The Gold Angel: legendary coin, enduring amulet

Charles I angel Fitzwilliam
Angel of Charles I, the last minted for circulation © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

For an historian of the English Reformation interested in Catholicism, survivals of Catholic imagery and practice into the post-Reformation period are always especially fascinating. One such survival, which was given the highest royal and official approval, was the image of St Michael the Archangel on gold coins and the beliefs that continued to accompany this legendary coin, known simply as the Angel. The popularity of this coin as a cultural artefact is evidenced by the survival, in many towns and villages throughout England, of inns, pubs and hotels named ‘The Angel’. In most cases, the current owners and patrons of these establishments have forgotten that it was originally named not after the celestial being but after the coin (apart from the Angel Inn, Reigate which has an image of the coin on its pub sign). No other coin attained the popularity of the Angel, which has a strong claim to be the most enduring coin in English history. First struck under Edward IV in 1465, the Angel remained in circulation until 1642 but continued to be minted from 1660 onwards as a ‘touchpiece’ – an amulet to cure the ‘King’s Evil’ – until the early nineteenth century, although by the end Angels were no longer being struck in gold. Other gold coins, such as the Sovereign, had similarly long lives – the Sovereign, first struck in 1489, is still being struck today but went out of circulation between 1604 and 1816. However, the Angel’s existence (apart from the interruption of the Commonwealth) was continuous. What is unusual about the Angel is its transformation from a mere coin to a semi-magical amulet.

The Angel

The Angel first appeared in the reign of Edward IV because a previous gold coin, the Noble (first minted in 1344) had risen in value owing to rising gold prices. The so-called ‘Angel Noble’ was a smaller coin introduced to have the same value as the old Noble (6s 8d, a third of a pound) and was inspired by a French coin, the Ange d’Or or Angelot, which featured an image of an angel holding a sceptre in one hand and the royal arms of France in the other on its obverse. An Ange d’Or had already been issued in France under the authority of the English King Henry VI, who claimed the French throne, and on this issue the angel was holding the arms of England and France together. However, this issue never circulated in England, and the design that appeared on the new English Angel was altogether more dramatic and less stiff than its French counterpart. On the obverse it featured the Archangel Michael, standing, plunging a spear topped with a cross into a dragon representing the devil. The reverse bore a ship superimposed with the royal arms and surmounted by the cross and a letter and emblem representing the monarch.

Henry VII angel
An Angel of Henry VII (1485-1509)

The imagery of the Angel was potent, drawing on a long tradition of St Michael the Archangel’s spiritual protection of the royal person – hence the inscription of the king’s titles accompanied the image of St Michael rather than an image of the king. The ship on the reverse, by contrast, was the ship of state sustained by the holy cross, as the inscription made clear: Per Crucem Tuam Salva Nos Christe Rede[mptor] (‘By thy cross save us, Christ the Redeemer’). Oddly, the Angel escaped any kind of re-design at the time of the Edwardian Reformation (1547-1553) when other emblems of royalty were thrown into question, such as the collar of the Order of the Garter featuring St George. Neither the imagery nor the inscription changed under Edward, when the cult of saints was under sustained attack, perhaps because the Angel was so popular and perhaps because angels were considered less theologically objectionable than other saints – St Michael was, after all, mentioned in the Bible.

One feature of the Angel that made it an especially popular coin was the fact that it was quite small in size and low in value compared with other gold coins. In 1500, the average labourer earnt around 4d a day, so that an Angel (at 6s 8d) represented less than a month’s wages. It is not inconceivable, therefore, that an ordinary English person might have seen an Angel in circulation from time to time. By the reign of Edward VI, however, the rising price of gold led to the Angel’s re-valuation at 10s (half pound), marked by a small Roman numeral X that appears on later Angels.

