,000.
Sadly, the engagement wasn’t a complete success given that one Spanish merchantman, carrying 60,000 gold pieces of eight, was sunk with all its cargo!
[image: The opening of the Battle of Cadiz, 1656. Source: Hyperleap]
This weight of silver fuelled Blondeau’s mint in Drury Lane, London, and briefly England’s first machine-made coinage. But after Cromwell’s death and the short, ineffectual rule of his son, Blondeau thought it wise to return to France, which meant the first coins produced in Charles II’s reign reverted to being poorly hand-hammered. It therefore wasn’t long before Pierre was invited back.
As Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary for 18 February 1660:
We staid walking in the gallery; where we met with Mr. Slingsby [Comptroller of the Currency], who showed me the stamps of the King’s new coyne; which is strange to see, how good they are in the stamp and bad in the money, for lack of skill to make them. But he says Blondeau will shortly come over, and then we shall have it better, and the best in the world.
Blondeau was granted a 21-year grant as mint engineer. Over time, he set up seven coining mills capable of minting £24,000 worth of coinage per week.
All well and good, but what about the elephants?
After Cromwell’s death and the short, ineffectual rule of his son, Blondeau thought it wise to return to France, which meant the first coins produced in Charles II’s reign reverted to being poorly hand-hammered.
1670 Ogilvy Map of ‘Guinea’, which encompasses present-day Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, coastal Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Togo.
Prince Rupert, the Royal African Company and the Elephant
Despite his extraordinary skills as a cavalry commander, demonstrated during a series of engagements against the Roundheads in the early part of the English Civil War (1642-51), Prince Rupert of the Rhine found himself on the losing side.
A nephew of Charles I, Rupert was fiercely Royalist and rather than accepting the new status quo which prevailed following Charles’s execution in January 1649, he set sail in command of the remnants of the Royalist navy, with the dual aims of self-enrichment and annoying Cromwell. He succeeded in both ambitions.
In 1652, during a rare lull in the naval campaign, which involved his declining fleet being chased almost indefatigably by the Parliamentarian Admiral Robert Blake, Rupert took the opportunity to explore the River Gambia in the west coast of Africa. Here, among other things, he found gold – although he had little or no time to exploit the discovery.
Rupert’s revelation was not particularly new, and the gold he had found was significantly further north than the major deposits, and gold markets, known to Portuguese explorers and traders for at least 200 years. Nonetheless, the fact that there was gold and other treasures to be found attracted the attention of some of the highest in the land. Only a few months after Charles II had ridden into London in May 1660, the Duke of York and the Earl of Pembroke sprang into action.
As Pepys wrote in his diary entry for 3 October 1660:
This day I heard the Duke speak of a great design that he and my Lord of Pembroke have, and a great many others, of sending a venture to some parts of Africa to dig for gold ore there. They intend to admit as many as will venture their money, and so make themselves a company.
The ‘company’ Pepys referred to became the short-lived Royal African Company, originally the ‘Company of Royal Adventurers Trading into Africa’ (which also spawned the Gambia Adventurers in 1668). It was granted a monopoly over English trade along the west coast of Africa, then loosely called Guinea, with the principal objective being the search for gold. From 1663, the Company also, somewhat inevitably, became involved in the slave trade.
It was the gold from Guinea that gave its name to the Guinea coin, which became the formal English currency unit between 1663 and 1816, and it was the Royal African Company’s symbol of the elephant that featured on some of the gold coinage minted during the reigns of Charles II and James II.
Samuel Pepys, 1633-1703
Ask anyone who might know what the value of a guinea is, and you can be certain the answer will be £1.05p or 21 shillings in old money. They may also know that even today, racehorses are still bought and sold nominally in guineas, and that not all that long ago, before the advent of buyer’s and seller’s premiums, auction houses sold in guineas but paid in pounds, thus taking a 5 percent commission. T’was not always thus.
When originally introduced, the guinea was priced at 20 silver shillings, but during its early years, the value varied with the price of gold. And gold, then and now, was seen by many as the ultimate store of value whose price therefore tended to rise in times of crisis.
One such crisis was precipitated by the capture on 12 June 1667 of the 80-gun British warship, the Royal Charles, from its moorings on the River Medway, during a daring raid led by the Dutch Admiral Michiel de Ruyter. Such a successful attack – one of the focal points of the Second Anglo-Dutch War, which had not been going well from an English perspective – caused a run on banks and a boost in the price of gold.
Again, Samuel Pepys best tells the story (diary entry for 13 June 1667):
No sooner up but hear the sad news confirmed of the Royal Charles being taken by them [the Dutch], and now in fitting by them … and burning several others; and that another fleet is come up into the Hope … which put me into such a fear, that I presently resolved of my father’s and wife’s going into the country.
W. Hewer hath been at the banker’s, and hath got 500l. out of Blackwell’s hands of his own money; but they are so called upon that they will be all broke, hundreds coming to them for money: and they answer him, “It is payable at twenty days— when the days are out we will pay you;”
I cannot have my 200 pieces or gold again for silver, all being bought up last night that were to be had, and sold for 24 and 25s. a-piece.
It’s interesting to undertake a loose calculation from Pepys’s figures. Noting that the pure gold content of a Charles II guinea was about 7.7g, and the pure silver content of a shilling was some 5.8g, the 25 shilling price for a guinea suggests a gold/silver price ratio of about 19 back in June 1667, and very different to today’s ratio of over 80 (end April 2022).
Guineas paid for with clipped (i.e. low-weight) shillings, continued to disturb the economy until Sir Isaac Newton, then Master of the Royal Mint, decided that enough was enough and, in 1717, fixed the value of the guinea at 21 shillings, and there the price remained. Barring commemorative coins, the last guinea was minted in 1814 and the sovereign, valued at 21 shillings or £1, took over from 1816, as the Napoleonic Wars came to an end.
But the name still resonates, particularly among followers of the turf. The 2000 Guineas race for colts and the 1000 Guineas for fillies still take place annually at Newmarket and have, in their time, been won at least once by horses owned by every 20th century British monarch, with the exception of Edward VIII. The coins of none of these, however, commemorate their victories with a portrayal of the royal bust atop a racehorse!
Even today, racehorses are still bought and sold nominally in guineas, and that not all that long ago, before the advent of buyer’s and seller’s premiums, auction houses sold in guineas but paid in pounds, thus taking a 5% commission.