“Find a penny, pick it up, all day long, you’ll have good luck. Pass that penny to a friend; your penny luck will never end,” goes a well-known children’s rhyme. Armed with a metal detector, Michael Leigh-Mallory may want to argue that a found penny might offer a lot more than what a friend could do for you should you have given the penny to that friend.
In late September 2021 Leigh-Mallory found one of only eight known gold penny coins of Henry III using his metal detector. On Jan. 23 the coin was sold through an online auction conducted by Spink and Son auctioneer Gregory Edmund. Edmund reported the coin realized £540,000, which is about $728,700 U.S.
Leigh-Mallory is fortunate in more than one way. Under the Treasure Act of 1996 the finder can keep and sell an artifact such as this coin if it is determined the coin or artifact is not part of a larger trove. Many times the government takes possession of such finds, offering the finder a portion of the value realized once the object is sold to a British museum. Leigh-Mallory made the discovery in a farm field in Hemyock, Devon, which is about 150 miles southwest of London.
Leigh-Mallory said, “90 percent of my finds are trash, from ring pulls to miscellaneous pieces of iron and other rubbish.”
According to Leigh-Mallory, “The coin was four inches (10cm) deep in a ploughed field and I put the trowel in and found this glinting piece of gold. I knew it was gold and medieval, but I had no idea it was from Henry III (ruled 1247-1272).”
The obverse depicts a full-length figure of Henry crowned, robed, and enthroned. He holds a scepter in his right hand and orb in his left. The obverse legend reads HENRIC REX: I.I.I: The reverse features the long cross style introduced by Henry on his silver penny coinage of 1247. The pellets in each angle are smaller than as they appear on the silver pennies. There is a large rose between the pellet groups on the gold penny. The reverse legend reads WILLEM: ON LVNDEN,” a reference to the moneyer William of Gloucester who operated the mint at London.
According to Spink’s Coins of England and the United Kingdom, “In 1257, following the introduction of new gold coinages by the Italian cities of Brindisi (1232), Florence (1252), and Genoa (1253), Henry III issued a gold coinage in England. This was a gold ‘penny’ valued at 20 silver pence and twice the weight of the silver penny. The coinage was not a success, being undervalued, and it ceased to be minted after a few years; few coins have survived.” The coin is cataloged as No. 1376.
Henry’s gold penny is the first English hammered gold coin struck following the Norman conquest of England. In 1254 Henry’s accrued debts from foreign adventures cost the sovereign a hoard of 2,000 marks in gold. The king required additional money for debts three years later, opting to follow the example of the Italian city-states by converting gold to pennies.
Records indicate the moneyer William delivered 37,280 gold pennies valued at 466 marks on August 27, 1257. A further 15,200 worth 190 marks were completed by October 1258. London merchants did not embrace the issue, finding that each coin to represent a large sum of money, while speculating that if gold became generally available throughout the kingdom its price might become depressed. The gold coins were perceived as undervalued with respect to silver and for that reason were of greater intrinsic rather than face value if melted.
Merchants petitioned Henry against having to accept the coins. The king responded by issuing a proclamation on November 24 stating no one was obligated to accept the gold pennies. The proclamation said any of the coins could be returned to the royal exchange where the bearer would receive the current rate in silver coins less a halfpenny as a transaction fee.
The 2.5 percent fee was a disincentive. The coins were recalled, with Henry paying 24 pence each for late arrivals received between 1265 and 1270. Some of the returned coins were used by Henry as church votive offerings. Two of the eight surviving examples were later found in Italy where they may have been gifted to the pope.
In his 2009 book English Coins 1180-1551 Lord Stewartby says, “Seven coins are recorded, from four pairs of dies.” Three of these coins are unique. London is expressed as LVND or LVNDE. A die link between the Leigh-Mallory specimen and any of the other known specimens was not known at the time this article was being written.