A Medal Glitters – a vignette by Alastair Ashford
Every medal tells a human story and there are a lot of them about – medals and stories that is, and this leads us to place provenance – the golden key – under the microscope, which in turn unlocks the potential material worth, of any medal or decoration. It is somewhat impossible to isolate Coronation Medals and all Royal medals, from the back story of the British military medal, because you will find – they are all interwoven.
From civilian to campaign to gallantry to Royal, the history of the medal is a fascinating subject; suffice to say that the French and Napoleon are entirely to blame for starting such a trend: Give me enough medals and I will win you any war: said the indefatigable Boney, but sadly he was hoisted by his own petard at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, and the Iron Duke’s victory signalled a turning point in the evolution of the medal. Not only did they now come with ribbons, yes! you could wear them, but the Waterloo medal was entirely democratic. It was a personalised engraved silver medal, given to all who fought at this momentous battle and to the families of the fallen.
With Queen Victoria on the throne by 1837, the Victorian era lavishly celebrated the achievements of the Empire and the Colonies. The Crown and the Military awarded countless medals far and wide. This was the golden age of the medal. And by 1877 Victoria’s Empress of India Medal also came with a ribbon, and for the first time ever, a Royal medal could be worn – with pride.
In the beginning, Coronation Medals were only presented to close members of the Royal Household and were purely commemorative i.e. not for wearing. Very few were produced, and true Coronation Medals were, and still are, struck by the Royal Mint, thus – they are never hallmarked. The first Coronation Medal is considered to be a silver medal to mark the coronation of James 1st in 1603. These early Coronation Medals resemble coins, as did all the early military medals, going back as far as the mid-17th century English Civil War.
The first notable medal and coin designer, also a Frenchman, was Nicholas Briot, he emigrated to England from France and became chief engraver at the Royal Mint in 1633. He designed the gold and silver medals for the 1626 English Coronation of Charles 1st and the 1633 Scottish Coronation. From Charles 1st onwards, all monarchs who were crowned, issued a Coronation Medal, being a total of 15 monarchs to date.
As mentioned above, the value of all medals is driven by the word: provenance and naturally, the condition. The most expensive and exclusive Coronation Medal is the 1651 Charles 2nd Scottish Coronation medal. This was 31mm in size and was produced in gold and silver. Designed by Sir James Balfour, a good silver example can reach £3,000. Contrast this with a sliver 1603 James 1st Coronation Medal at approximately £1,600 and you can see that values are not high, and they continue to drop into the mid to low hundreds. The collecting base for all British medals of any description is principally in the UK and America. No real surprise there.
But collectors themselves are very specific and idiosyncratic. It would be a rare collector who would only collect Coronation Medals, more than likely they would collect all things Royal from a particular period, this would include Coronation Medals, Jubilee Medals and so on. There are collectors out there who will only collect medals relating to a particular regiment or even – engagement, be it air, sea, or land. These are known as “type” collectors and they are usually driven by a family association, and this is where the human factor comes into the equation. For this reason I have included the following, as it is a brilliant example of an emotive piece of writing by my friend, author, and journalist Richard Benson from his 2015 novel The Valley:
Dawn, one morning in autumn 1917.
Corporal Walter Parkin is struggling across no-man’s land to attack the German lines, when he sees the officer leading the attack caught on barbed wire.
As shells explode around them, Walter moves to the officer and tugs at the wire. He frees him, and to great relief, the officer orders a retreat.
And then a blast catches Walter, and he becomes entangled. He writhes, barbs rip his clothing and skin, he feels hot pain in his back, and then passes out.
He is so badly hurt, his lacerations so badly infected, that Walter is sent to England for treatment.
Meanwhile the officer writes a letter to his unit’s top brass recommending that Walter receive the Military Medal.
The Military Medal was awarded for acts of bravery in the field by other ranks, ie not officers. Walter, a 25-year-old coal miner when he signed up in 1914, was not officer class.
His award was announced in the London Gazette on 28 January 1918, and the medal now sits in a tin box at his grand-daughter Lynda’s bungalow in an ex-mining village near Barnsley. With it, in its bed of old cotton wool are other items in a tiny archive, including the three standard-issue medals received by all soldiers who served in the First World War, and an officer’s Christmas card, sent home to his family from the Somme in 1916.
