How Did a 15th-Century Coin Minted Under Henry VII End Up in Newfoundland?

Dated to between 1493 and 1499, the silver half-groat is the oldest English coin ever found in Canada

Obverse and reverse of the half groat
Minted in Canterbury between 1493 and 1499, the silver half groat dates to the middle of Henry VII's reign, when a rebellion led by pretender Perkin Warbeck threatened to unseat the nascent Tudor dynasty.  Cupids Cove Plantation Provincial Historic Site

Archaeologists in Newfoundland have unearthed what may be the oldest English coin ever found in Canada—and perhaps North America. Working at the site of a former English colony, the team dug up a rare two-penny piece that was minted more than 520 years ago, between 1493 and 1499, reports Chris O'Neill-Yates for CBC News.

Known as a half groat, the coin dates to the reign of England’s first Tudor king, Henry VII, who ruled from 1485 to 1509. It was uncovered at Cupids Cove Plantation Provincial Historic Site, where English merchant John Guy established a colony in 1610. Researchers found the object near what would have been a bastion in the fortified settlement.

“Some artifacts are important for what they tell us about a site, while others are important because they spark the imagination,” says archaeologist William Gilbert, who discovered the site in 1995 and continues to lead excavations there today, in a statement. “This coin is definitely one of the latter. One can’t help but wonder at the journey it made, and how many hands it must have passed through from the time it was minted ... until it was lost in Cupids sometime early in the 17th century.”

A better-preserved example of a Henry VII half-groat
A better-preserved example of a Henry VII half-groat Public domain via Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gilbert showed the newly unearthed, nickel-sized coin to Paul Berry, a former curator at the Bank of Canada Museum who helped authenticate the piece, reports the Canadian Press. The silver coin was minted in Canterbury around the middle of Henry’s reign, when a rebellion led by pretender Perkin Warbeck threatened to unseat the nascent Tudor dynasty.

Previously, the oldest known English coin found in the country was a silver groat minted during the reign of Henry’s granddaughter Elizabeth I, in 1560 or 1561, and discovered at Cupids Cove in 2001. Other centuries-old English coins found on the continent include a circa 1558 groat buried on Richmond Island in Maine around 1628 and a 1560 silver coin unearthed in Jamestown, Virginia.

Guy, accompanied by a group of 39 English settlers, founded what was then called Cuper’s Cove on Conception Bay in Newfoundland. Within a few years of the settlement’s establishment in 1610, the colonists had built numerous structures, including a fort, sawmill, gristmill and brew house, reports Bill Gilbert for BBC News. But the winter of 1612 proved “punishing,” according to the CBC, and most of the settlers—including Guy—eventually abandoned the site. The company that funded the venture went bankrupt in 1631.

Exactly who left the half-groat at the settlement is open to interpretation. Gilbert posits that one of the Cuper’s Cove settlers dropped it when the fort’s bastion was under construction. The half goat was found within a few feet of a post that was part of the fortification’s foundation.

Cupids Cove
Originally known as Cuper's Cove, the settlement was founded in 1610 on Conception Bay in Newfoundland. Cupids Cove Plantation Provincial Historic Site

“My best guess is that it was probably dropped by either John Guy or one of the early colonists when they were building ... in the fall of 1610,” the archaeologist tells CBC News. “That’s what I think is most likely.”

Given that the coin is about 60 years older than the Elizabethan groat found on the cove in 2001, it’s also possible that it was lost before the colonists arrived, perhaps by an early explorer of Canada.

“[The] coin was minted around the time John Cabot arrived in England in 1495,” Gilbert tells CBC News. “It’s during the period that Cabot would have been active in England and setting out on his early explorations of the new world.” (Per Royal Museums Greenwich, the Italian explorer landed on Newfoundland—literally a “new found land”—in 1497, one month after setting sail from Bristol in hopes of discovering a shorter route to Asia.)

Analysis of the coin is ongoing, but researchers hope to display it at the Cupids Cove historical site in time for the 2022 tourist season.

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