Siege Coins

Part Two - The Coins

Welcome to the world of siege money. The purpose of this work is to provide you with a definition of siege money by engaging in a discussion of what siege money looks like, what it is made from, and how it was made.

Sieges are exclamation points in time. They punctuate history with dreadful accounts of the cruelty and inhumanity....always in the name justice, often in the name of God.

The money that was created from these sieges exist as "little monuments." The accounts of the struggles between besieger and defender reflect the basest as well as the most sublime human character. This was evident in the siege of Vienna in 1523 which clearly showed the Turks' skill in crude psychological warfare....captive Austrians impaled on poles in clear view of defending forces.

...War does that to people...

The topic of siege money has fascinated me ever since I held a tiny irregular piece of metal stamped by Frederick Pythion during the siege of Julich in 1621 (the 2 sols on the screen). XXXX

When I a saw a companion piece (the 14 sol that you see here now) I was hooked. XXXX

With great curiosity, I acquired the two Julich siege pieces and proceeded to learn more about this collecting specialty.

Finding information was not simple. There are few books on the topic and nearly all of those are in languages other than English. So, I plodded through some of the rare tomes using my rusty knowledge of Latin and French, assigning the German texts to translators.

I would like to share some of what I learned with you now.

Imagine a siege in progress. It is quite elaborate. The siege of Groningen in 1672 displayed a sophisticated plan of battle on the part of both sides The event was struck in metal after the siege. XXXX

The development of sovereign states on the European continent gave rise to most of the wars that resulted in putting a city to siege. These battles were the ultimate opportunity to employ the latest in military tactics and weaponry. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the bow and arrow gave way to artillery and refined explosives. Tactics ranged from starvation to the complicated deployment of land and sea forces.

Let me build a definition for you.

Siege money is necessity money, but not all necessity money is siege money.

The proper term for siege money helps to understand the difference. The Latin word for siege, seen as "obsessa" on many pieces of siege money is "obsidere" which means to besiege. Hence the name "obsidional" or siege money.

There may be times of necessity that require production of emergency money, but only siege produce obsidional money.

Siege (or obsidional) money was essentially created as a means of payment during a siege when normal sources of revenue ran out.

Since all communications and contact with the outside world were cut off during a siege, entire towns and cities were forced to rechannel their financial resources to pay the armies hired to defend them. A look at this early siege gives you a clear idea of the limitations imposed during a siege.

Payment to the defending soldiers had to be made with whatever gold or silver coin that could be collected.

Likewise, when a besieging army exhausted its monetary supply, alternative methods of payment became necessary.

These soldiers were professionals and, as such, they wanted paid. In fact, they were more like today’s mercenaries...soldiers of fortune....hired guns....

There are even accounts where defenders remained employed by becoming besiegers, especially during the longer struggles!

So, when the coin of the realm dissipated, other sources of revenue were tapped. In less than an hour, the new money could be conceived, struck and circulated. The 1672 Deventer 7-1/2 stuivers displays the product of such a process.

What good was substitute money?

Well the common practice was to take the emergency money and redeem it subsequent to the siege so that its full value would be received in legal tender. (In the event that the issuing authority did not survive the siege, the coins that were made of gold and silver were melted to retrieve their bullion value.)

There are several exceptions to the practice of redeeming the emergency issue. Some of the coins were pierced or mounted so that they could worn as charms or amulets. The 1/6 Thaler from the 1529 siege of Vienna demonstrates piercing as does the 1646 Newark shilling. XXXX XXXX

Others were engraved as at Deventer (1572), Tournai (1709), and Leyden (1574). XXXX XXXX XXXX

Still others were struck after the siege as presentation pieces...Groninger (1672) produced four denominations: 6-1/4, 12-1/2, 25, and 50 stuivers. XXXX XXXX XXXX XXXX

Siege money comes in varied shapes and sizes. Here are a few examples.

This should give you an idea of the general appearance of most obsldional coins.

What was siege money made of?

As I explained earlier, when the coin of the realm dissipated, other sources of revenue were tapped.

Some circulating coins were counterstamped as was the 1629 Magdeburg groschen where much of the host coin's design has been obliterated. The two Deventer coppers display a smaller yet clearly distinguishable eagle counterstamp. XXXX XXXX

Others were cast like the 1799 Mantua 1 sol. XXXX

When existing coinage was not counterstamped, coins were made from whatever gold and silver that was available.

The two pieces that you see here were produced during the 80 Years' War for Dutch independence from Spain:

The next two siege pieces date from the British Civil War:

The Napoleonic Wars gave us still more examples of obsidional money. Here are two fascinating coins: a remarkable cast silver Cattaro 10 Francs, 1813, and a huge, 4 ounce, 10 Francs 40 Centimes from Zara, 1813.

Sacred vessels of the church were seized and made into money as done in Vienna (1529) and Constantinople (1453).

The knife puncture in the gold ducat from Vienna adds to the charm of the piece. It may represent the near miss of the king's bust by a foe or an attempt to ascertain the verity of the gold.

The tiny 1/8 Stavrata of Constantine XI represents a day's wages for a defending soldier or a grave digger during the siege of Ccnstantinople in 1453!

Naturally, during longer struggles the supply of sacred vessels, too, would run out. After a time, the plates and silver service of public officials and wealthy citizens were confiscated.

These were cut into pieces and used to pay the garrison so that they would defend the town or a least hold out until help could arrive.

