So…what was a late 15th-century English coin doing in the ruins of an early 17th-century English settlement in Newfoundland?

An example of a half-groat silver coin, minted at Canterbury during the reign of Henry VII from 1493 to 1499. By The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54926198

There’s been a bit of archaeological buzz over the recently announced discovery of probably the oldest English coin ever found in the Americas. Archaeologists at Cupids Cove Plantation Provincial Historic Site have revealed they recently recovered a silver coin, a half-groat minted between 1493 and 1499 during the reign of Henry VII. The coin was found about four feet outside a “flanker” or bastion of John Guy’s settlement at Cupids on the west side of Conception Bay, in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Guy’s settlement was founded in 1610. It was thought to have been abandoned after a few years, but fresh archaeological evidence indicates the site was occupied until at least the late seventeenth century. At any rate, that’s not exactly the time frame you might expect for a coin more than a century older than that. But it isn’t the first old coin found at the site. In 2001, archaeologists found an Elizabethan coin, dated to 1560-61 at the site. That said, the latest find is really old, and the dates immediately bring to mind the first documented English voyages to North America.

UPDATE: In my initial post, I discussed the tantalizing fact that the coin’s minting date coincided with the voyages of the Venetian known as Zuan Chabotto or Giovanni Cabotto, and in English as John Cabot, and convictions of the late Alwyn Ruddock that happen to be tied to the Cupids Cove area.

As I have written in The Race to the New World, Cabot in 1497 made the first known voyage to North America for the English, a single-ship expedition (the Matthew) under the flag of Henry VII. Cabot made one more voyage, an enterprise of at least five ships, in 1498. It’s long been believed that none of them returned, but Ruddock was sure that some of them did. What is more, recent scholarship by Evan T. Jones and Margaret Condon with The Cabot Project at the University of Bristol, following the breadcrumb-trail of clues in Ruddock’s unpublished research, has produced a far more detailed picture of early English voyagers, including a Bristol merchant named William Weston, who appears to have made a voyage to Newfoundland in 1499.

It seemed possible to me that the Henry VII silver coin wasn’t simply part of the specie some member of the John Guy expedition (perhaps Guy himself) was carrying, and managed to lose. Rather, Guy’s colonists could have recovered it from the Indigenous people, the Beothuk—only to then lose it before the post was abandoned. The only record we have of the 1497 voyage says Cabot never met any Indigenous people, but it would be very possible and even likely that the second Cabot voyage or one of the other Bristol voyages had direct contact, and that there may have been some kind of exchange or misadventure that saw the coin pass into the hands of the Beothuk.

Carbonear, where Alwyn Ruddock believed Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis established a colony in 1498, is a mere 20 kilometres north of Cupids Cove, where an English coin dated 1493-99 was recently discovered. (Screen capture from Google Earth)

There was another intriguing possibility: The coin could have been associated with a colonization effort undertaken by a ship associated with Cabot’s second voyage. Ruddock believed that Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis, an Augustinian friar, commanded his own ship in 1498 and established a colony at Carbonear, a placename allegedly derived from the friar himself. And Carbonear is only 20 kilometres north of Cupids Cove. The late Peter Pope, an archaeologist at Memorial University, spearheaded an investigation into Ruddock’s assertions called the Carbonear Project. No physical evidence has yet been found to support Ruddock’s belief that Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis attempted a settlement at Carbonear. But I wondered: Is this coin the first hint that Ruddock was on to something, as she has proved to be about so many other aspects of the early English voyages out of Bristol? A coin associated with John Guy’s failed colony is remarkable enough, but if it could be linked positively to Cabot or any of the late 15th-century Bristol voyages, it would be a truly extraordinary survival—the only physical evidence we have in North America for those voyages.

I checked in with Evan Jones, to see what he thought. He had been apprised of the coin’s find before the announcement. “I think it very unlikely that it was lost by the early Bristol explorers, simply because it’s so worn,” he told me by email. “If you compare pictures of the Cupids coin to the one in your blog, you’ll see how much detail has gone (and your coin isn’t mint). The Cupids coin wouldn’t have looked like that when new and deterioration of that sort wouldn’t have occurred in the ground. Rather, that sort of wear is what happens to coins that have been in circulation for decades. Basically then, I think it’s very unlikely that a coin minted in 1493 (at the earliest) could have got that worn by 1499, or probably even by 1509.” He told me he has contacted the British Numismatic Society, to double check on the wear evidence. He also tells me that a half-groat was about what a labourer would receive for four hours of work in the 1490s. “So it’s not a vast amount of money, but is something you’d ‘miss’.”

A counter argument might be that if the coin came from one of the early Bristol voyages and had been acquired by the Beothuk, it would not have spent more than a century in the ground. But as a Beothuk possession, it never would have “circulated” like specie normally would, and we wouldn’t expect the wear that the discovered coin shows. So we’re probably back to the coin having been lost by someone in Guy’s colony.

As for Ruddock’s idea that Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis had a colony at Carbonear, Jones thinks it is plausible that some sort of church or settlement was established in 1498 or in the years after, to boost Henry VII’s claim to the new-found land. Whether it was at Carbonear, however, and whether it involved de Carbonariis, is another matter. He says he and Margaret Condon have been making progress on a new monograph, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they now know.

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