One of the joys of collecting is to admire the designs that are used on the coins. Mints and governments naturally choose the best that can be found as it is in their best interests to please the public and receive positive feedback. That this does not always happen, however, is well shown by an incident that occurred about 350 years ago in England. It was 1663 and King Charles II had just regained the throne after being in exile for more than a decade.
The background to this extraordinary numismatic event began in 1618 with the birth of Thomas Simon, who from an early age, showed a marked ability in art. He became interested in engraving and was apprenticed in 1635 to Edward Greene, one of the engravers at the London Mint. Simon was an apt pupil and soon surpassed the master in his skill at engraving coinage dies. When the apprenticeship was completed in 1642, Simon joined the staff of the London Mint engraving department.
It was at about this time that civil war broke out in England between the forces of King Charles I and Parliament. Simon was forced to choose between the two opposing sides and decided to remain in London and work for Parliament. By 1650 his skill had become so well known among the educated classes that he came to the attention of Oliver Cromwell, commanding general of the Parliamentary forces.
The King lost both the war and his head, being executed by order of Parliament after a mock trial in early 1649. Simon was now a rising star at the London Mint and took on an increasing number of commissions, both for coinage and medal dies. All agreed that his skill was second to none.
In 1658 Simon engraved the dies for the superb portrait coinage of Oliver Cromwell, who had by now declared himself the “Lord Protector of England,” king in all but name. However, Cromwell unexpectedly died in August 1658 before any of the new coins could be issued for public use and the entire coinage had to be scrapped.
Oliver Cromwell was succeeded as Lord Protector by his son Richard, who managed to hang onto power for a few months, but with less and less support from the army, the main support for the government. Parliament even had to protect him from his creditors as Richard’s personal finances were as shaky as his hold on power. Within a few months he was forced to flee to France and then to Switzerland. He later returned to England, where he was allowed to live out his days in peace.
With the fall of Richard Cromwell, the royalist party in England now became the dominant force and Charles II was invited to return from exile. With Charles’ arrival in May 1660, however, Simon was in a difficult position. He had engraved coinage dies for the Commonwealth government, as well as state seals and medals honoring important battlefield victories.
A survivor, Simon managed to make the right kind of apologies for his services to Cromwell and was kept on at the Mint. It was no doubt his skill in die-cutting that was the deciding factor. The king, however, was more interested in tracking down and executing the regicides who had been involved in the death of his father, Charles I, in 1649.
Charles II wished to replace the hated Commonwealth coinage and Simon, along with the other Mint engravers, was urged to complete the dies as quickly as possible. The situation was complicated by the fact that Charles II had confirmed Thomas Rawlins as chief engraver because Rawlins had been loyal to Charles I in the worst of times. However, the latter now considered his position a sinecure and did little except draw his salary.
The first coinage of Charles II was of the old hammered type and not made with the screw press then taking hold at major European mints. Cromwell had planned to issue the 1658 portrait coinage by screw press but the plan had been cut short by his death; now the king was planning to use the same method.
Peter Blondeau had been the technical expert in the abortive 1658 screw press coinage under Oliver Cromwell. He, had, however, fled to his native France in 1659 after the downfall of Richard Cromwell. In 1661 Simon was sent to Paris to persuade Blondeau to return to London in order to superintend the new machine-made coinage.
While Simon was gone, there was still the problem of dies for the hammered coinage. The king notified mint officials that they were to invite the Roettier brothers (John, Joseph and Philip) to London; they were not only skilled Dutch engravers, but had befriended the exiled Charles in the days when the future king had no money or influence.
With the approach of machine-made coinage, Charles II asked the Roettier brothers and Simon to prepare pattern dies for a silver crown (five shillings), a coin somewhat larger than an American silver dollar. The king would then choose the best design for his coinage. The Roettiers duly executed their end of the bargain but for uncertain reasons Simon did nothing. The contest went by default to the Dutchmen.
In early 1663, Simon abruptly decided that he had to challenge the artistic ability of his Dutch competitors or otherwise forfeit any chance of becoming chief engraver when Rawlins died. The result was the magnificent pattern piece illustrated with this article.
Not only was the engraving superb on both obverse and reverse, but Simon also prepared a special lettered edge with an extraordinary message to the king: “Thomas Simon Most Humbly Prays Your Majesty To Compare His Tryall Piece With The Dutch And If [Theirs Is] More Truly Drawn And Embossd More Gracefully Ordered And More Accurately Engraven To Releive Him.” For obvious reason this is now called the “Petition” crown. Less than two dozen pieces are presently known in both museum and private collections.
The dies were also used with another edge (“Reddite Qvae Caesaris Caesari & Ct Post”); this is now known as the Reddite crown. There is a third variety with yet another edge: “Render Unto Caesar That Which Is Caesar’s,” which is a rough English translation of the Reddite inscription. Only a small number of specimens are known of the Reddite and Render pattern crowns and all are highly prized by their owners.
After examining the Petition crown submitted by Simon the king unexpectedly decided against it. But not completely. The king clearly preferred the Simon reverse, with its much cleaner shields, and this was adopted later on in 1763.
One detail from the Petition crown reverse was not kept, however. Simon had engraved, in very tiny letters at the center, the royal motto HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE, which translates as “Evil to him who evil thinks.” This lettering surrounded the figures of St. George and the dragon but so small as perhaps not well suited for mass coinage.
The other inscriptions on the obverse and reverse read CAROLVS II DEI GRA MAG BRI FR ET HIB REX, which means “Charles II, by the Grace of God, King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland.”
Why was this magnificent obverse rejected by the king? There are apparently several reasons. First the Roettiers had cooperated in the 1662 contest while Simon had not. The Dutchmen had also aided Charles II at a very difficult time in his life.
However, according to Dr. C.E. Challis (A New History of the Royal Mint, 1992) part of the reason perhaps lies elsewhere. It appears that the Roettier brothers had perfected a method of hardening dies that made them last longer than anything accomplished by Simon or Blondeau. Considering the importance of this technique, the king may have decided on the Roettier portrait as partial compensation.
The planned heavy coinage under Charles II was not entirely to replace the Commonwealth monies. There was still a considerable quantity of older hammered coins in daily use, some dating even from the time of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), and the king wanted all of the coins used in the marketplaces to carry the proper portrait.
If Simon and the Roettiers had cooperated and shared their respective skills, the collecting world would have been favored with a series of superb silver and gold coins for the reign of Charles II. As it is, the Roettier obverse is actually a design of very good quality, but not in the same league as that of Thomas Simon.
Although the Petition crown was partially rejected, Simon continued to prepare seal and medal dies for the king, all of exceptional style and quality. Simon died unexpectedly in August 1665, at the age of 47. One wonders what fine works would have come from his talented hands had he lived another 15 or 20 years.
This article was originally printed in World Coin News. >> Subscribe today.
More Collecting Resources
• The Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1601-1700 is your guide to images, prices and information on coins from so long ago.
• Any coin collector can tell you that a close look is necessary for accurate grading. Check out this USB microscope today!