British Museum coins: Cardinal Wolsey’s Hat

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16 May 2018
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This coin from the British Museum Coins and Medals department reveals the story of the downfall of Henry VIII's most powerful minister – Cardinal Thomas Wolsey

One of the accusations levelled against Wolsey in 1529 read: 

‘Also the said lord cardinal, of his further pompous and presumptuous mind, hath enterprised to join and imprint the cardinal’s hat under your arms in your coin of groats, made at your city of York, which like deed hath not yet been seen to have been done by any subject within your realm before this time.’ 

Thomas Wolsey was born in Ipswich, Suffolk, and tradition has it he was a butcher’s son. He was educated at Magdalen College, Oxford and in 1507 entered royal service under Henry VII.

Wolsey’s meteoric rise to power coincided with Henry VIIIs accession and the king’s lack of interest in the matters of government.

Wolsey was appointed bishop of Lincoln (1514-15), Bath and Wells (1518-23), Durham (1523-29), and Winchester (1529-30); appointed as Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of York in 1514, created Cardinal in 1515 and Papal Legate in 1518. Despite his excellent record in managing the affairs of state he failed in the attempt to annul the king’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, a failure that sealed his fate.

In 16th-century England the landscape of minting had changed immeasurably since the Middle Ages.

During the previous 500 years the number of mints had steadily been reduced, from more than 70 in the reign of William the Conqueror (1066-87) to one major royal mint at the Tower of London, supported by the city of Bristol and a clutch of ecclesiastical mints at Canterbury, Durham and York. The privilege of striking coin had been held by bishops since at least the 10th century.

The earliest documentary evidence we have for the existence ecclesiastical mints is in Æthelstan’s Grately Code (c.925-30) which states there should be two moneyers in Canterbury for the archbishop and one for the abbot of St Augustine’s. We have coins of the 8th century issued in the names of the archbishops of Canterbury and York.   

As Lord Chancellor Wolsey was instrumental in reorganising the coinage in 1526 making moves to bring the currency in line with continental operations. What has since become known as the ‘Wolsey coinage’ was instituted in November 1526 and the approach was radical.

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A new coin - the crown of the double rose was introduced, next the use of foreign gold coins was limited to their bullion value only, the value of the sovereign and angel were increased and the popular unit value of 6s. 8d. (a third of a pound and half a mark) which had existed in the guise of the angel since its introduction under Edward IV was filled by a new coin – the George noble – so named for its reverse design which depicted a mounted St George spearing a dragon, the first such appearance on the coinage of England’s patron saint.

Coins struck for Wolsey are known from Durham between 1523 and 1529 which he held in commendam while still archbishop of York.

Durham pennies with the spur rowel initial mark have the initials DW to either side of the shield in Henry VIIIs first coinage period (1509-26) and TW in the Second Coinage (1526-44) with the addition of the cardinal’s hat below.

In the first coinage period at York halfgroats were struck with the cardinal’s hat and keys below the shield. During the second period halfgroats were minted as were the troublesome fourpenny groats. The obverse of the second coinage groats was the first occasion in which we see a realistic portrait of Henry VIII.

In the first coinage he’d continued to use the profile image of his farther. The inscription reads HENRIC VIII D G R AGL Z FRANC (Henry VIII by the Grace of God King of England and France).

On the reverse of the coin we can see the now traditional Tudor arms with the inscription CIVI TAS EBO RACI telling us it was struck at the city of York. The initial TW are placed to either side of the shield and beneath is an image of a cardinal’s hat.

Wolsey’s failure to get rid of Catherine ended him, he was stripped of most of his titles and died at Leicester in 1529 before he was able to face trial.