Written by: Sophia Halverson
In December 2020, a family wedding in a backyard garden in New Forest, England made a surprising discovery: 63 gold coins and one silver coin, probably buried around 1540. The collection includes coins from the time of King Edward IV through to his grandson Henry VIII and contains the initials of three of Henry’s wives: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour.
Barrie Cook, a curator of medieval and early modern coins at the British Museum, says that whoever buried the coins found in New Forest must have been well off because their worth is equivalent to 14,000 pounds today (nearly 18,500 American dollars). He was most curious about Henry VIII’s decision to put his wives’ initials on the coins, as there was no historical precedent for it. As his wives changed often, the coinage had to change often as well. Henry VIII reorganized the coinage during his reign along with his top advisor Cardinal Wolsey by changing the coins’ weight and introducing new denominations that replaced the older “angel” coins, which were gold coins with a picture of Michael the Archangel killing a dragon. Angel coins were prevalent in the reign of Edward IV, and they made up the majority of the New Forest hoard.
John Naylor, a coin expert from the Ashmolean Museum, believes that the coins were probably hidden by a wealthy merchant or clergy member. During Henry VIII’s reign, England went through the Reformation, and the government closed many monasteries to divert their wealth to the state. Naylor commented, “We do know that some churches did try to hide their wealth, hoping they would be able to keep it in the long term. It is an important hoard […] You don’t get these big gold hoards very often from this period.” Henry VIII hoped to use the wealth from the monasteries to fund military campaigns in France, Scotland, and Ireland—a practice continued by his son Edward VI.
Henry VIII is perhaps most notable for his six wives. Originally marrying a Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon, he began seeking to divorce her after nearly two decades of marriage because she hadn’t given birth to the all-important male heir. Henry eventually set the English Reformation in motion by breaking with the Pope so he could marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. When Anne was unable to have a son either and Henry had grown tired of her, she was executed on trumped-up charges of adultery and incest. Eleven days later he married his third wife, Jane Seymour, who gave birth to his long-awaited son, Edward, and died as a result of complications in childbirth. Notably, Jane hadn’t been given a coronation the way Henry’s first two wives had been, signaling that her tenure as Queen would depend on her ability to produce sons.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Henry stopped putting his wives’ initials on coins after Jane’s death. He would go on to be married three more times: to Anne of Cleves (he had their marriage annulled), to Katherine Howard (beheaded for adultery), and to Catherine Parr (she outlived Henry but died in childbirth after marrying again soon after his death). He did not, however, have children with any of them. This suggests that, like a coronation, he didn’t believe his wives were worthy of having their visage on a coin unless they produced more sons—or perhaps Henry decided it was simply too expensive to keep redoing the coinage every time he got a new wife, especially as the duration of his marriages got shorter and shorter.
The discovery in New Forest was registered to the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme, a database of small historical objects, like coins or statuary, found by members of the public. Many objects are found by metal detector enthusiasts or people doing outdoor work in their gardens. Under the Treasure Act of 1996, all prehistoric material, gold and silver objects, and groups of coins over 300 years old must be reported to authorities (this act applies to England, Wales, and Northern Ireland). Under the Act, Treasure can also include “objects that are less than 300 years old, that are made substantially of gold or silver, that have been deliberately hidden with the intention of recovery, and whose owners or heirs are unknown.” To date, about 1.5 million artifacts have been registered under the Scheme. All finds are registered to a public online database after they have been examined by experts at the museum.
More than 47,000 finds were registered to the Portable Antiquities Scheme in 2020; this number was likely high because more people spent time working outside during the pandemic. 6,251 artifacts were found from March to May of 2020 alone, most of them “garden finds,” because the use of metal detectors was banned during full lockdown. The pandemic has also changed the way finds are cataloged; potential treasure finders now send pictures of their finds to their local Finds Liaison Officer instead of meeting in person.
Another significant coin hoard was also found last year containing 50 South African apartheid-era gold coins. It is unclear why the coins were buried or whether they were buried all at once. Other notable finds discovered by the Portable Antiquities Scheme include the Frome Hoard, which contained 52,000 Roman coins, and the Staffordshire Hoard, which contains Anglo-Saxon gold. There are also artifacts dating back to the Bronze Age. These finds have been integral to enhancing our understanding of prehistoric and early modern life.
The accessibility of the Portable Antiquities Scheme allows anyone to make an important find—even in their family garden. It democratizes the search for archaeological evidence of early modern Britain instead of keeping it solely in the purview of archaeologists and museum curators. The British Museum then uses these finds to enhance its own research. The Portable Antiquities Scheme helps connect the British people with their rich history and encourages enthusiasts to be real-life treasure hunters.