Queen Anne and the Battle of Vigo Bay


01 June 2018
Richard Kelleher looks at a large gold coin of Queen Anne (1702-14), now held at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, which recounts a naval victory over the Spanish in 1702

On 23 October 1702, during the early years of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714), an allied British and Dutch fleet fought a naval engagement against the Spanish and French at Vigo Bay in Galicia (NW Spain).

The fleet had earlier made a failed attempt to secure a maritime base at the Spanish port of Cádiz, which would have provided a foothold for conducting operations in the western Mediterranean.

As the fleet made its way home, Admiral George Rooke received news that a fleet of Spanish treasure galleons from America and the West Indies and their French had docked at Vigo Bay. Philips van Almonde convinced Rooke to attack the treasure ships, which were laden with silver and merchandise, despite the fact that the vessels were protected by French ships-of-the-line.

Rooke wrote in his diary: 

‘It is resolved to send in a detachment of fifteen English and ten Dutch ships of the line of battle with all the fireships, to use their best endeavours to take or destroy [Monsieur Château-Renault’s squadron]’

The engagement was a huge naval victory for the Allies. The French escort fleet, under the command of Château-Renault, together with the Spanish galleons and transports under Manuel de Velasco, had been captured or destroyed.

The victory was a welcome boost to Allied morale and helped persuade Peter II, King of Portugal, to abandon his earlier treaty with the French, and join the Grand Alliance. Though not apparent at the time the victory at Vigo made an indirect but powerful contribution to Britain’s 18th century prosperity.

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The event was quickly commemorated on a medal by John Croker (illustrated). This shows a view of Vigo harbour with vessels burning inside. Large ships (presumably Anglo-Dutch) are lying before the narrow mouth of the harbour near a fort. 

The booty from Vigo was brought to the mint in 1703 where Isaac Newton was Master from 1699 to 1727.

Despite the propaganda value of the British and Dutch victory the Spanish had managed to unload most of the silver before the allied attack. Thus, only a modest windfall of around 4,500 lb of silver and just 7lb 8 oz of gold ever entered the Mint for coining. Newton’s indenture of 1703 authorised the striking of four denominations in gold.

At the top was the five guinea piece, followed by two guineas, a guinea and a half guinea. Charles II introduced this set of gold denominations after 1662, when the process of striking coin became fully mechanised. The four denominations were originally valued at 100 shillings, 40 shillings, 20 shillings and 10 shillings however, over the following forty years their value had increased due to the poor state of the silver coinage.

A guinea was valued at 21 shillings in 1718.

The Mint’s output of gold coin fluctuated widely in the 18th century depending on the levels of imported bullion being delivered for coining, the availability of captured treasure, and government policy. The Vigo treasure was used to produce gold five guineas, guineas and half guineas, and silver crowns, halfcrowns, shillings and sixpences.  

The obverse shows a left facing profile bust of the queen, beneath which is the word ‘VIGO’. Around her reads the standard inscription ‘ANNA DEI GRATIA’ which continues on the reverse ‘MAG BR FRA ET HIB REG’. The reverse design follows that of Charles II with the crowned cruciform shields of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, but with sceptres that terminate at a central rose.

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