The lost coin collection of the Stuart monarchs

By Christopher Whittell (@ChrisWhittell)  

This post is related to my research for a recent conference paper on the influence of ancient coins on the portrayal of early modern British monarchs.[1]  It also highlights the possibilities of catalogues of coins collections as useful sources for early modern historians including insights into a monarch’s thinking and influences. This includes the one compiled by Elias Ashmole of the original English royal coin collection between 1660 and 1662.[2]

My conference paper was inspired by my interest in the influence of ancient rulers on the portrayal of early modern monarchs and by the 2018 exhibition of Charles I art collection at the Royal Academy of Arts of London. The latter reminded me of an article by a Victorian numismatist on Charles I lost coin collection, allegedly consumed in the fire that destroyed Whitehall palace in 1698.[3]  This collection was begun in 1611 with purchases on behalf of Henry, Prince of Wales, the eldest son of king James.[4]

After Prince Henry death in 1612, the collection was inherited by his brother Charles I.[5] At least some of it survived the English civil wars (1642-1651) and the abolition of the monarchy in 1649 because the new Commonwealth government had exempted it from the sale of the rest of the royal art collection.[6] After trying to find more information relating to this collection, I was led to Ashmole’s catalogue at  the University of Oxford’s Weston Library, through an exhibition catalogue of gemstones in the present royal collection and a Victorian catalogue of Ashmole’s manuscripts.[7]

The catalogue is essentially two catalogues of two collections.  The first being the original collection of Roman coins done in 1660.[8] The other is of Charles II additions to the collection prior to 1663.[9]  This was accompanied by wax impressions made by Ashmole of some of the more prominent coins in the combined collection.[10] The first part of the collection was compiled at a time when many English scholars began to develop an interest in ancient Rome, including its occupation of Britain.[11]  This eventually led them to believe that Britain was the successor to Rome, something which influences the ideological origins of the British empire.[12]  For instance, the inclusion of an aureus celebrating Claudius’ conquest of Britain in AD 43, may have reflected this belief.[13] Indeed, James I had hoped that once Prince Henry had succeeded him, his rule would help Britain follow the success of the Roman empire, especially its first emperor Augustus,’s golden age.[14] This may also partly explain the purchase of the collection.

Charles II additions to the collection are also interesting.  A large part of this was Roman, but also included coins and medals from the ancient Greeks and Byzantines, Britain and Europe from all periods and even Islamic coins.[15]  These acquisitions may have been inspired by Louis XIV, of France, Charles II cousin, who was also a collector.  As Robert Wellington has shown, Louis XIV collection was not compiled merely to satisfy his interest in coins, but as a resource for the antiquarian study of history and provide a complete history of previous kings, to justify his legitimacy as a ruler.[16]  King Charles II may have intended the same, especially in the context of the recent restoration of the monarchy in 1660.  The British part of the collection starts with a stater of the Celtic king Cunobelin (figure 1), called the “King of the Britons” by the Roman historian Suetonious. [17] gold stater of cunobelineThus when taking into account the Roman coins and the rest of coins of the British rulers in the collection up until 1662, the Cunobelin stater may have been intended as a start of a chronology of the historic rule of British kings in order to legitimise Charles II’s rule. What is also interesting is the inclusion of gold medal of Pope Alexander VIII from 1655.[18]  It is widely believed that Charles II had Catholic sympathies before his conversion on his death bed in 1685, and this may be an indication of this.


                                                                                    Figure 1: Gold stater of Cunobeline, king of                               the Trinovantes and Catuvellauni (AD 10-40)


[1] The Royal Collection of Roman coins and the reinvention in the portrayal of the British monarchy on its coinage, during the Restoration and long eighteenth century. Presented at the Monarchy and Modernity since 1500-1945 conference, University of Cambridge on the 8th January 2019.

[2] The Weston Library, University of Oxford, MS Ashmole 1140, The Kings Coynes and Medalls Described (c. 1660-1662).

[3] H. W. Henfrey, ‘King Charles the First’s collection of coins’ Numismatic Chronicle, 2nd Series, 14 (1874), pp. 100-104.

[4] D. W. Dykes, ‘A forgotten Jacobethan coin collector’, British Numismatic Journal 86 (2016), pp. 225-229.

[5] Ibid, pp. 225-229.

[6]   Dykes, D. W., ‘The Royal Collection of coins and medals during the Interregnum’, British Numismatic Journal 88 (2018), pp. 89-102.

[7] Kirsten Aschengreen Piacenti and John Boardman, Ancient and Modern Gems and Jewels in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen (London 2008), pp. 11-15 and pp. 266-271 and A Descriptive, Analytical and Critical Catalogue of the Manuscripts Bequeathed unto the University of Oxford by Elias Ashmole, ESQ., M.D., F. R.S., Windsor Herald also of some additional MSS. Contributed by Kingsley, Lhuyd, Borlase and Others (Oxford 1845), pp. 981-2 and pp. 984-985.

[8] The Weston Library, MS Ashmole 1140, The Kings Coynes and Medalls Described, fol. 1-300

[9] Ibid., fol. 301-339

[10] The Weston Library, University of Oxford, MS Ashmole 1138, The impressions of several pieces of gold belonging to his majesties cabinet King Charles the 2nd (c. 1662).

[11], Hingley, Richard, The Recovery of Roman Britain 1586-1906 (Oxford, 2008), pp. 1-15, pp. 22-26, p. 43, pp. 52-59, pp. 66-67, p. 116, p. 148, p. 193, Hingley, Richard, ‘Early Studies in Roman Britain: 1610 to 1906’. in The Oxford handbook of Roman Britain (Oxford 2016), pp. 3-21,

[12] David Armitage, The Ideological Origins of the British Empire (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 28-36, and pp. 125-145

[13] Weston Library, MS Ashmole 1140, fol. 18 v.

[14] Howard Erskine-Hill, The Augustan Idea in English Literature (London, 1983), pp. 104-108.

[15] Weston Library, MS Ashmole 1138 fol. 1-118 and MS Ashmole 1140 301-339.

[16] Robert Wellington, ‘Louis XIV’s medal cabinet at Versailles’, The Medal, no 67 (2015) pp. 12-25.

[17] Weston, Library, MS Ashmole 1140 fol. 337 r.

[18] Weston Library, MS Ashmole 1138, fol. 23 and MS Ashmole 1140, fol. 309.

Cover Image: Painting of Henry, Prince of Wales (1594-1612), available via a Wikimedia Commons licence.

Figure 1 Image:  Gold stater of Cunobeline, king of the Trinovantes and Catuvellauni (AD 10-40), made available under a Creative Commons licence

1 thought on “The lost coin collection of the Stuart monarchs

  1. Ooh, interesting. The fact that certain ancient coins are the perfect embodiment of the ruling class during the time of their production is certainly something that has never crossed my mind before. I came across a news clip about ancient Greek coins last night and I instantly thought of my cousin who’s a huge enthusiast of such items. Oh well, maybe approaching a reputable seller is what he should do after this if he wants to get a hold of some precious coins.

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