Share this page

Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Elizabethan Gold Angel

Object 60 - An Elizabethan gold Angel, a coin thought to have sacred, healing power, is currently held in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's Collections.

Peter Hewitt

Our 60th object comes from Peter Hewitt, Doctoral Researcher in History at the University of Birmingham.

They have in England/ A coin that bears the figure of an angel/ Stampèd in gold

— Merchant of Venice, 2.7.55-7

In Act IV, Scene 3 of Macbeth, Macduff is received by Malcolm at the court of Edward the Confessor.  Malcolm, in hiding since the murder of his father, witnesses a model of kingship in England which is in stark contrast to Macbeth’s rule.  The saintly English king is surrounded by sickly and ailing people who believe that the touch of the king can heal them.  Upon Macduff’s questioning, Malcolm explains Edward’s healing power and the disease:

‘Tis call'd the evil:
A most miraculous work in this good king;
Which often, since my here-remain in England,
I have seen him do. How he solicits heaven,
Himself best knows: but strangely-visited people,
All swoln and ulcerous, pitiful to the eye,
The mere despair of surgery, he cures,
Hanging a golden stamp about their necks,
Put on with holy prayers: and 'tis spoken,
To the succeeding royalty he leaves
The healing benediction.’

An Elizabethan gold Angel c.1578-81 (SBT 2003-4/4)

This ‘evil’ or ‘King’s Evil’ was probably scrofula, a swelling in the lymph nodes, although to contemporaries the name applied to any kind of swelling or skin complaint.  Malcolm’s speech suggests that this power is both secret and sacred; the ‘strange virtue’ of kingship is both ambivalent, powerful, and passed on, so we learn, to ‘succeeding royalty’.

This Elizabethan gold ‘angel’, so called for its representation of St. Michael the Archangel slaying the dragon, was minted between 1578 and 1581 and to early modern people it was both official currency of the realm and an object replete with sacred, healing power.  These coins were given to sufferers of the ‘evil’ by the monarch in special ceremonies presided over by the clergy; it is the ‘golden stamp’ of Malcolm’s speech.

Many coins that have been associated with this ritual have pierced holes for a string which were then draped around the neck.  These were worn as amulets of healing or protection against evil.

At Kenilworth in 1575, Elizabeth I publicly prepared for this healing ritual ‘prostrate on her knees, body and soul rapt in prayer’.  She was known to lay hands on her patients, and in addition she made the sign of the cross, with the gold angel, over the actual location of the sore.

Reverse of the Elizabethan gold Angel, showing a ship with a mast in the form of a cross.

The inscription on the coin reads ‘This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvellous’ – perhaps a direct allusion to the ritual of healing itself.  Whilst it is uncertain that this particular coin was used in this way, the presence of the Archangel on the object would have made it a hugely potent symbol for many early modern people.  After the Reformation, the portrayal of saints was deeply problematic and strictly controlled – it is remarkable therefore that this tradition of healing via a sacred image survived at all.

As Malcolm suggests, this miraculous power was a sign of sacred authority.  Elizabeth, who had been excommunicated by Pope Pius V in 1570, had much to gain if the ritual was maintained, and for many her displays of healing at Kenilworth and elsewhere was a sign that her reign was not only legitimate but divinely appointed.