We take a closer look at a coin issued by Henry I, Duke of Brabant (1190-1235). The obverse depicts the head and shoulders of the Duke of Brabant bearing arms, with his helmet, double-edged sword and lion shield. The lion, a symbol of power displayed on the weapons of the dukes of Brabant from the reign of Henry I, also appears on the reverse. An unusual feature of this silver coin weighing 0.81 grams is the fleur-de-lys adorning the duke’s helmet. We know that the fleur-de-lys is associated with French royalty, so how can we explain this peculiarity? Let us just look back at the context in which this coin was struck.
The valley of the Meuse and the region between it and the Rhine had always held a real fascination for the dukes of Brabant. They were constantly trying to push eastwards, aiming to extend their dominion and authority over this vast area. As they advanced, the dukes of Brabant came up against the prince-bishopric of Liège. Henry I was no exception. Thus, for much of his reign Henry tried to get his hands on the Liège bishopric: at first by peaceful means, using a go-between, but without success since his brother, Albert de Louvain (1192), whom he had managed to get elected bishop of Liège, was assassinated shortly after his election; after that, Henry became personally involved and more aggressive, going so far as to wage war on his Liège neighbour, Bishop Hugues de Pierrepont (1200-1229).
The hostilities between Henry I of Brabant and Hugues de Pierrepont began with a number of local conflicts which, on each occasion, led to an outcome favourable to Liège. Also, in 1212 the Duke of Brabant, whose animosity towards the prince-bishopric was then at its height, sought and obtained from the Emperor Otton IV (1198-1218) the pretext that he needed to take action against his neighbour and seek revenge: in March 1212 Otton IV, who also bore a serious grudge against Hugues de Pierrepont for having recently terminated their alliance, entrusted Henry I with the task of bringing the disloyal city of Liège back into line and inflicting punishment if it did not consent to swear allegiance to the Emperor. The Duke of Brabant needed no further bidding, and in May he swooped on Liège and sacked the town before withdrawing.
In July of that same year, aiming to take his revenge on Henry I, Hugues de Pierrepont assembled a massive coalition against his enemy, including the King of France, Philippe-Auguste (1180-1223). By a skilful manoeuvre, the Duke of Brabant managed to buy peace. However, far from abandoning his claims – quite the reverse – Henry I, convinced that he had more to gain from joining forces with the friends of his Liège neighbour rather than approaching the latter’s enemies, abandoned the Emperor Otton IV to form an alliance with Philippe-Auguste, King of France. The French alliance – which of course was nothing new, as in 1208 Philippe-Auguste had made an unsuccessful attempt to get Henry I installed on the throne of the Empire ─ nevertheless did not prevent the bishop of Liège from wreaking spectacular revenge on his enemy at Steppes, on 13 October 1213. After this disaster, Henry I – who was decidedly fickle – went back to Otton IV, at whose side he fought against Philippe-Auguste the next year, on 27 July 1214 at Bouvines. But that day, acting as a kind of double agent, the Duke of Brabant apparently passed certain strategic information to the French king, so that – for Philippe-Auguste – the duke’s presence among his adversaries was at least as useful as if the duke had fought steadfastly at his side. Afterwards, Henry I remained fairly closely attached to Philippe-Auguste.
Following this brief review of the political context in which this coin was minted, we can readily understand the reasons why Henry I of Brabant had himself depicted in a helmet bearing a fleur-de-lys. His aim was to draw attention to his vital and self-interested alliance with the King of France.
- A. De Witte, Histoire monétaire des comtes de Louvain, ducs de Brabant et marquis du Saint-Empire romain, Antwerp, 1894, p.32-33, 39 (18).
- C.Gaier, Grandes batailles de l’Histoire liégeoise au Moyen-Âge, Liège, 1980.
- J.L. Kupper, L’évêché de Liège dans le contexte politique et militaire de la bataille de Bouvines in Bulletin de la société nationale des antiquaires de France, Paris, 1993, p.199-207.
- G.Smets, Henri I, duc de Brabant. (1190-1235), Brussels, 1908.