The origin of the French gold franc
The fascinating history of the gold franc began in the 14th century during the Hundred Years’ War. This was the time of a series of waged conflicts between France and Britain, and during the Battle of Poitiers in 1356, in France, the French King John II was captured by his English foes. The English sought a ransom for the French king, three million gold coins to be exact. Once the terms were agreed upon, King John was released, and his return from captivity was glorified with the introduction of a gold coin called the franc à cheval, meaning “free on horse”, alluding to how the King rode out as a free man. Although the new gold franc was thereafter used in trade throughout France, its uniformity was often subject to revaluation. This changed when Napoleon Bonaparte came to power at the beginning of the 1800s.
The French 20 franc gold coin was authorised by Napoleon Bonaparte
Considered one of the world’s foremost military leaders, Napoleon Bonaparte, highly skilled in politics, managed during the end of the French revolution to assert himself as the First Consul of the new French government. A staunch proponent of gold, he authorised the standardisation and creation of the Napoleon gold coin in 1803. The new coin was originally minted in two denominations, 20 and 40 francs. Denominations of 5, 10, 50 and 100 francs were later introduced and minted at various times, but the most popular and consequently most minted was the 20 franc gold coin. The 20 franc Napoleon gold coin weighed 6.45 grams, and contained 90% gold, or 5.805 grams of gold. The 20 franc gold coin was last issued in 1914, and although the design and the depicted effigy changed during this period, the coin’s denomination and uniformity stayed the same, contributing to the coin’s reputation and popularity as a trustworthy and accurate gold coin. Consequently, all 20 franc gold coins minted in the 19th and 20th centuries are referred to as “Napoleons”.
The French 20 franc coin - the gold standard of Europe
Ironically, Napoleon’s 20 franc gold coin was more successful in unifying Europe in terms of coinage, and consequently trade and prosperity, than what Napoleon sought to accomplish by force. And while the territories Napoleon had conquered were soon lost, the 20 franc gold coin did just the opposite. It prevailed and established itself as the foundation of Europe’s first major currency union under the name “Latin Monetary Union”. The Union was originally formed in 1865 between France, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland, and was an attempt to unify those countries’ money into a uniform single currency. The French gold franc’s peerless uniformity and the attractiveness of the relatively large French economy provided the incentive and the foundation for a new “euro” currency.
The founding members of the union adopted the franc and they agreed to freely interchange each other’s gold and silver coinage at parity, irrespective of whether they carried another design or motif. The ratio of the two precious metals was likewise standardised, with 4.5 grams of silver being equal to .290322 grams of gold, a ratio of 15.5 to 1. The standardisation facilitated and simplified trade among the member countries and was seen as an appealing concept, leading other European countries to join as well. Although the union came with numerous flaws, one of them being that individual governments over-issued paper notes above the stipulated fixed ratio that was set between paper notes and circulating precious metal coinage, they were all the consequence of poor human judgement rather than the failure of the uniform precious metal coinage itself. Nevertheless, the union expanded until the advent of World War I, and came to a formal end a decade later in 1927.
The popularity of French 20 franc gold coins lives on
Napoleon gold coins were widely distributed during the 19th and 20th centuries in Europe and throughout the world. France controlled a large part of Europe in the early 1800s and subsequently rose to its colonial might in the early 20th century. To facilitate trade and investments, the Napoleon 20 franc gold coins became the preferred choice due to their stable uniformity and trustworthiness. Most of the Napoleon gold coins were issued after the 1850s, which coincided with the expansion of the Latin Monetary Union and the height of the French colonial empire. The production of the Napoleon series ended by the early 1900s with the last version being the 20 franc Rooster gold coin. Although Napoleon gold coins are no longer produced, their popularity lives on, and they are in fact today the most traded classic gold coins in several European countries, including France.
As the French empire expanded, the need for gold and silver coinage increased. To satisfy the vast demand, gold francs were minted in several mints, and, over the years thatNapoleon gold coins were issued, more than twenty French mints, but also mints in countries under French rule, produced these desired gold coins. Every mint that struck gold francswas obligated to leave a unique identification mark on every coin so that the origin of the gold franc would be more easily traceable. The mark could either be a letter, a symbol, or a monogram. For instances, the letter “A” corresponded to the Paris mint, while the letter R, or the symbol of a crown, was the mark of the Rome mint. Although the production of gold francswas widespread throughout France and Europe, the large majority of these gold coins were minted by the Monnaie de Paris. Founded in 864 by the French King Charles the Bald, the Monnaie de Paris is the largest and oldest mint in France and likewise the oldest French institution. Even though the mint was a government institution and was responsible for the mintage of French circulating coinage, it shared this responsibility for almost a millennium with other French mints, hence the many different mint markings on the Napoleon gold coin.
In 1878, the Paris mint was granted exclusive privilege to be the only French mint to produce circulating coinage and is today the country’s main mint and sole producer of the official French euro coinage.