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English Black Death-Era Gold Coins: the Leopard and the Noble

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By Paul Vanguard, for BullionMax.com

A hobbyist with a metal detector discovered two of England's rarest gold coins in Norfolk county, East Anglia. One coin is the incredibly rare leopard (also known as a half florin) from 1344, its first year of minting; the other is a gold noble minted in 1351.

These medieval coins both depict Edward III (reigned 1327-1377), the ruler who tried to get gold coins to catch on in England. He invented a new monetary system with cool names for coins: the double leopard, the leopard, the helm, the noble. 

Edward failed. That's one reason the leopard coin is so extraordinarily rare...

Why gold didn't catch on in medieval England 

After the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, daily trade relied on silver coins: farthings (1/4 penny), half-pennies, pennies, and groats (4 pennies) were the most common. Aside: farthings and half-pennies were usually made by physically chopping a penny into pieces. That's so medieval!

At the time, a skilled craftsperson like a mason or master carpenter earned about 4 pennies per day. His annual rent cost about 240 pennies, and on his way home he could get smashed on 5 pints of ale for just 1 penny.

The Middle Ages also enjoyed zero inflation, so prices were a lot more stable than we're accustomed to. 

If you're getting the idea medieval England was a small-change kind of place, you'd be absolutely right. 

The rarest-of-the-rare gold leopard

Only three gold leopards exist in public museum collections. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Because no one wanted to use them, not too many of these coins were minted.
  2. Most that were minted just didn't survive.

Why? Well, the leopard was worth a lot: 36 pennies. Further, the mint that coined them skimped on the gold content, so even though the leopard's face value was 36 pennies, its gold content wasn't. So tradesmen didn't want to accept leopards -- they'd much rather have the same value of pennies. (Isn't it quaint and charming to think of a time when money's actual value and face value were connected?)

Leopards weighed 0.12 oz and were minted in 23k (96% pure) gold. 

So Edward III's gold leopard coin (also known as a half-florin) was a miserable failure. He didn't give up, though...

Bigger is better: the gold noble

Starting in July 1344, Edward III gave up on the leopard and ordered his mints to produce a new gold coin. This one is called a noble. 

A gold noble weighs in at 0.3 oz, over twice the weight of the leopard. Its value was pegged as 6 2/3 shillings, or 80 pennies. That's a lot! Our master carpenter could pay his whole year's rent with just 3 nobles, or buy a pint for himself and his 399 best friends with just one noble. 

Maybe you're thinking, but isn't portable wealth a good thing? 

Consider: this is the Middle Ages. The vast majority of wealth in England was not in coins. Wealth was real estate, food, farm animals and craftsmen's tools. Gold and silver were in churches and castles, mostly used for decoration. There just wasn't a lot of circulating coinage. A farmer's taxes would be charged in pennies, but were more likely to be paid in sheep or bushels of barley. 

Furthermore, if you somehow did manage to acquire a handful of leopards and nobles, what would you do with it? There were no banks. There were no safe places to squirrel away your money. Your best bet would be to exchange that gold for hard assets more challenging to steal, like farmland. 

So, none of Edward III's gold coins caught fire in England. They were just too big to be popular. (One gold noble and one gold leopard, the specific coins found, had about the same buying power as $16,700 today.)

Just imagine the kind of mental arithmetic you'd need if you were shopping for real estate and the asking price was "3 leopards, 1 helm & thruppence..."

 

Paul Vanguard is a lifelong precious metals enthusiast and a proud member of the BullionMax team.

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