A large Portuguese gold coin that is a rare artefact of the Age of Discovery has been found in Wiltshire by a civil servant metal detecting during his summer holiday.
The 10 cruzado piece, which weighs more than twice as much as the biggest English gold coins of its day, was unearthed early one morning in July by 62-year-old Mick Edwards, of Peterlee, County Durham. Experts say coins of its type may have been carried by navigators such as Vasco da Gama and Pedro Álvares Cabral as diplomatic gifts and it is the first to be found in Britain.
Edwards, who has been detecting for ten years, said: “I was staying on the farm near Etchilhampton in Wiltshire with my wife after celebrating 35 years of marriage the day before. So far I had only found some broken crotal bells [bells used on livestock/vehicles from the medieval period], so I walked to the top of the field for a final effort before breakfast. Taking just three more steps I received a clear signal which sounded like a large copper coin.”
After digging five inches, then another five, and finding nothing, he used his pin-pointer probe to locate the signal and revealed the edge of a coin at the bottom of the hole. To his great surprise it was a large gold coin, 36mm in diameter and weighing over 35g. Edwards said: “I was dumbstruck and just sat looking at the coin unable even to breathe. I could see the cross on the coin and thought it was probably Spanish but later found out it was Portuguese from the king’s name Manuel.”
The 10 cruzado coin, or Português, was struck at Lisbon during the reign of Manuel I (1495-1521) from gold probably obtained in West Africa. It is the first of its kind found in Britain and will go up for sale at Noonans auctioneers of Mayfair on September 29 at an estimate of £20,000-£30,000.
“I was dumbstruck and just sat looking at the coin unable even to breathe”Mick Edwards
Nigel Mills, consultant (artefacts and antiquities) at Noonans, said it was likely the coin came to England through the military or trade, perhaps with a soldier of fortune. It was found on land that belonged to the Ernle family from 1489 to 1928. He added: “It features the crowned royal arms of Portugal on the obverse with the cross of the Order of Christ on the reverse with the Latin legend translated as ‘In this sign shall we conquer’. In England at this time the largest gold coin was a sovereign, which weighed 15.3g. This coin is more than double that in weight and would have had a value greater than two pounds.”
The coin’s inscription lists a number of Manuel’s grandiose titles, associated with his influential role in the Age of Discovery and the creation of the Portuguese empire. He was styled as “King of Portugal and the Algarves, and the Sea from both sides of Africa, Lord of Guinea and the Conquest, Navigation and Commerce in Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia and India.”
West Africa, from where Noonans’ specialists said the gold likely originated, was one of the earliest regions to come under Portuguese influence. The catalogue listing states: “Voyages there had started as early as 1460 and in 1469 Alfonso V granted Fernaõ Gomes a monopoly on trade in the Gulf of Guinea. He was also required to explore 100 leagues of African coastline per year on behalf of the kingdom. In 1471, he reached the coastal settlement of Elmina in present-day Ghana and found a thriving alluvial gold trade — a potential source of great profit for Portugal. In 1482, John II ordered a fortified trading post to be built, Elmina Castle, to manage the local gold trade.”
Some numismatic experts believe that Manuel’s 10 cruzado coins were minted as presentation pieces and carried on famous Portuguese voyages such as those of da Gama around the Cape of Good Hope to India in the late 1490s and Cabral to Brazil in 1500. Expedition leaders may have used the coins as gifts for local rulers and dignitaries.
The catalogue listing states: “These coins, embodying as they do the spirit of the New Age are, to modern eyes, an odd mix of opposites. The flamboyant greed of commercial exploitation, the cruelty of an emerging slave trade, the arrogance and intolerance of religious fervour, alongside the ingenuity and bravery of men instilled with the belief that a true and beneficent God would reward them and their homeland for courageous acts committed in His name.”
Edwards registered the find with the Portable Antiquities Scheme, run by the British Museum, which has designated it as a discovery of regional importance. He will share the proceeds from the sale with the landowner. He said his wife was compiling a list of ways in which she would like to spend the money.
The top image is of Cabral’s discovery of Brazil in 1500, depicted by Aurélio de Figueiredo. Photo: Alamy.