The Angel in the North

angel 2

This week has seen the closure of the Money gallery at Manchester Museum. In partnership with the British Museum, the gallery included highlights from the collections here at Manchester Museum, as well as from the British Museum and the Bank of England. As part of Manchester Museum’s Hello Future transformation, this space will be redesigned over the next two year, and will reopen as the Dr Lee Kai Hung Chinese Cultures Gallery, which will explore understanding between cultures, the rich cultural heritage and stories of Chinese communities in the region and the links between Manchester and China.

The Money gallery has been a favourite among many of our visitors and staff alike for many years, and as we say farewell, in today’s Story from the Museum Floor, Louise Thomas from the Visitor Team takes a closer look at the fascinating story of one of her favourite coins, the Elizabethan ‘Angel’.


The Angel in the North

There lieth in the North an Angel touched by the hand of Shakespeare….

Well, sort of.

In this instance the Angel is in fact a gold coin, which was found in Manchester Museum’s Money Gallery nestled amongst the Elizabethan pounds, pennies and nobles.

AngelGold ‘Angel’ from the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603). Numismatics collection, Manchester Museum [OC219].

It’s a remarkable piece of currency that takes us on a journey from Plantagenet palaces to Georgian drawing rooms, via civil war battlefields and the bawdy Tudor stage.

And this provides the clue as to how the Angel first caught my attention, when the gallery welcomed a merry band of Shakespearean players on a break from rehearsals. The young actors were naturally drawn to the Angel coin, with its glittering golden image of the archangel St Michael slaying the fearsome dragon.

And in a moment of whimsy you can only get away with in the company of budding thespians, we mused on the chances of Shakespeare himself touching that very coin.

Such musings prompted me to look into the coin’s history and I quickly discovered that Shakespeare and the Angel are indeed well connected, although perhaps not in the way we had imagined…


The Angel proves worthy of a mention in many of Shakespeare’s plays, such as The Merchant of Venice where the Prince of Morocco declares:

…They have in England
A coin that bears the figure of an angel
Stamped in gold…

(The Merchant of Venice, 2.7.55-7)

While in The Merry Wives of Windsor, the ever resourceful Falstaff explains his play for Mistress Ford thus: “…she has all the rule of her husband’s purse; she hath a legion of angels.” (1.3.51)

From Sir John Sack and Sugar to King John, the Angel appears yet again when the ruling monarch orders the collection of monastery funds:

…see thou shake the bags
Of hoarding abbots, imprisoned angels
Set at liberty…

(King John, 3.3.7-9)

But why was the Angel so popular with Shakespeare and other writers of his day?


According to Donald Baker, we can partly attribute this to its name – which he says offered poets and dramatists a “fantastic profusion of puns … that delighted the hearts of Englishmen.”

The Angel was popular with audiences too as it was “one of the most common gold coins in circulation” and bore a striking biblical image on one side and seagoing ship on the reverse.


Gold Angel coin from the reign of Elizabeth I (Source: British Museum)

It was also well established currency by this time, having been introduced by the Plantagenet monarch Edward IV during the previous century.

The Angel proved such a popular part of the stuff of life that it “has a strong claim to be the most enduring coin in English history” – asserts historian Francis Young.

But the story of the Angel doesn’t end there.


As there are two sides of the same coin, so there are two sides to the Angel’s history with the second being revealed by another Shakespearean reference.

In Macbeth, Malcolm tells of watching King Edward offering healing to those touched by scrofula, a skin disease known as the King’s evil.

…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….

(Macbeth, 4.3.150-4)

Many monarchs participated in this ritual of the royal touch, including Elizabeth I who would use an Angel coin to bless sufferers before hanging it around their necks as an amulet. (See Peter Hewitt’s blog on the Elizabethan Angel for Shakespeare’s World in 100 Objects for more.)

angel 7Dating to the reign of Charles II, these tokens were issued by official agents of the Crown to sufferers of scrofula as a form of official entrance ticket or pass to one of Charles II’s royal healing or “touching” ceremonies. (Source)

This idea of the Angel as amulet persisted into the next century when Royalist soldiers would wear the coins around their necks before going into battle for the King. The Angel’s role as a piece of currency ended around this period but Charles II later ordered its reintroduction as a small medallion so this use as a touch piece could continue. And the final British monarch to participate in the practice of the royal touch was Queen Anne in the 1700s, which brings us to the final twist in the history of the Angel.


For among the last sufferers to receive the Angel touch piece was a young Samuel Johnson, who would go on to become the toast of Georgian society with his dictionary of the English language.

Queen_Anne__curing__scrofula_by_touch“Queen Anne touching Dr. Johnson, when a boy, to cure him of Scrofula or the ’King’s Evil”  – artist unknown (Public domain).

Johnson also enjoyed a lifelong fascination with a certain Will Shakespeare, producing editions of the dramatic works whilst also referencing the poems and plays multiple times in his dictionary.


Thus, through one small gold coin you can trace a thread from England’s most celebrated playwright to its literal man of letters via the nation’s richest rulers and poorest subjects.

And though we will never know who amongst these touched this very coin in our collection, it doesn’t stop us imagining…

Louise Thomas

For more about numismatics at Manchester Museum, have a look at the Curator’s blog.

Find out more:
Manchester Museum, Money collection
Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Elizabethan Gold Angel
The ‘Angel’ of English Renaissance Literature’ by Donald C. Baker Studies in the Renaissance Vol. 6 (1959), pp. 85-93
Life in Elizabethan England: Money and Coinage
History of the Angel or Angelot Coin – Coin Update
The Gold Angel: legendary coin, enduring amulet (Francis Young)

A Ticket to Attend The Royal Touching Ceremonies of Charles II (Mr. Pepys’ Small Change)

Top image: Fra Angelico’s 15th century Annunciation showing the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary (Source: The Shakespeare blog)

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