Remarkable coins: Philip the Fair's Masse d'or
The "Remarkable Coins" Series
This article is the first in a series aimed at shining a spotlight on coins which are remarkable both in terms of their history and their quality so as to provide you here with a more in-depth historical perspective of each of them. Beyond the piece itself, you will also discover the history which surrounds it.
To start, we are going to take a look at a splendid gold coin: Philip the Fair’s Masse d’Or.
Episode 1 - Philip the Fair's masse d'or (France)
Our story begins in the heart of the Middle Ages, a distant time home to the last Crusades, knights, and the Knights Templar. In the late 13th century, in the year 1268 to be precise, a future king is born in the medieval fortress of Fontainebleau. Son of Philip III the Bold and grandson of Louis IX (Saint Louis), this Capetian king will embellish his reign with the seals of modernity and inflexibility as well as that of high-profile events.
I - The historical context
France, the year is 1285.
King Philip III is dead. Long live King Philip IV!
Handsome, famously pugnacious, volontaristic, and inflexible, Philip IV is crowned at Reims on January 6, 1286. He will subsequently become known in turn by the names Philip the Fair and the Iron King.
Centuries later, he will also become the first of the Accursed Kings in the series of historical novels penned by French author Maurice Druon.
Picture : "Philippe IV, dit le Bel, roi De France" by Jean Louis Bézard (1837)
His reign is characterized by a fierce desire for modernization of the kingdom and, above all, the centralization of power. Notably, his decrees herald the beginning of the end for the feudal system in France. He will also bring about both political and administrative advances in the kingdom...not to mention monetary ones.
However, it is clear that historians are more or less in agreement on the king’s supposed inflexible character. The few contemporary accounts available to us actually tend to describe him as a gentle and calm person, whilst the reforms he initiated are rather indicative of a firm and righteous ruler.
“One of the witnesses heard in Bernard Saisset’s trial (...) stated that the bishop had said to him of Philip the Fair: “Our king resembles an owl, the fairest of birds, but worthless. He is the most handsome man in the world, but he only knows how to look at people unblinkingly, without speaking.”
History of France from its Origins to the Revolution. 3, Saint Louis, Philip the Fair, and the last direct Capetians (1226-1328) / by Charles-Victor Langlois
Shortly before his coronation, he marries Joan I of Navarre, thereby enlarging his future kingdom with the regions of Champagne and Brie as well as the Kingdom of Navarre.
As a result, he will also be the first king of France to hold the title of King of Navarre. To assist him with the ruling of his kingdom, he surrounds himself with “legalists”, who will help him with his reformation of the administrative system.
Picture: Jean Le Noir "Miniature from Hours of Jeanne de Navarre". 1336-40 Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
“The legalists are the creators of a modern France centralized by and for administrative purposes, egalitarian in its united submission to the royal supremacy. However, whereas legal experts merely influenced the English kings of the 12th century and advised Saint Louis efficiently and discreetly (...) under Philip the Fair, they blossom into wielders of true power. The period is completely consumed by a battle on all fronts between the barons, defending a feudal and privileged society, and the legalists, emerging from the “middle class”, who aim to promote a society with no privilege other than the State.”
"The Legalists and Philip the Fair’s Government” by Jean Favier
Journal des Savants 1969, Volume 2, No. 1 pp. 92-108
The guiding principles of Philip the Fair’s reign are the establishment of an uncontested monarchy, expansion of the royal dominion, a relatively weighty but still goal-oriented fiscal system, and a tactful monetary policy aimed at stabilizing the kingdom’s finances.
Centralized and reforming administrative system
Philip the Fair is the architect behind a complete overhaul of royal administrative system and creates three divisions:
- The Parlement (Parliament): Certain members of the nobility and the clergy are entrusted here with dispensing justice in the name of the King. They are assisted by legal experts, some of whom will later become famous legalists and advisers to the King.
- The Conseil du Roi (King’s Council): The members of the royal family and the grand nobility meet to discuss the country’s political issues.
- The Chambre des Comptes (Courts of Accounts): Specialized in the administration of public finances and notably open to the bourgeoisie.
Picture above: "Philippe IV le Bel d'après le Recueil des rois de France de Jean Du Tillet. Peinture réalisée d'après l'image gravée sur le grand sceau du roi. Un médaillon, au milieu de la partie inférieure de la bordure, présente l'image du contre-sceau royal"
A tactful economic policy
With the aim of nourishing the Trésor Royal (Royal Treasury) and financing the expansion of the royal dominion, the establishment of extended administrative system, and the war in Flanders, Philip IV implements a fiscal policy which is important, not to mention – if you will excuse my saying so – imposing.