This intriguing 2 livres 2 sols from Landau in 1703 clearly shows the edge of some noble family's silver plate.

Remember, the soldiers were mercenaries and were more often concerned with their purses than with the cause.

As precious metals dwindled, baser metals that had little or no intrinsic value were used:

Sheets of these metals were stripped from monuments, churches, and public buildings. They were cut into small pieces upon which was stamped an impression. Sometimes it looked like a coin, but often it did not.

Many siege pieces had only the identifying initials or coat-of-arms of the issuer and a familiar denomination.

Note that the reverse of such hastily struck pieces show similar characteristics from the crude minting process.

When the base metal supply ran out, leather was used to make money as in Middelburg in 1573. Unfortunately, people were usually starving at this stage of the siege and often ate the leather. XXXX

Perhaps the most interesting siege money was produced in Leyden in 1574. Here they cut out the covers and pages of church missals and hymnals, pasted them together and struck the paper planchets with the same dies that they used on their coins. XXXX

Take a look at a paper 5 stuiver and its counterpart....a comparison of the paper and silver 20 stuiver is provided as another example. XXXX

Most interesting, however, is a split 5 stuivers revealing the ecclesiastic text in red and black ink.

To the purist, Leyden was technically the first use of paper for money in Europe. However, actual currency was not used as siege money until 1793 when the sieges of Lyons, Mayence, and Vendee took place.

Here is a 3 livres from Mayence (1793) where the siege lasted so long that the Prussian besiegers took to poisoning the carcasses of dead horses and floating them down the river that ran through the city of Mayence (Mainz). The French defenders were then forced to station troops on the river banks to prevent the starving townspeople from eating the tainted meat. This prevented the soldiers from defending the city at the Perimeter. XXXX

Look also at line drawings of notes from Lyons and Vendee issued in the same year.

The next few examples of siege currency reflect a diversity of style and need.

The Khartoum 20 and 100 piastres produced in 1884-85 have a peculiar story to tell. General "Chinese" Gordon, surrounded by the Mahdi in the Sudan during a holy war, personally backed this strange currency with his own money. He even signed a significant number of the notes himself. Since his Sudanese and Egyptian cohorts could not read, the monetary denominations were represented by different shapes on the face of the note.

The notes display the stamp of the bank in Cairo that redeemed a portion of General Gordon’s issue. Sometimes the brittle cardboard notes were pasted onto pieces of cloth so that they might circulate longer. The siege lasted a full year before the Mahdi overwhelmed the city and Gordon lost his life.

Mafeking, South Africa was the site of another siege in 1902. The embossed 2 shilling note was printed on notebook paper while a 10 shilling note owed its existence to whatever corporate stationery that was available. The siege was commanded by Colonel Baden-Powell who drew his inspiration for the Boy Scouts from the border scouts that served him so well in the Boer war. The 10 shilling note contains a spelling error where the "d" in the title "Commanding Officer" was omitted in the haste to produce payment for the troops.

Tokens were also used during sieges.

An interesting token was issued by the hospital of St. Catherine in Leyden in 1573 a full year before the city was forced to mint coins from the church texts.

There are many more things that time does not permit me to address.

When you look at the medal depicting the siege of Leyden, keep in mind that siege, or obsidional money, is money that was struck, cast, or otherwise produced under necessity conditions.

It was predominately coinage whose primary purpose was to pay troops to defend a town or city under siege or to finance payments to the soldiers of a besieging army.

In either case, such money possessed intrinsic value or symbolic value.

The money that had intrinsic value held the value of the precious metal used in its fabrication. The money with symbolic value was composed of baser metals or other substances having a redemptive value subsequent to the siege.

If one was on the winning side, the money had both intrinsic and symbolic worth. One could actually spend the money that was made of gold, silver, and copper while the money with a stated value in excess of its actual worth was redeemed for the real thing.

If one lost the siege, the victors would melt the coins with intrinsic value as bullion...the coins with symbolic value were worthless except as souvenirs.

Siege money is by no means plentiful and its issue cannot compare to the prolific quantities produced in peacetime.

Its scarcity offers a challenge to collectors...

But more than that, its existence bears witness to the creativity of the human intellect and the intensity of the human spirit.


(A Selected Bibliography)


Brause, Feld-, Noth, und Belgerungsmunzen, 1897-1903

Delmonte, Le B’en’elux D’Or, 1967

Delmonte, Le B’en’elux D’Or, 1964

Duby, Recueil Ge’ne’ral Des Pie’ces Osidionales et de Ne’cessite’’ 1863-73

Mailliet, Catalogue Descriptif des Monnaies Obsidionles et de Ne’cessite’, 1868-73

Nelson, Obsidional Money of the Great Rebellion, 1907

Van Loon, Histoire Metlliue des XVII Provinces des Pys Bas, 1732-1737

Weiler, Groningen-Munster-Koln, 1972


Hessler, "Colonel Baden-Powell and the Siege Notes of Mafeking’" The Numismist, May 1982

Korchank, "Introduction to Siege Coins, "Numismatics Internatinl Bulletin, October, 1988

Korchnak, "Dutch Siege Pieces of the 16th and 17th Centuries," The Numismtist, December, 1990.

Wormser, "German Siege Pieces from the 16th to 18th Centur’" The Numismatist, January, 1915.

Smith, "On the Ormonde Money," Proceedings and Transactions of the Kilkenny and South-Eastern Archaeological Society, 1854.