Nfld. & Labrador

Gold coin discovered in Newfoundland could be oldest English coin in Canada

A discovery on a beach on Newfoundland's south coast presents a mystery regarding European contact with North America.

The coin, a quarter noble, was minted 70 years before recorded English contact

A image of two sides of a worn gold coin, depicting an ornate floral design and a coat of arms.
The gold coin, an English quarter noble, was minted 70 years before John Cabot arrived in North America. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

A gold coin discovered on Newfoundland's south coast could rewrite the history books on the European presence in the region.

The coin, a quarter noble, dates back to the 1420s and the reign of Henry VI, making it likely the oldest English coin ever discovered in Canada.

Provincial archaeologist Jamie Brake told CBC News the coin is in excellent condition.

"It came out of the ground looking like it had been minted yesterday," said Brake on Wednesday.

The find is older than the  previously oldest-known English coin, also found in Newfoundland, in 2021. That coin, a half groat found at the Cupids Cove Plantation provincial historic site, dated to the 1490s.

A beat-up gold coin.
The quarter noble, around the size of a nickel, is in excellent condition, says a provincial archaeologist. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

The coin was discovered last summer on a beach, where it had waited under sand and salt water for five centuries.

It was found by Edward Hynes, who reported the discovery to the provincial archaeology office, as required by the Historic Resources Act. Brake says the office took great pains to follow proper procedures and protect the discovery.

The department is keeping the specific location of the find under wraps for now, said Brake, because unlike previous finds, the site isn't undergoing an active excavation, with people frequently on site and able to protect the area.

"We're trying to be really vague about the location," says Brake, who would only say it was found on a beach near a registered archaeological site that dates to the 1700s. 

A historic mystery

The quarter noble was a type of gold coinage in circulation throughout the early 1400s, with a value of one shilling and eight pence, or around $81 by today's standard. 

The particular coin discovered this summer was minted in London some time between 1422 and 1427, and such coins were discontinued around 1470, which means the find presents a historical puzzle for archaeologists.

The coin predates John Cabot's arrival on the island — and the historical beginning of regular European contact with Newfoundland — by 70 years.

"Between England and here, people over there were not yet aware of Newfoundland or North America at the time that this was minted," says Brake, "So that's sort of the really exciting part of this."

Brake says the coin is a demonstration of how fascinating the archaeological record is in the province.

"There's been some knowledge of a pre-16th century European presence here for a while, you know, excluding Norse and so on," he says.

"The possibility of perhaps a pre-16th century occupation would be pretty amazing and highly significant in this part of the world."

The previously oldest-known coin discovered was also found in Newfoundland, in 2021 at the Cupids Cove Plantation provincial historic site. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

The mystery of how the coin came to be where it was discovered is likely to remain for some time.

"It's difficult to explain at this point why it's there, who dropped it. It's not the sort of thing that you'd expect to be hanging out of the pockets of migratory fishers," says Brake.

According to the former curator of the Bank of Canada's Currency Museum, Paul Berry — who worked with the team studying the find — it was likely no longer in circulation when it was lost, but that doesn't help provide answers as to how it got there.

Brake says a more formal excavation on the site may occur in the future, but for now work on the coin is continuing, and following that, it is likely to be put on public display at The Rooms museum in St. John's.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Hawthorn

Journalist

Andrew Hawthorn is a writer and reporter working with the CBC in St. John's.

with files from Chris O'Neill-Yates

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