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Unlocking the Doubloons of Seville

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Landing of Columbus, an 1847 oil on canvas painting by John Vanderlyn depicting the 15th-century explorer as he and his exploration team stepped foot in the Americas. Public domain image sourced via Wikimedia Commons. Click image to enlarge.

When Christopher Columbus explored the New World and its vast resources, gold and silver became the lifeblood of the Spanish Empire. Each year, the Spanish treasure fleet, or Flota de Indias, transported oil, wine, textiles, books, and tools to the Spanish colonies. On the return voyage, the fleet brought back gold, silver, copper, precious gems, sugar, and other commodities. Gold and silver were the most important, as they were used to finance Spain’s armies and explorer-soldiers known as “conquistadors,” provide currency for the colonies, and to protect Spain’s interests abroad – especially against the Ottoman Empire.

During the reign of King Philip II (1556-1598), the Spanish Empire was reaching its peak of global dominance. Many historians refer to the 16th and 17th centuries as “The Golden Age of Spain.” During this period, mints across Spain worked feverishly to melt down the tons of gold and silver taken from the Spanish colonies in the Americas and convert it into Spanish coinage.

The major Spanish mainland mints were in Granada, Segovia, Toledo, Valladolid, Burgos, Madrid, and Seville. The largest of these mints was the Real Casa de la Moneda de Sevilla, or the Royal Mint of Seville.

Built from 1585 through 1587, this mint was the circulation center where gold and silver from the New World were made into gold doubloons and silver reales. Seville produced the largest quantity of hammer-struck gold escudos in one-, two-, four-, and eight-escudo denominations.

The two escudos is also known by another name that conjures up images of pirate lore and sunken treasure: the doubloon. The word doubloon comes from the Spanish word “doblón,” or “double escudo.”

Philip II of Spain, as painted by Sofonisba Anguissola. Public domain image sourced via Wikimedia Commons. Click image to enlarge.

Regardless of whether a doubloon was minted at a mainland Spanish mint or Spanish colonial mint, certain specifications had to be met under the penalty of death. The main criteria were that the weight had to be no less than 6.77 grams and the purity needed to be 22-karat gold. Coins found to be underweight would raise suspicions that the assayer or someone at the mint may have clipped tiny portions of the coin to accumulate their own gold at the king’s expense.

During the late 16th century, a doubloon was worth about the equivalent of four Spanish eight reales or “pieces of eight.”

Seville Two Escudos minted during the reign of Philip II (circa 1566-1587). Courtesy of PCGS. Click image to enlarge.
Deciphering The Symbols of The Shield

Doubloons minted at the Seville Mint during the reign of Philip II have a beautiful and fascinating design that expresses 16th-century Spanish heraldry.

The shield is an amalgamation of the House of Habsburg and the symbols of the royal arms of Spain’s territorial possessions at the time.

In the upper-lefthand corner of the shield, one can see two castles and two lions in four quadrants. The lions symbolize the Spanish province of León, and the castles represent the Spanish province of Castile.

A breakdown of the symbols on the Hagsburg coat of arms. Courtesy of Sean M. Scott. Click image to enlarge.

To the right of the castles and lions are three vertical lines, which represent the royal arms of the kingdom of Catalonia-Aragon (another province within 16th century Spain). To the right is a pair of eagles that represent Naples and Sicily. Below these are the arms of New Burgundy (a territory that was in East Central France) represented by three fleurs-de-lis. Under the fleurs-de-lis is the royal arm of Brabant (the Low Countries consisting of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxemburg). The symbol of Old Burgundy at the bottom left is represented by three diagonal lines, and the three horizontal lines above represent Austria. In the center is a pomegranate within a triangle signifying Granada. Lastly, at the center near the bottom of the shield is a small shield divided in two that contains a lion on the left representing Flanders (Belgium) and a falcon to the right representing Tyrol (a region including Austria and Northern Italy).

