The Carolus guilder: an imperial coin  Share

Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, was born in Ghent in 1500. His almost legendary reputation is due to the statement that in his empire the sun never set. Charles V ruled over the Burgundian Netherlands, he was King of Spain (and Spain’s overseas colonies) and he was also the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. During his reign the economy flourished. Herman van der Wee even talks of the emergence of a global economy led by Europe in the 16th century. It is therefore no coincidence that Charles V laid some of the foundations for the modern coinage.

Under Charles V, the currency in the Southern Netherlands was reasonably stable. In contrast to the reign of his father Philip the Handsome, when eight successive series of coins were issued, only two series were issued during his reign. The first was issued between 1506, the year of his father’s death, and 1521. However, the first series of coins did not bear the name of Charles or his image.
The second series was launched in 1521 when Charles V decreed that new types of coins and new denominations should be issued. The best known coin in this series is the gold Carolus guilder, worth 20 stuivers or 60 Brabant groats. For comparison, between 1521 and 1530 the average daily wage for a master bricklayer in Brussels was 16 Brabant groats. Five years later, Charles V decided that all amounts must in future be expressed in Carolus guilders instead of in pounds. From then on, the Carolus guilder became a unit of account. Charles V’s pursuit of uniformity and centralisation was therefore also expressed in this series of coins. For the first time, the coins all bore the same inscription in all provinces of the Southern Netherlands. The back of the coins was inscribed with his motto: DA MIHI VIRTVTEM CONTRA HOSTES TVOS (Give me strength against thine enemies).

Face of the gold Carolus guilder © Museum of the National Bank

Face of the gold Carolus guilder
© Museum of the National Bank

By enemies he meant the unbelievers against whom he waged war throughout his life, namely the Protestants and the Turks. Charles V was the first to use Roman letters instead of Gothic script in the Netherlands, in line with the ideas of the Renaissance. From then on, the coins also depicted his image. The gold Carolus guilder portrays the young, beardless emperor with long hair, wearing armour and holding a drawn sword and the orb. Although the image on these coins is recognisable as Charles V, it is not a realistic portrait.

Face of the silver Carolus guilder © Museum of the National Bank

Face of the silver Carolus guilder
© Museum of the National Bank

In 1543 Charles V introduced the silver Carolus guilder. It weighed almost 23 grams. This was the first silver coin of that size in the Netherlands. Contrary to what is generally assumed, this coin was not made of New World silver, which did not reach Europe’s mints until 1570, but came from the recently discovered silver mines in Central and Eastern Europe. In addition, the old silver mines were also producing larger quantities, thanks to innovations in mining techniques.

The silver Carolus guilder had the same value as its gold namesake, namely 20 stuivers. The coin is best known for the realistic portrait of Charles V in the form of a bust, showing the bearded emperor wearing armour. This is typical of the Renaissance, with its focus on the individual. For the first time, people wanted to give the subject of the portrait his own identity. Moreover, Renaissance portrait painters drew their inspiration from classical antiquity. We can tell by the “Hapsburg chin” and by comparison with painted portraits that this is a lifelike image of the emperor.

Detail from the portrait of Charles V by Titian, 1548 © Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Detail from the portrait of Charles V by Titian, 1548
© Alte Pinakothek, Munich

In 1552 a second, smaller but heavier version of the silver Carolus guilder was minted. That coin bears a similar portrait but the emperor’s armour is covered.
Finally, the coins minted by Charles V can be called modern because he also reformed the small coins that ordinary people used for payments. He was the first to introduce small coins made entirely of copper, and even these low value coins also bore his portrait.

Almost 500 years after Charles V introduced his silver Carolus guilder, he was depicted on some ECU coins. The ECU, standing for European Currency Unit, was the forerunner of the euro. It comprised a basket of currencies, and was adopted in 1979. Although the ECU was used for some international transactions, it was only an electronic currency unit. Nevertheless, a number of countries issued commemorative ECU coins. In 1999 the ECU was replaced by the euro.
Charles V’s image was officially chosen for the commemorative ECU because he was an important historical European figure who ruled over almost the entire European continent except for France. Michel Baelde even called Charles V the ‘father of Europe’ on account of the size of his empire, and his centralism and the role of the state. It is therefore hardly surprising that the ‘father of Europe’, who was born in Ghent, appeared on the Belgian commemorative coins. Three ECUs were produced, depicting the silver Carolus guilder. These ECUs were issued from March 1987, the 30th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. At the time, Belgium also held the Presidency of the European Council. The silver 5 ECU coin and the gold 50 ECU were issued in 1987 and 1988, while the gold 10 ECU coin was issued in 1989 and 1990. These ECUs were legal tender in Belgium.

Face and reverse of the 5 ECU coin © Museum of the National Bank

Face and reverse of the 5 ECU coin
© Museum of the National Bank

Nina Van Meerbeeck
Museum guide


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