Siege coins of the Eighty Years War from Leiden and Breda

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08 September 2018
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Richard Kelleher examines some intriguing siege money held at The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

From 1500 to 1850 scarcely a year passed without conflict raging somewhere in Europe.

During this period the continent was overwhelmed by wars of religion and empire and these catastrophic events impacted on the form and aesthetics of money, leaving us with some of the most enigmatic coins of the early modern period. Above all it is the siege coinages that provide a fascinating insight into these events.

Sieges and blockades of fortified towns were a common part of warfare throughout this period.

The Ottoman Empire’s conquest of south-eastern Europe was only halted in 1683 at the siege of Vienna. In the Low Countries the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) saw revolt of the Protestant Dutch against Spanish Catholic rule. During the Thirty Years War (1618-38), fought between the Habsburg states and their allies, and virtually every other state in Europe, siege coins were minted. These were often a lozenge shape and embodied the basic ideas of what money could be in a pared down form.

The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars led to the issue of paper assignat notes and siege money at Mainz and Antwerp and at Strasbourg coins were even made from captured enemy cannon as both a practical and symbolic gesture.

During the Peninsular War (1807-14) the Balearic Islands, Gerona, and Tarragona struck coins in support of the deposed king Ferdinand VII against Joseph-Napoleon, brother of the French Emperor.

Here we examine two contrasting examples of what siege money could look like.

These two pieces, minted by the Dutch at the Siege of Leiden (1573-4) and Siege of Breda (1624-5), come from the Eighty Years War or Dutch War of Independence (1568-1648) and are part of the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

The siege of Leiden occurred as the Spanish under Francisco de Valdez attempted to capture the city. Leiden was one of a number of fortified cities in the southern Netherlands which rebelled against the harsh rule of the Duke of Alba who governed on behalf of Philip II of Spain. Leiden was besieged between 1573 and 1574 with a short period of respite as the Spanish lifted the siege to defeat a relieving army.

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During the siege the mayor Pieter Adriaanszoon van der Werff requisitioned all metal, including coins, for the manufacture of weapons and ammunition. In return citizens were given a series of paper token coins produced using compressed pages from hymnals, prayer books and bibles (illustrated), that would be reimbursed with coin after the siege was lifted.

The token coins, valued at one quarter of a gulden, were produced using official coins dies with only the material being struck giving away their emergency nature.

The obverse inscription ‘PVGNO PRO PATRIA 1574’ (‘I fight for the fatherland’) captures the sentiments of the defenders.

On the reverse is the inscription ‘LVGDVNVM BATAVORVM’ which was a Roman site to the west of Leiden that had mistakenly been identified as Leiden itself.

The siege was lifted in early October by the Prince of Orange and his forces, who had broken the dikes and flooded the area around Leiden to enable a flotilla of boats to advance. The Spanish fled as the waters rose. 

Fifty years after Leiden another Dutch city – Breda – was in a similar predicament.

In 1624 Ambrogio Spinola laid siege to Breda which was an important strategic site and heavily defended by the Dutch.

The siege coinage of Breda, which was denominated in a variety of values from 2 to 60 stuivers, adopted the lozenge shape which became a popular form for obsidional money in western Europe (illustrated).

The pieces were stamped on one side with the arms of Breda and the inscription ‘BREDA OBSESSA 1625’ for ‘the siege of Breda’. The denomination is indicated at the top of the coin. After a costly eleven-month siege, Justin of Nassau surrendered Breda on 2 June 1625. Around half of the 21,000 Dutch and English soldiers of the garrison and relief forces were either killed, wounded or captured.

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