A nearly identical example of the coat of arms is shown on a rare Spanish map from 1562 (Americae Sive Quartae Orbis Partis Nova Et Exactissima Descriptio; Latin: A New and Most Exact Description of America or The Fourth Part of the World). The only significant difference is the location of the symbol for Granada, which on this map is placed at the bottom of the shield.

Americae Sive Quartae Orbis Partis Nova Et Exactissima Descriptio 1562, by Diego Gutiérrez and Flemish artist Hieronymus Cock. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. Click image to enlarge.
Other Design Features of the Obverse

To the left of the shield on the obverse is the letter “S,” which represents the Seville Mint, and underneath it is a gothic letter “D,” which is the initial for the last name of the mint assayer Melchor Damian. He oversaw the mint operations from 1566 to 1586 and again from 1588 to 1590. Other assayer’s initials that may be found on doubloons minted at Seville during the reign of King Philip II include “F,” “C,” “H,” or “B.”

A closeup of the shield detail on the reverse of the Seville Two Escudos minted during the reign of Philip II (circa 1566-1587). Courtesy of PCGS.
Click image to enlarge.
During the years 1588 through 1597, die modifications led to the denomination being moved to the left of the shield and the addition of the date to the right. Courtesy of Sean M. Scott. Click image to enlarge.

To the right of the shield is a Roman numeral II, representing the denomination until later dated varieties were made.

The shield, assayer’s initial, mintmark, and denomination are surrounded by a halo of golden dots.

The legend on the shield side is in Latin and reads “PHILIPPVS II DEI GRATIA,” which means “Philip II by the Grace of God.”

From 1588 to 1597 the dies were modified, and the denomination was moved from the right side to the left of the shield between the mintmark and the assayer’s initial. The date was then added to the right of the shield under the halo of dots as shown in this example.

Changes in the shield design came near the end of King Philip II’s reign. Courtesy of Sean M. Scott. Click image to enlarge.

In 1580, Spain and Portugal united the Iberian Peninsula, and toward the end of King Philip II’s reign, the mint at Seville produced some two escudos where the shield design changed.

Sometime in the late 1580s, the Habsburg coat of arms was modified to include the arms of Portugal at the center above the arms of Granada. This variety typically shows the letter “B” to the left of the shield, which stands for Juan Vicente Bravo, who was the assayer from 1592 to 1615. Typically, Seville doubloons dated to 1597 and 1598 show this change.

Although other mints produced coins with the addition of the Portuguese arms earlier than the Seville Mint, very few examples are known to exist of doubloons minted at Seville during the reign of Philip II that show the Portuguese arms.

Illustration from Abraham Ortelius: Theatrum orbis terrarum parergon 1624. Courtesy of Barry Ruderman Rare Maps.
Click image to enlarge.
Coat of Arms of Portugal from the Book of the Chief Armorer, Arms of the King of Portugal by: João do Cr 1509. Courtesy of Torre do Tombo National Archives..
Click image to enlarge.
Design Features of The Reverse

The legend on the cross side of Seville doubloons rests between halos of golden dots. The outer halo is usually struck off the flan, so they are rarely visible. The legend reads in Latin, “HISPANIARVM·REX,” which means “King of Spain.” At the center of the coin is the classic Jerusalem or Crusader Cross, which symbolizes the unity of the Catholic Church and the state. The cross is surrounded by a quatrefoil with four golden rings at the intersection of each lobe.

Royal and religious symbology is abundant on the Seville doubloons. Courtesy of PCGS TrueView. Click image to enlarge.

The cross also displays four fleurs-de-lis at each of the four quadrants of the cross. The symbol of the fleur-de-lis or “lily flower” is of French origin and symbolizes purity and chastity, and they were often used to represent the Virgin Mary.

The fleur-de-lis has also been used to represent Christ or the Holy Trinity. The three petals making one flower symbolize a clear connection with the three persons of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.

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