With the balance of expenditure and revenue becoming dangerously precarious and loans no longer proving sufficient, he is continually forced to search for other sources of income and ultimately decides to expel the Jewish and Lombard bankers from the kingdom, confiscating their assets and incorporating this wealth into the Trésor Royal.
He also introduces new taxes such as the tax on sales, known commonly as the “maltôte” (literally: wrongly levied) because it was so hated. The term will remain in common usage.
He also begins to demand his share of the Church’s income, which results in a bitter conflict with Pope Boniface VIII, and, despite the threat of excommunication, is ultimately victorious. This victory is important for two reasons: On the one hand, it adds much needed funds to the Trésor’s coffers, and on the other, it affirms the royal supremacy over the power of the papacy.
Picture : "Jacques de Molay, grand maître des Templiers, allant à la mort" by Fleury François Richard (1806)
Following the same “kill two birds with one stone” political vein, Philip the Fair orders the arrest of powerful members of the Order of the Knights Templar – who were entirely dependent on the Pope – for heresy in 1307. Accusing them of obscene practices, he is directly responsible for the demise of the Templars.
It is thus, in 1314, during the execution of the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Jacques de Molay, that the famous curse will be uttered, which would inspire Maurice Druon to write his saga of the Accursed Kings over six hundred years later:
“ […] Here I see my judgment, when death freely suits me; God knows who is in the wrong and has sinned. Soon misfortune will come to those who have wrongly condemned us: God will avenge our death. […] ”
As one might suspect, the Templar’s assets are confiscated and flow directly – you’ve guessed it – into the Trésor Royal.
All good (depending on your perspective, of course) things come in threes: Philip the Fair is the first to prohibit nobles from collecting redemption charges and “franc-fief” taxes without royal authorization and assume the droits d’aubaine (right over an alien’s property), d’épaves (right to property of unknown ownership), and de bâtardise (right to confiscate the estates of extramarital offspring who died without legitimate descendants). This represents a crushing blow for feudal authority, to the benefit – of course – of royal authority.
He also forbids feudal currency, with the exception of some 30 feudatories which still subsist in 1328.
An unstable... and royal monetary policy
Regard the one and only master of his kingdom.
However, economic crisis during his reign is severe, notably due to a very unstable monetary policy and a shortage of precious metals such as silver. The currency exchange rate is affected by repeated devaluations and reevaluations.
Right at the beginning of his reign, the denier tournois lost their value due to wear and the value of silver. The newer coins are minted with a lower silver content so as to compensate for the shortage of raw materials.
There was speculation in Europe on the value of silver, and the buying price proposed by France was insufficient to cover the issuing requirements for the gros tournois (silver coins created by Saint Louis). The ultimate result is a lack of cash to the benefit of so-called “black” money made of billon. However, even this soon falls into short supply, and it becomes more and more difficult to cover daily expenses.
Between 1295 and 1305 there are a series of devaluations, followed between 1306 and 1311 by a series of partial reevaluations.
In 1302, in an attempt to resolve the problem of the shortage of cash, the King requests that even the grand nobility melt down its silverware.
In 1306, Philip the Fair announces a change from a soft to a hard currency.
“That same year, the King of France, Philip IV, wanted, just as he had formerly promised Pope Benedict XI, to reestablish in good condition the currency in use across the whole kingdom; and he did issue the decree around the Feast of St. John the Baptist, throughout all the towns and castles of the land, and it was duly recorded, that with effect from the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in September, all contracts shall be converted to real currency at the value of the money in use at the time of his ancestor Saint Louis and that all the income and rents for houses must be paid in real currency. This was the reason that a revolt broke out and was soon followed by many others.”
Extract from the chronicle of Jean de Saint-Victor (Classes BNF)
That same year, rents in Paris triple, Parisians revolt, and the king is forced to flee to the fortress of the Temple, which serves as the deposit bank for the Trésor Royal at that time.
The Council meets and ultimately decides that the rents should be settled at the “actual rate”. However, the king does not miss the chance to hang “some” of the rioters (twenty-eight in fact) at the gates of Paris in a show of force.
