Coinage of James III R.1460-1488 (Type II, IV, VI)

Our fourth blog from the 2016-17 class comes from April Hunter, who looks at the evolving portraiture of James III in a series of coins he issued in his later personal reign. The examples used here all come from the Hunterian Coin Collection. 

James III was the King of Scotland from 1460-1488 and is best remembered for his weak and unpopular kingship. Such disdain for the monarch escalated into political uprisings and national discontent which culminated in James III’s imprisonment at Edinburgh Castle in 1482 and his eventual death at the Battle of Sauchieburn in 1488.[1] Despite his failings however, James III has been regarded by some as the first renaissance monarch of Scotland.[2] Others though have challenged such a view[3] but through a comparative case study of the coinage produced during his reign, it will be found that James III was greatly influenced by the flowering of Renaissance art and ideas of kingship as they emerged out of continental Europe.

James III produced a great number of coins in all metals but is most noted for his issue of six silver groats. All the coins in this set were produced by striking, where the inverse metallic die version of the image was pressed onto a plain coin’s surface. I had the opportunity to see three of the silver coins issued by the monarch, Type II, IV, VI, at the newly-refurbished Kelvin Hall which now hosts the Hunterian Museum’s coin and medallion collection. These coins came to the museum as part of a collection donated by Mrs M. Cuthbert after the death of her husband James W. Cuthbert in 1999. The coins all have the same inscribed legend on the obverse in Latin (albeit different spellings, full Latin inscriptions in footnotes) which when translated read, ‘James by the Grace of God King of Scotland’. The Type IV and VI coin issues also have the same reverse outer legend, ‘God is my Defender and Protector’, which was the motto of House Stewart. All three coins have the inner legend reading, ‘Edinburgh town’[4] which confirms Edinburgh as the minting site which was well established for such craft since the time of David I (1124).[5] Equally, it is unsurprising these coins were minted in the capital as it formed the base from which James III ‘ran his administration’[6] and indeed rarely left, despite enduring heavy criticism.

The first coin examined was a Type II silver base issue 6 pence scots coin, (figure 1) believed to have been minted by the coin master William Goldsmith[7] from 1471 to c1483.[8] The coin, which is on a 180˚ axis and in fine condition, weighs 31.3gr with a diameter of 25mm.

Figure 1

This coin should weigh approximately 33.65gr,[9] but this difference can be attributed to the missing part of the coin between 6 and 9 o’clock that appears to have worn away. The obverse image is in low relief but depicts James III, facing half-right in a surcoat and armour, wearing a crown of five fleurs. The reverse features a floriated cross with thistle heads and mullets in alternate angles. The addition of the thistle is significant as it was the first time it featured on a coin as the Scottish national emblem. The portrait image, whilst not an accurate depiction of James III, is still noteworthy as it is a real attempt at portraiture and is believed to be the earliest instance of portrait coinage to appear in northern Europe.[10] James III can therefore be seen to be drawing parallels between himself and the great renaissance rulers of Europe such as Francesco Sforza who produced the first realistic coin portrait in 1466.[11]

What detracts from the coin however is that the sterling silver in this issue was debased to a fineness of 0.770 (compared to the standard 0.925 fineness in all of his other issues).[12] James III’s legacy is unquestionably centred around his drastically unpopular debasement of the Scottish coinage, particularly between 1480 and 1482, in which he produced very basic billion and copper coins known as ‘black money’.[13] This led to a monetary inflation which devalued the Scottish coin against its English counterpart and exacerbated socio-economic woes. Worth noting however is that the king was in fact acting in line with the devaluation practices of other European countries like France and Italy at this time. The circulation of small copper coins during James III’s reign was useful in providing change in minor transactions and highlights the influence that renaissance ideas and continental practices had on Scotland.[14] James III’s experiment can however be deemed a failure and was widely unpopular, as evidenced by the fact smaller copper coins were not to be struck again until 1597.

Until the later 15th century, only stylized representations of royal busts had appeared on coins. An example of this style of coin is Type IV[15] (figure 2) light issue 12 pence scots silver coin, weighting 41.6gr with a diameter of 25mm and minted by master Alexander Livingstone[16].

