Shakespearean Angels

Sophie has already posted on this blog about the wonderful gold Angel coin found in the Derbyshire Dales in 2018, (record DENO-C5A99E ) but I think it is worth returning to the subject, as the Angel has more tales to tell.

Gold angel of Henry VII from near Ashbourne (DENO-C5A99E). Copyright: Derby Museums Trust. Licence: CC BY

The Angel was an iconic  coin, by Tudor times it sufficiently embedded in the public consciousness for  Shakespeare to reference it several times in his plays, for example:

They have in England a coin which bears the figure of an Angel‘ Merchant of Venice, 2:7

 and again

See Thou shake the bags

Of hoarding Abbots,

Imprisoned Angels set at liberty.‘ King John 3:2

For me it is significant that the Bard could be confident that most of his audience (including, presumably, the infamous groundlings and stinkards!) would be familiar enough with the Angel to get such references, even if they were not wealthy enough to have an Angel in their purse.

A commonly asked question regarding such coins is ‘how much were they worth?’, and it is a difficult question to answer. The value of the Angel varied from the time of its introduction, but our Derbyshire Angel would have been worth about ten shillings. That is to say, this gold coin was worth ten contemporary silver shillings, which is not the same thing as saying it would have been worth fifty pence (the value of ten old shillings at the time of decimalisation.) It is not easy to give an accurate idea of the purchasing power of such an amount, because the prices of many commodities, and in particular of labour, were disproportionately different to today. However, we can say that the Angel would have represented about two and a half week’s wages for a skilled workman such as a carpenter.

Engraving depicting Charles the Second seated centre, with two men kneeling before him. Charles has both hands placed on the head of one of the kneeling men as he performs the Royal Touch ceremony to cure the man of scrofula.
Charles II performing the Royal Touch; engraving by Robert White, 1664 (public domain).

Another interesting fact about the Angel is that it is associated with the ceremony of touching for the King’s Evil. This was a ritual based on the belief that the anointed monarch had the God-given ability to cure scrofula (A form of non-pulmonary tuberculosis). This is connected to the concept of the divine right of Kings, and the public ceremony in which the King demonstrated this preternatural healing was first introduced by Edward the Confessor and revived by James I. Shakespeare also references this in Macbeth 4:3;

 ”The mere despair of  Surgery he cures

Hanging a Golden stamp around their necks.”

The Golden stamp was an Angel, pierced and hung on a chain or thread, touched and blessed by the monarch and then placed around the neck of his scrofulous subject. Note that this ceremony avoids the monarch actually having to directly touch the Scrofula sufferer (who at least got a valuable gold coin even if they weren’t cured!).