A close up image of a gold coin. The coin's obverse side is on display, and depicts a unicorn in profile facing from right to left.

A student post by Cameron Maclean, PhD Candidate at the University of Glasgow and Numismatic Volunteer at The Hunterian.

Throughout history, monarchs have produced coins for the purpose of showing their personal favour to a recipient, rather than just being made for general circulation. This post showcases some of The Hunterian’s Scottish coins that served this purpose.

The Unicorn

The unicorn is a Scottish gold coin that was first minted by James III (r.1460-1488). By the reign of his son, James IV (r.1488-1513), it functioned as a coin that was largely reserved for distribution by the king. The most commonly used gold coins in Scotland during James IV’s reign were French. However, when James IV wished to bestow a gift upon a foreigner, he’d use the unicorn.

This was the case in 1503, when the king gave 100 unicorns to the English ambassador. The unicorn was a more suitable coin for royal gift-giving as it bore James’s name, title, royal arms and heraldic supporter: the namesake unicorn. It was a symbol of James himself and the kingdom over which he reigned. The King of Scots issuing his own gold coinage was a mark of prestige and this was capitalised upon through their distribution to important foreigners.

Maundy Money: Groats

James IV did not limit the presentation of special coins to foreign dignitaries. He carried out the Royal Maundy, a ceremony in which the monarch distributed alms to the poor on the Thursday before Good Friday. You can read more about it in this blog post about Royal Maundy Money.

These alms usually took the form of the regular coinage of the realm and other items such as clothing. However, in 1512 there was a shortage of available coin, so James had one of his silver wine jugs melted down and struck into groats specifically for use in the Maundy ceremony.

This Maundy groat, one of only three remaining in existence, is likely to have been personally distributed by James IV himself during the Maundy ceremony of 1512, making it one of the few coins in the collection to be handled by the monarch that issued it. The following year, James IV was killed at the Battle of Flodden.

The Royal Maundy ceremony continues to this day. Elizabeth II (or her representative) annually distributes specially struck Maundy money to members of the public. Since 1952, Elizabeth II has carried out the ceremony in various abbeys and cathedrals throughout England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The usage of specially issued coins has been the norm since the late-18th century, but the 1512 Scottish groats are the earliest identifiable purposefully struck Maundy coins, predating the others by over two centuries.

The twenty-pound piece

Presentation coins were produced during the reign of James IV’s great-grandson, James VI (r.1567-1625). The earliest is the magnificent gold twenty-pound piece. Weighing 30.5 grams, it’s the heaviest circulating hammered gold coin ever struck in the British Isles.

The coin depicts an armoured James VI, then only 9 years old, wielding a sword in one hand and an olive branch in the other. The Latin inscription beneath James translates to ‘prepare for either’, clearly symbolising that the young king was ready for peace or war. 193 twenty-pound pieces were minted from 1575 to 1576.

Being of such an abnormally large size, the heaviest gold coin issued by Elizabeth I of England (r.1558-1603) weighed only 15.5 grams, and limited mintage, it’s likely that these coins were intended for special distribution as royal gifts.

The Earl of Morton, regent of Scotland from 1572 to 1578, gifted 25 twenty-pound pieces to a friend. The survival rate of these coins, which is about 10% of the total number struck, suggests that they were specifically retained due to their special status rather than being melted down in subsequent recoinages.

If you want to find out more about The Hunterian’s numismatics collection, why not explore our online catalogue?

And there are more brilliant blogs by Cameron and others stretching right across our collection for you to enjoy – covering coins, medals and much more!