The Angel as a touchpiece

The Angel’s popularity as a gold coin small enough to circulate (higher value coins functioned as government bullion) has been effaced historically by its use for another purpose entirely: as a touchpiece. Touching for the King’s Evil was an ancient practice of the French kings, and according to legend it was a gift given to the Frankish King Clovis and his descendants. It is likely that the practice was taken over by English monarchs as a consequence of their claim to the throne of France during the course of the Hundred Years War. However, according to one legend the practice arose after Edward I invited the alchemist Ramon Llull to make gold for him in the Tower, and finding the gold to be the purest ever made it was named ‘angel gold’. When the gold was coined it bore the image of an angel, and the alchemical gold was found to have healing powers.

The King’s Evil is usually identified as scrofula, but it was essentially any unpleasant skin disease. Originally, kings physically touched sufferers in the belief that the royal touch had the power to heal the illness, but this was soon replaced by the practice of the monarch handing a gold coin, pierced through to allow it to be worn as an amulet, to the sufferer. As a result of the piercing the coin was void as legal tender because it was ‘cracked beyond the ring’ (i.e. the ring enclosing the inscription). Historians have generally treated the touchpiece as a mere extension of the royal touch, but there are interesting questions that arise from the fact that one coin in particular (the Angel) was chosen as a suitable touchpiece. Why was it thought necessary that the touchpiece should be a gold coin? And why was the Angel chosen rather than some other coin? There is no evidence that any other coin was ever used – not even the ‘ten shilling piece’, which was exactly equivalent in value. The touchpiece was far more than a token of royal favour, still less a souvenir of a personal encounter with the monarch, and contemporary accounts make clear that the virtus of the royal touch was thought to remain in the coin throughout the sufferer’s lifetime. The coin could even be given to another person who had never met the monarch and was considered equally effective, and the coin was applied in a quasi-medical fashion to parts of the body as a cure for skin disease rather than simply being worn as an apotropaic amulet to ward off the recurrence of scrofula.

M. R. Toynbee, in an article on Charles I and the King’s Evil that appeared in Folklore in 1950, showed that coins touched by Charles I were treated with particular reverence after the King’s execution, because he was considered a martyr by Royalists. In 1697, Sir Edmund Warcup described how a gold Angel touched by Charles I had preserved his health as a child and a young man, not just because a king had touched it but because the king who touched it was the martyred Charles:

From my birth to the age of 13 years, I was afflicted with the King’s Evil . . . and so notorious a diseased person I was, that a learned physician of that age requested my father to leave me at his house, to the intent that himself, with other famous physicians might daily consult on my case, there I continued a sad object for years, and so macerated that my life was often despaired of. At length my father got me touched by that holy martyr who put an Angel of gold (coined for that purpose) about my neck, and within six months after from being carried in arms tho’ about 12 years old I got strength, and afterwards by degrees the sores healed, the swellings abated, and a perfect health succeeded: then my father and friends sent me to travel, and my parents either through the pretended sanctity of those times or the fear of losing that piece of gold, sent me into France without it, when I came to Orleans my sores and swellings renewed, upon which I applied to one Dr. Winstone then resident there to avoid the storms in England, who administered proper remedies, but they not answering his expectation, he asked me if I had ben healed by the King, I told him yes; where then is the gold he gave you said the Doctor, I replied in England. He in a fury answered my friends were puritanical, and rebels, and would have no more to do with me, but bid me send for the gold. I did so, and when I had it rubbed the sores and swellings therewith, which perfectly cured me, and the same gold does at times upon several occasions afford me much comfort.

An English Royalist exile in Russia after the Civil War, Mrs Hebden, took with her an Angel touched by King Charles and lent it to an English merchant she met there, who was cured of scrofula, showing that the royal touch worked at second hand and that its virtus was thought to be within the coin itself. According to another story, a father and son who both suffered from scrofula used to pass a gold Angel between them that had been touched by Charles I.