Figure 2

The obverse features a highly stylised forward-facing bust of a generic looking king, wearing a crown of five fleurs. On the reverse, which is on a 180˚ axis, is alternate segments of pellets and mullets of five points separated by the St Andrew’s cross. With James III’s first attempt at portraiture coinage in 1471; it seems surprising that he would then regress back to this older design model between 1482 and 1484. Whilst there is not a definitive reason for why this coin issue featured a regression back to earlier stylised designs, it is possible it was for trading purposes. This forward-facing bust may have been more acceptable in England as it was similar in appearance to the coins produced during the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III, and therefore might have been useful in facilitating trade between the two kingdoms. Whilst James III does however depart again from this medieval style in favour of new renaissance-inspired portrait coins, James IV during his reign reverts Scottish coinage back to pre-renaissance design. This perhaps suggests that James III was more modern, forward-thinking and receptive to new ideas in terms of coinage design than his son and predecessor.

The last silver coin I had the opportunity to examine was a type VI[17] issue worth 14 pence scots (figure 3). This main issue coin was minted from 1484-1488, weighing 43.5gr with a 25mm diameter but ought to weigh approximately 47.14gr[18]; even with taking into account

Figure 3

reasonable wear. Whilst the condition of the coin is generally fine, I came to the conclusion that this coin had been ‘clipped’ between 4 and 6 o’clock. Clipping was a medieval crime that involved the shaving of metal from the coin’s circumference and then over time melting down the clippings to make new coins.[19] This clipped silver coin thus serves to highlight the various means of coin debasement that continued even late into James III’s reign. Also visible at 7 o’clock on the obverse of the coin is a small annulet on the border, near the shoulder of the bust, which could be a privy mark of the minter, master Alexander Livingstone from 1476-1488 and/or James Criton in 1488.[20]

This coin is particularly noteworthy when compared to the second issue groat (figure 1), which portrays an unrealistic depiction of the king with an open crown, and issue four which features a stylised front facing bust (figure 2). This issue instead displays James III in realistic likeness, aged at least thirty, in a three quarter left profile and wearing an imperial crown. The coin is on a 360˚ axis with the reverse having crowns and pellets in alternative quarters separated by St Andrew’s cross. The crown James III is depicted wearing is significant as following an act of parliament in 1469 a scheme of imperial iconography in royal artwork and architecture was adopted to reflect the king’s belief in the superior power of the Scottish crown.[21] Whilst James III did not undertake extensive building projects during his reign he did commission small-scale work at Linlithgow Palace and Restalrig church in Edinburgh, which were modelled on grand renaissance architecture. Additionally, through the imperial imagery on the coin, James III can be seen to be relating to an Ancient Greco-Roman past in which portrait coins were used as a means of giving credibility and prestige to a ruler’s reign. In turn this coin attempts to establish James III as rex imperator in regno suo,[22] thereby illustrating the king’s use of Renaissance techniques to consolidate royal power during a time of rebellion and opposition to the crown.

It was common practice for renaissance coin portraits to be modelled on larger representations, with the portrait on this coin having been likened to the illustration of James on the Trinity College church altarpiece. The Trinity Altarpiece is a set of four paintings in oil on wood (with the fifth central panel lost) and was commissioned for the Trinity College Kirk in Edinburgh, completed sometime in the early 1480s.[23] The piece has been attributed to the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes and depicts a devout King James III, wearing an imperial crown, (figure 4)[24] kneeling with his son, James IV, and the queen, accompanied

Figure 4

by the patron saints of Scotland and England. A reasonable assertion has been made that the face of James III was added to the panel after the remainder of the painting had been completed; most likely by a Scottish artist who knew the king rather than Van der Goes himself who had never visited Scotland.[25] This painting of the king alongside the similar portrait depicted on this silver groat, helps reinforce James III’s imperial views of kingship through his patronage to the arts.

With ‘history’ becoming more popular and commodified in recent years due to TV shows like ‘Tudors,’ ‘Reign’ and ‘Outlander’, there is now a growing curiosity surrounding Anglo-Scottish medieval history and kingship. Consequently, I believe that these coins will be of great interest to the public. In regards to increasing their accessibility, a small temporary public exhibition at the Hunterian Museum, or a private tour at the New Kelvin Hall would be a fantastic way of showcasing the coins. Currently, the Hunterian has a small medal exhibition which has proven to very popular and there is no reason why a similar coin exhibition, perhaps alongside other pieces from the Cuthbert collection, would not be as well. Also, by advertising through newsletters such as Glasgow University’s own campus e-news to university staff and students, as well as through social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, a wider audience can be reached. Kelvin Hall also has its own online beta database and therefore would be a solid platform for detailed coin description, analysis and imagery. I personally feel that an online resource like this would be especially useful as there is currently limited information online in regards to 15th century Scottish coinage. Ultimately, I feel that technology would be one of the best means of engagement, however a free exhibition at the Hunterian is unquestionably the greatest stage for displaying such important historical artefacts. I have found the most interesting information in researching for this project to have came from viewing and engaging with these coins on a close and personal level and believe that the public would truly benefit from such an experience as well.

