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The first gold coin

It is generally accepted that gold coins were first produced more than 2000 years ago - during the 6th Century BC in Lydia; an iron-age kingdom of western Asia Minor that is now part of Western Turkey. Gold in other forms had been previously used in trade as a method of exchange, but this was the first time the metal was formed into something recognisable as coins.

Old Lydian electrum coin

Lydian electrum coin, 6th Century BC

These first gold coins were not pure gold, but electrum; a natural alloy of gold and silver found in Lydia’s rivers. The metal was stamped with animal heads, such as lions, bulls, and rams.

Lydian coins weighed anything from as little as 0.006 troy ounces up to half an ounce. In terms of value, even the smallest would have been worth far more than a day’s labour. This makes it unlikely that they were regularly used for average financial transactions; instead they were probably reserved for more significant business deals or large-scale trade.

Ancient Chinese gold currency is thought to have developed independently of Lydia, but during a similar time period. In China, gold was used to replace an original currency based on imitations of cowrie shells, which may date back to 700 BC.

Who introduced gold coins for the first time?

After conquering the Lydian region in around 330 BC, Alexander the Great adopted and introduced their system of gold coinage to the wider world. Coins showing his head were used to pay his troops, and subsequent monarchs and rulers continued the practise.

The dawn of the Roman Empire saw the acceptance of coins, including gold coins, across its entire territory. The coins were further refined to 22 carat – that is 22 parts gold in 24 – and were used in trade, as well as making military payments.

So great was the influence of the Roman Empire that its coins formed the model for later currencies in Muslim caliphates and European medieval states for many centuries to come.

First British gold coins

Excluding coins introduced by Rome, the Penny was the first – albeit unsuccessful – attempt to establish a gold coin in England. As the nation’s trade volumes increased, the Penny was introduced by Henry III in 1257, with the intention of providing a new high-value coin. It was never generally accepted and, following a petition, the King withdrew them in exchange for silver coins.

The coin was undervalued for its weight, and those that were not returned to the King were probably melted down for their gold content alone. Only FOUR of these gold pennies are known to still exist today, and one such coin was tipped to sell at £500,000 as part of the Penn Collection; a private lot of numismatic coins put up for auction at the New York International Numismatic Convention in January 2018. To date, the coin has not been sold.

The Henry III gold penny, as certified by the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation. Image courtesy of the NGC.

87 years later, the Florin was the second attempt – again unsuccessfully – to introduce a gold coin to England. They were produced in 1344, during the reign of King Edward III.

The Florin’s design was based on a popular coin minted in Florence, Italy - hence the name. The reverse has a Royal Cross within a flower, with four petals and four leopards. The obverse shows the enthroned king between two leopard heads. It is therefore also referred to as the Double Leopard.

The Florin’s high gold content was once again greater than its face value, making them impractical as common currency. As a result, only a few months after their introduction, they were also withdrawn and melted down. Despite this, three specimens are known to have survived, but due to this rarity one was sold for a massive £460,000 in 2006.

Following the failure of the Florin, another attempt to circulate a gold coin in 1344 was made, and the gold Noble became the first gold coin to be successfully introduced in England. In various forms, it remained in circulation for over the next one hundred and twenty years.

Gold Nobles - the first British gold coin.

Edward III Gold Nobles

During its circulation the weight of gold was gradually reduced from 8.3 grams to 7.8 grams, and the design refined. The reverse of the Edward III gold Noble shows the King in a ship, with sword and shield. The obverse features a Royal cross. Half, and quarter, nobles were also produced in the reign of Richard II.

Acknowledging the significance of the 1344 coin, in 1983, Pobjoy Mint named the first platinum bullion coin a Noble. Following the success of this platinum noble, the mint also introduced a modern .9999 fine gold version. Both platinum and gold Nobles are legal tender in the Isle of Man.

A Pobjoy mint gold noble

Modern Pobjoy Mint Gold Noble

BullionByPost stock a wide variety of old, collectible coins, and occasionally have rare numismatic Gold Nobles, plus Half and Quarter Nobles.