Lynda is my aunt, and Walter was my great-grandfather. I always think of the medals tin on Remembrance Day, and I wonder how many other people who served are remembered in this way in homes across Europe; medals, ribbons and cards betokening unimaginable horrors now snugly tucked away in cupboards and drawers.
Our tin is important to me, because its contents are how I learned about Walter when I was younger. I was also told that he was sent home for treatment on two other occasions during the war, found pit-work hard when he came home, and by 1926 was on strike because the coal owners had reduced wages.
By 1943 he was dead. Walter was proud of his service, he had given his life for his country.
This is a true account of the terrifying Great War and perfectly encapsulates the hierarchy, the agony and the bravery of the countless men and women serving their country within military and civilian situations, to this very day. Lest we forget. As Winston Churchill once said: A medal glitters but it also casts a shadow…
The 1902 Coronation of King Edward 7th and Queen Alexandra was a turning point in celebrating Royal occasions and bestowing Crown medals accelerated. The King eagerly grasped Victoria’s mantle and issued a silver Coronation Medal to all members of the Royal Family, high government officials, foreign dignitaries, senior officials, and service officers. Selected NCO’s and other ranks of the Army and Navy taking part in the parades were awarded the medal in bronze.
The 1911 Coronation of King George 5th and Queen Mary marked the first occasion that the medal was awarded to those not actually attending the ceremony itself. And the1935 Silver Jubilee medal (85,324 were struck) was distributed liberally throughout the Empire (see image L).
The 1953 Coronation of Queen Elizabeth 2nd took place on June 2nd (see image R) and news reached London in the morning that the ascent to Everest by Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing had been successful; this motivated Her Majesty the Queen to mark this momentous feat, by awarding a special Mount Everest Expedition Coronation Medal to the climbers and their associates. These are rare, as only 37 were produced, and each one can realise approximately £1,000 on the open market.
We look forward to the Coronation of King Charles 3rd on May 6th but what will the Coronation Medal look like? Will it take the form of our new currency with a profile of His Majesty and a crowned version verso? Or will Sir Jony Ive, former Apple design supremo, who has worked on many previous projects with King Charles have any say? He is behind the Coronation Emblem inspired by the King’s love of nature and the welcoming of spring; this features the four flowers of our Home Nations – the rose of England – the thistle of Scotland, daffodil of Wales and shamrock of Northern Ireland – all in the shape of St Edward’s Crown. This crown was made for the coronation of Charles 2nd and is one of the most iconic symbols of the British monarchy and will be used to crown the King at the Coronation service in Westminster Abbey. The Coronation Emblem will be produced in English and Welsh (below).
GOD SAVE THE KING!
About the Author – Alastair Ashford
Having been sent to Haileybury & Imperial Service College at a young age, I was granted a quick and inglorious exit, after turning down a place at Sandhurst, to study Fine Art at High Wycombe & Amersham Art College.
After a magical time in Southern Ireland, I ended up at Dartington College of Arts, Devon and thence to Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle USA where I discovered photography and returned to do Advanced Photography at West Sussex College of Design. After a photographic career in product advertising, I did a Master’s Degree in Fine Art Valuation.
I then worked as a consultant for Plowden & Smith – restorers to the Crown and started writing for Nova Films, and became an NUJ member and an arts journalist for the Antiques Trade Gazette.
I am currently engaged by an artist’s estate on a Critical Catalogue, and I am setting up an arts foundation on their behalf. I am a specialist consultant for the Art Advisory Group Ltd and currently deal in 20thC Iconic Furniture and Art and have a wide-ranging interest in all the decorative arts.
Images: The above medal images with thanks to all at Baldwin’s and Mark Smith head curator of medals at Baldwin’s, The Strand, London
2023 Royal Emblem image to mark King Charles 3rd Coronation: Credit Buckingham Palace (royal.uk/coronation-emblem)
Many thanks to Mark Smith (medal curator at Baldwin’s estb.1872 and often seen on The Antiques Roadshow) for his help, time, and patience, with this article.