The legend concerning the Angel’s alchemical origin and the way in which Angel touchpieces were used in practice both suggest that it was some quality in the gold itself – or perhaps inherent in the image of St Michael – that mattered to the effectiveness of a touchpiece, as well as the fact that the coin had been touched by the monarch. The idea that gold was a sovereign remedy was a familiar one in iatrochemistry and Paracelsan/astrological medicine, and it is possible that one reason for belief in the effectiveness of touchpieces was the correspondence between gold as the metal of the Sun and royalty, which corresponded astrologically with the Sun. Coins touched by Charles I were doubly effective because they simultaneously served as touchpieces for the King’s Evil and holy relics of the martyred king.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that on his Restoration in 1660 Charles II renewed the practice of touching for the King’s Evil and minted new touchpieces, this time with the ship on the obverse (with the royal titles as an inscription) and the image of the Archangel on the reverse, with the inscription Soli Deo Gloria (‘To God alone the glory’). This remained the standard design for Angel touchpieces thereafter.

Reverse of a gold touchpiece of Queen Anne (1702-1714), the last to be struck in gold

Charles II may well have considered the inscription on Charles I’s touchpieces, Amor Populi Praesidium Regis (‘the love of the people is the protection of the king’) to be bitterly ironic, given the fate of his father, and opted instead for the Protestant-sounding Soli Deo Gloria, which harked back to the inscription on James I’s Angels – A Domino Factum Est Istud (‘this was done by the Lord’). James I’s inscription was a truncation of the inscription on Angels of Mary I and Elizabeth I, A Domino Factum Est Istud Et Est Mirab[ilis]. Even the Catholic James II, although he reintroduced the full Latin liturgy of touching for the King’s Evil from the reign of Henry VII, did not reintroduce the original medieval inscription. There was no royal touching in the reign of William and Mary, but when she came to the throne in 1702, Queen Anne revived the practice as a way of demonstrating her legitimacy as the daughter of James II, at a time when James’s son, James Edward Stuart, was regularly practising the royal touch in exile at St Germain and Rome. The infant Dr Samuel Johnson was famously touched by Queen Anne and wore the touchpiece he received on that occasion for the rest of his life.

Jacobite touchpieces

Although the minting of gold Angels in England ceased on the death of Queen Anne in 1714, and the Hanoverian monarchs discontinued the practice, the Jacobite pretenders in exile carried on commissioning touchpieces modelled after the originals (although now, reflecting the poverty of the Jacobite court, struck in silver). For Jacobites, the ability of the pretenders to cure the King’s Evil by touching was one of the proofs that they were the true kings of England, and ‘James III’ and ‘Charles III’ continued to mint touchpieces and give them to sufferers. Even the second son of James Edward Stuart, Henry Benedict Stuart, who succeeded as Jacobite pretender in 1788, had the pieces made.

Henry IX touchpiece
Silver touchpiece of Henry Benedict Stuart, Cardinal of York (‘Henry IX’), 1788-1807 © Solon Numismatics

On the last touchpiece minted for an English king, the abbreviated Latin inscription reads ‘Henry IX by the Grace of God King of Great Britain, France and Ireland, Cardinal Bishop of Tusculum [i.e. Frascati’. This indicates that the touchpiece was minted before 1803, when Henry became Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals and therefore Cardinal Bishop of Ostia and Velletri. The existence of touchpieces right down to the early years of the nineteenth century demonstrates that they remained in demand amongst Jacobites, although the Cardinal’s death in 1807 meant that the direct line of the Stuarts died out. This finally brought an end to the legend of the royal touch, although just as Dr Johnson treasured the touchpiece he had received from Queen Anne until his death, it is conceivable that infant recipients of touchpieces from ‘Henry IX’ treasured them into the late nineteenth century. The enduring cultural impact of the Angel has been even more long-lasting – consider the fact that in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, gold coins used by wizards are called ‘galleons’.

The use of the gold Angel as a touchpiece elided natural magic, Christian sanctity and political propaganda in a way that was very probably unique, in a state-sanctioned ceremony and using official currency. The religio-political significance of the royal touch is well known, but by focusing on the rite and practice of touching rather than the touchpieces themselves and the folklore associated with them, it is possible that the strong connotations of natural magic in the tradition of touchpieces has been allowed to fade into the background.

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