To conclude, there are significant signs that James III attempted to become a different kind of ruler from previous monarchs with the second and last issue of his silver portrait groats, alongside his small-scale building efforts at Linlithgow and Restalrig, reinforcing the idea of the Stewart as Scotland’s first renaissance king. Deeply interested and influenced by renaissance style of art and architecture, James III used Scottish coinage to convey his desire to appear in line with current European trends but lost his reputation and life at the hands of his enemies. Ultimately, this work has examined in detail the relationship between the renaissance and reign of James III but it is only through further detailed analysis and investigation of fifteenth century material culture that James’s renaissance legacy will be fully understood.




Bateson, J. D., Coinage in Scotland, (Spink, 1997).

Brown, Michael., and Tanner, Roland., Scottish Kingship 1306-1542, Essays in Honour of Norman Macdougall, (John Donald, 2008).

Cochran-Patrick, R. W., Records of the Coinage of Scotland: Volume I, (Edmonston and Douglas, 1876).

Cooper, George., The origin of Finnancial Crises, (Harriman House, 2008).

Lynch, Michael., The Oxford Companion to Scottish History, (Oxford University, 2011).

Macdougall, Norman., James III a Political Study, (John Doland, 2009).

Porteous, John., Coins in History, (Weindenfeld and Nicolson, 1969).

Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2016.

Stewart, Ian., The Scottish Coinage, (Spink, 1967).

[1]Michael Lynch, The Oxford Companion to Scottish History, (Oxford University, 2011), P.102.

[2]Norman Macdougall, James III a Political Study, (John Doland, 2009), P.368.


[4]Inscriptions as seen on the coins: Type II obverse: IACOBVS. DEI. GRA. REX.SCOTORVM, reverse: VIL.LA E. DINB. (VRGH).

Type IV obverse: IACOB(VS). DEI. GRA. REX. SCOTORM, reverse: (—–).ECTOR.(–)ES(–) IB.EATVR ER and VILL.A EDE. NBEO.VRGE.


[5]Lynch, Scottish History, P.65.

[6]Macdougall, James III, P.368.

[7]R. W. Cochran-Patrick, Records of the Coinage of Scotland: Volume I, (Edmonston and Douglas, 1876), P.20.

[8]Coin reference: Hunterian catalogue GLAHM 14607, Spink 5270, Stewart 103 and Burns 580 No.10. Note the Burns reference was exceedingly difficult to find and therefore this is the only coin I will provide this reference for.

[9]Ian Stewart, The Scottish Coinage, (Spink, 1967), P.141

[10]J. D. Bateson, Coinage in Scotland, (Spink, 1997), P.66.

[11]John Porteous, Coins in History, (Weindenfeld and Nicolson, 1969), P.144.


[13]Macdougall, James, P.158.

[14]Bateson, Coinage in Scotland, P.73.

[15]GLAHM 14609, Stewart 105, Spink 5280. According to Stewart, Scottish Coinage, p.141, coin should weigh 39.26gr.

[16]Cochran-Patrick, Coinage of Scotland, P.20.

[17]GLAHM 14608, Stewart 105, Spink 5288.

[18]Ian Stewart, The Scottish Coinage, P.141.

[19]George Cooper, The origin of Finnancial Crises, (Harriman House, 2008), P.46.

[20]Cochran-Patrick, Coinage of Scotland, P.20.

[21]Roland Tanner, ‘James III (1460-1488)’, in Michael Brown and Roland Tanner, Scottish Kingship 1306-1542, Essays in Honour of Norman Macdougall, (John Donald, 2008), P.214.

[22]Latin for ‘emperor within his own kingdom’.

[23]Macdougall, James III, P.249.

[24]Permission for image reproduction granted by Royal Collection Trust /© HM Queen Elizabeth II 2016.

[25]Macdougall, James III, P.249.


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