The types of coin multiply, creating a chronic sense of instability. For example, the silver “maille demie” (1296), the “maille tierce”, and even the “gros affaibli”. Each has a different pure silver content. The same frenzy is observed for the billon coins: among others these include the “toulousain” (1291 and 1308), the “double parisis” and the “double tournois” (1291 to 1308). All told, 12 billon coins, 3 silver coins, and 6 gold coins will be issued during his 29-year reign.
That’s almost one per year on average.
Some explanation for these multiples issues can be found in the fact that, when coins are minted, a percentage (equivalent to a kind of tax) is retained by the Trésor Royal. Minting new coins is therefore a not insignificant source of income.
The instability will persist until 1329, when the price of silver begins to decline again, allowing his nephew Philip VI of Valois to stabilize the system before the Hundred Years’ War lays waste to his efforts.
Nevertheless, over the course of his reign, Philip IV will accomplish a true innovation: the bringing into circulation in a permanent fashion of gold money alongside silver money, thus heralding the return of bimetallism to the kingdom’s monetary system. This responds to a demand for money capable of use for international trade in full expansion and for which billon coins are insufficient.
Nevertheless, it must be noted that unless it is a hard currency, this poses problems in cases where the nominal value of the coin is higher than the actual value of the metal. Given the unstable prices at that time, this triggered a number of problems, especially for silver.
II - Philip the Fair's masse d'or
Over the course of his reign, Philip the Fair created 5 (or 6 depending on historians) gold coins.
- The Petit Royal d’or from 1290 to 1291
- The Masse d’or from 1296 to 1303
- The Chaise d’or in 1303
- The Mantelet d’or in 1305
- The Agnel d’or in 1311
- The Florin d’or known as “à la Reine”*
* The experts are divided on attribution of this coin. Duplessy attributes it to Philip the Fair, whilst Ciani attributes it to his father, Philip III the Bold.
Description of the masse d'or
The Masse d’or was issued for the first time on January 10, 1296. It is also known as the Florin, Grand Florin, Gros royal and Denier à la masse. It was the largest coin minted at that time. It is rare and extremely sought after among collectors.
It is 31 mm in diameter and weighs 7.09 grams.
The obverse of the coin shows the king wearing a robe pinned at the right shoulder and sat on the Throne of Dagobert. He holds a scepter in his right hand and a fleur-de-lis in his left.
The field (interior circumference of the coin) is decorated with an (multifoliated) arch of fleur-de-lis. The inscription “Rex Phillipus” is visible around the upper edge. The multifoliated arch allows differentiation between this coin and the iconography employed on the Petit royal d’or.
“This style of representation is absolutely characteristic of the mindset motivating the king and his entourage at the end of the 13th century. At the time, he is grappling with exceptional expenses and throws himself headfirst into a monetary policy which leads him to multiply the issues. At the same time, he is endeavoring to distance himself from mere mortals, introduces a new hieratism, and seems obsessed with monarchic authority. In this situation, it is very easy to explain such a majestic representation of the king on his coins. The image of the sovereign is associated with the most precious metal and the most valuable in circulation.”
“European Review of Social Sciences: Currency, A Historical Figure” – Book XLV – Yves Coativy
The reverse shows a fleur-de-lis cross with a quatrefoil at the center and an external quatrefoil with trefoiled corners.
There is a certain similarity with the “Sceau de Majesté” from the same period (end of 1285 to 1314) due to the seated figure of the king. It is likely that the same artists worked for the coin workshops and the chancelleries.
Despite the various distinctive signs appearing on the legends of the coins minted under Philip the Fair, we do not currently have any key data allowing us to know whether this was due to their originating from different workshops.
The coin shown here is extremely rare, notably due to its quality and exceptional state of preservation.
- “History of France from its Origins to the Revolution. 3, Saint Louis, Philip the Fair, and the last direct Capetians (1226-1328) / by Charles-Victor Langlois”
- “The Legalists and Philip the Fair’s Government” by Jean Favier – Journal des Savants 1969, Volume 2, No. 1 pp. 92-108
- “European Review of Social Sciences: Currency, A Historical Figure” – Book XLV – Yves Coativ
- L’histoire de France - www.histoire-france.net/moyen/philippe-le-bel
- Imago Mundi - www.cosmovisions.com/feodalite-fin.htm
- Sacra Moneta - www.sacra-moneta.com/Numismatique-medievale/La-politique-monetaire-trouble-de-Philippe-le-Bel.html
- Classes BNF - http://classes.bnf.fr/franc/nav/droite/dte_crise.htm