By William MacKay

This series of short articles takes as its subject a British coin which neatly enscapulates an important moment in the history of the British Isles.



A Noble from the fourth coinage of Edward III, pre treaty period, 1351-61, series G, struck at London, 1356-61, Obverse, king standing crowned facing in ship holding sword and shield with arms of England and France, EDWARD DEI GRA REX ANGL  Z FRANC D HIB. ('Edward by the Grace of God, King of England and France, Lord of Ireland').  Reverse, floriate cross,  arms extending from a central panel containing letter E, +IHC AVTEM TRANCIES PER MEDIVM ILLORVMIBAT, ('But Jesus passing through the midst of them went on his way'  Luke 4, 30).

Writing about events of the late 1330s, the chronicler Froissart charts the preliminaries to what became known as the Hundred Years War between England and France. He writes of a letter sent by Edward III (1327-77) of England to Philip VI (1328-50) of France in the late 1330s. In the letter, delivered by the Bishop of Lincoln to the French King, Edward set out his superior claim to the French throne provocatively stating 'we are heir to the realm and crown of France' and that he intended to 'claim and conquer our heritage of France by the armed force of us and ours and from this day forth we and ours challenge you and yours, and we rescind the pledge and homage that we gave you without good grounds.' On receiving this Philip VI chose to treat it as the bluster, saying 'Bishop you have discharged your mission admirably. This letter does not requires an answer'.

The episode related here by Froissart most likely relates to a mission from Edward III to Philip VI in the autumn of 1337 at around the same time as Edward began to use the title King of France in private writs issued to low countries rulers. These are regarded by historians as the first instances in which Edward III claimed the French throne. By nature they are private statements of limited import rather than a full public acclamation of the title with the serious consequences that implied.

The public acclamation of Edward III as King of France took place in January 1340, a little over two years after the initial private statements of 1337. The true origins of this momentous act had more to do with the status of Edward III's lands in Gascony and Aquitaine, the residual Angevin territories in France, rather than asserting a superior blood right to the French throne, through his mother Isabella of France, which was merely a convenient issue to exploit. Ever since the twelfth century the sovereignty of these lands had been a cause of dispute between the king of England, as duke of Aquitaine, and the king of France, as sovereign Lord. Numerous border wars had been fought and it had provided the French with a good reason to intervene in English affairs. In the 1330s this had included supporting the Scots against Edward III. Matters started to come to a head in May 1337 when Philip VI confiscated Aquitaine in what to all intents and purposes was a declaration of war. This led to an escalation in hostilities including French raids on the English coast with the sack and burning of Southampton in 1338. Edward III sought to counter this with active diplomacy in the low countries and Germany, building alliances which he hoped to use against the French.

It was ultimately considerations relating to this diplomacy which led to the public acclamation of Edward III as king of France in January 1340, an act which would have huge ramifications in the history of France and England over the next two centuries. At the core of this lay events in Flanders. In 1338 the French vassal, Duke Louis of Flanders, was overthrown by a revolt led by Jacob van Artevelde who aligned himself with Edward III against the French king. By the end of 1339 van Artevelde's campaign was in serious trouble, with his Flemish supporters exposed to French retribution for the overthrow of Duke Louis. His only hope was a formal alliance with Edward III but doing so would require breaking the allegiance of Flanders to France and result in a huge 2 million Florins fine payable to the pope under an earlier French-Flemish agreement. For Edward, keen to maintain his front against France in Flanders, the solution was to publicly claim the title of king of France thereby conveniently enabling the Flemish to retain allegiance to a French king, in this case Edward III of England not Philip VI, and thereby avoid the papal fine.

The effect of this was to completely alter the focus of the dispute between England and France from one over feudal rights in Aquitaine to an argument about the sovereignty of France itself. What followed was a long drawn out and intermittent war between France and England with English victories at Crecy and Poitiers in 1346 and 1356 along with Agincourt in 1415, when the Lancastrian Henry V renewed the English claim to France. Eventually without allies and money the English were defeated in 1453 at the battle of Castillon, and Aquitaine was lost. The lure of French glory continued to appeal to English kings until the time of Henry VIII. And having claimed the French throne in 1340 the title King of France remained part of the titles of king and queens of England so long as the successors of Philip VI ruled. Only in 1802 was it finally dropped by George III.

The first issue of the Noble in 1346 followed the introduction of the gold Double Florin in 1344 on which the French title first appeared. The Double Florin introduced a large denomination fine quality gold coin to England for the first time and was based on the Florentine gold Florin, then widely used across Europe. The weight of the Double Florin was based on the French Masse D'or of 1296 with the design also copied from earlier French gold coins. The Double Florin issue of 1344 was short lived most likely because it did not easily relate to standard units of accounting in England which were based on the mark (13s. 4d.) and Pound (20s). It was replaced by the Noble removing this problem with the Noble worth half a mark and one third of a pound.

The new Noble sought a different design, something that could perhaps be seen as wholly English. Instead of the French style standing or seated king under a canopy, the obverse shows a king (Edward III), armed and crowned ready for war standing in a ship. Some have thought this design to be inspired by the English Naval victory at Sluys in 1340 but equally it may be simply a statement that hints at English power in war as well as trade. The reverse, with a revised design also, used the same inscription as on the Double Florin, a quotation from Luke IV v.30, 'But Jesus passing through the midst of them went on his way.' This is taken from Christ's proclamation at the Synagogue in Nazareth where he provided an interpretation on a section of scripture which both baffled and angered the congregation but was of such a standard that they could provide no challenge. Christ responded, by calmly passing through the middle of the crowd who did him no harm. Used on the Noble this is thought to allude to the unchallengeable quality of the coin which will enable it to circulate amongst people, like Christ, without question. The Noble remained a part of the English coinage throughout the Hundred Years War until it was replaced by the Ryal under the coinage reforms of Edward IV in 1464. That it succeeded as a trusted gold coin is borne out by its imitation notably by Philip the Bold  (d.1404), Duke of Burgundy, and more generally in Flanders up to the mid fifteenth century.

Nobles struck in the name of Edward III are not uncommon. Spink may have examples in stock of Nobles or Noble fractions of Edward III or his successors and examples are offered at most Spink auctions.