Tudor coins dedicated to three of Henry VIII's wives found in family garden

<span>Photograph: Trustees of the British Museum/PA</span>
Photograph: Trustees of the British Museum/PA

An important hoard of Tudor coins – some of which shine light on the marriage history of Henry VIII – has been found by a somewhat startled family weeding their garden.

The British Museum revealed details on Wednesday of discoveries registered to its Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), the majority of which are made by the nation’s army of metal-detecting enthusiasts.

This year there has been an increase in garden finds, including two significant coin hoards: the Tudor coins in the New Forest, and 50 apartheid-era South African gold coins dug up in a back garden in the Milton Keynes area.

More than 47,000 finds have been recorded with the scheme in 2020, with 6,251 reported during the full lockdown from March to May, when metal detecting was prohibited.

Ian Richardson, the treasure registrar at the museum, said people had obviously been spending more time in their garden, “resulting in completely unexpected archaeological discoveries”.

That was certainly the case for the unnamed New Forest family who dug up 63 gold coins and one silver coin dating from the 15th and 16th centuries. “They were out turning up the soil and all of a sudden these coins popped out of the ground … miraculously,” said Richardson. “It is quite a shocking find for them and very interesting for us.”

Probably hidden in about 1540, they include coins from Henry VIII’s reign, which are unusual in that they also, separately, feature the initials of three of his wives – Catherine of Aragon (K), Anne Boleyn (A) and Jane Seymour (I).

Barrie Cook, a curator of medieval and early modern coins at the museum, said putting his wives’ initials on gold crowns was “a very strange decision” and, numismatically, very interesting.

Whoever buried the coins was well off, because the total value of the hoard was £24, equivalent to £14,000 today. “That was a great deal of money, certainly more than the annual wages of the average person,” said Cook.

The Tudor hoard contains coins from the time of Edward IV through to his grandson Henry VIII, with the bulk being “angels”, gold coins that have on their back an image of the archangel Michael killing a dragon as described in the book of Revelation. “That’s the workaday gold coin of the late medieval and early modern period,” said Cook.

In 1526 Henry and Cardinal Wolsey reorganised the coinage, changing their weight and introducing new denominations such as the five-shilling gold coin, which eventually replaced the angel.

“Not only does he change denominations, he has this very strange decision of putting his wife’s initial on the coin,” said Cook.

Curators said there was no precedent for the placing of Henry’s wives initials on the coinage, and it’s hard to know why they did. It meant the initial had to be changed on a fairly regular basis. Henry divorced Catherine of Aragon, his first wife, in 1533, angry after she failed to produce a male heir. He was also by then infatuated with Anne Boleyn.

The marriage to Anne, which led to the break with the Catholic church and the English Reformation, lasted only three years as Anne also failed to give him a son. She was found guilty of adultery and treason and beheaded on 19 May 1536.

Next was Jane Seymour, who managed to avoid divorce or beheading but tragically not an early death. She died in 1537 because of postnatal complications two weeks after giving birth to the son who became Edward VI.

Having an initial only lasted until Jane and was not repeated for Anne of Cleves (divorced), Catherine Howard (beheaded) or Catherine Parr (survived).

John Naylor, a coin expert from the Ashmolean museum, said the hoard was probably buried by a wealthy merchant or a member of the clergy. “You have this period in the late 1530s and 1540s where you have the Dissolution of the Monasteries and we do know that some churches did try to hide their wealth, hoping they would be able to keep it in the long term. It is an important hoard … You don’t get these big gold hoards very often from this period.”

The Milton Keynes discovery is less interesting historically, but still something of a puzzle. In total, 50 South African Krugerrand 1oz gold coins, minted in the 1970s, were discovered in the back garden. How they ended up there remains a mystery, the museum said.

Other finds listed in the report include a unique Roman furniture fitting with the “remarkably” well-preserved face of the god Oceanus and a medieval forgery of a bishop’s seal matrix.

The museum also published its annual PAS report for 2019, which reveals that 81,602 archaeological finds were recorded – an increase of 10,000 on the previous year.