Lascaris Castellar countermarked hammered coin c1500.
The Countermarked Copper Coinage of the Knights of Malta
By Donald S. Yarab
The Order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem was given sovereign possession of the island of Malta in 1530 by the Emperor Charles V. The 0rder resided on the. Island until 1798 when it was. forcibly expelled from Malta by the aggressions of the French under Napoleon. One of the more interesting numismatic legacies arising from the Order's tenure on Malta was the issuance of a copper coinage prescribed with 1, 2, and 4 Tari denominations (denominations traditionally associated with the Order’s silver coinage) and the subsequent countermarking of this copper coinage by the Order to attest to its authenticity.
THE GREAT SIEGE OF MALTA IN 1565 AND THE NECESSITY OF COPPER COINAGE
Grand Master John de la Vallette (1557-68) opened his reign with the Knowledge that the Ottoman Sultan Sulieman was preparing to attack Malta with great force. Vallete therefore issued a call to arms to which over 9,000 men responded. He also devoted the resources of the Order to the construction and reinforcement of defensive fortifications in preparation for the coming onslaught.
In 1565, an Ottoman fleet carrying over 35,000 men descended on Malta and commenced a siege which lasted a staggering 113 days. The religious zeal which animated both the Christian and Mohammedan forces gave rise to an Homeric epic. The struggle for Malta, which saw the birth of many extraordinary acts of heroism and valour, was costly. By the time the siege was lifted this astonishingly brutal engagement had claimed over 30,000 Mohammedan and 8,400 Christian lives.
Grand Master Vallette, who survived the siege, immediately began the costly task of reconstructing the Maltese defences. By March of 1566, the Grand Master had placed the cornerstone of the new city of Vallette. This city, erected on the entire area of Mount Sceberras, was designed to provide an impenetrable defence in the event of further Ottoman aggression.
It is small wonder, then, that by 1566 the treasury of the Order was depleted and a general scarcity of silver prevailed on Malta. In order to meet the monetary needs of the Maltese, the Order began minting 1, 2 and 4 Tari coins in copper. Prior to 1566, these denominations were struck in silver.
The new copper coins featured the arms of the Grand Master on the obverse and two clasped hands on the reverse. The reverse Latin inscription read NON AES SED FIDES (Not copper but Faith). Though the intrinsic worth of the copper coins did not even remotely approach the stated value of the coins, the Maltese accepted the coins with, no doubt, the same Faith which enabled them to endure the Great Siege of 1565.
THE PREVALENCE OF COUNTERFEIT COPPER COINS AND THE NECESSITY COUNTERMARKING
The, continuing financial exhaustion of the Order necessitated the issuance of similar copper coinage by later Grand Masters. Such coins were by Grand Masters Peter del Monte (1568-72), Hugh de Loubenx Verdala (1582-95), and Jean Paul Lascaris Castellar (1636-57). Collectors are most apt to encounter the issues of Grand Master Lascaris. Issues of the other Grand Masters are relatively scarce.
Unfortunately the low intrinsic worth and high denominated value of these copper coins, especially the 2 and 4 Tari pieces, soon made these coins a popular object of the counterfeiter's art. Indeed, by 1646 the problem of counterfeit 2 and 4 tars coins became so pervasive that Grand Master Lascaris issued an edict which provided that "it is expedient that all copper coins current in this Island of Malta be restamped in the hope of avoiding frauds which are likely to occur.” Under this and subsequent edicts all copper coins were to be taken to the mint for examination. Coins found to be genuine were countermarked as an indication of their authenticity. In practice, only 2 and 4 Tari pieces were countermarked although an occasional 1 Tari coin was countermarked.
In spite of the countermarking of these. copper coins by Lascaris and the imposition of heavy fines and penalties on counterfeiters, counterfeit 2 and 4 tars coins continued to plague Malta. Thus, many of Lascaris' successors also found it expedient to countermark the copper 2 and 4 Tari coins. In all, six different Grandmasters found it necessary to guarantee the authenticity of the circulating copper coinage by applying various counter-. Two of the Grand Masters found it necessary to countermarks the coinage twice during their reigns.
The countermarks used by the various Grand Masters were symbolic of the arms of the Grand Master or, on occasion, were, some other appropriate religious emblem. These countermarks have been found on 1, 2 and 4 Tari copper coins with the 4 Tari pieces being the most frequently countermarked and the 1 Tari coins being the least frequently countermarked.
In most instances, the countermarks of several Grand Masters appear on a coin. Generally, the 2 and 4 Tari coins appear with between three and five different countermarks. Occasionally, a 2 or 4 Tari coin is found with as many as six different countermarks. Finally, it appears that the most uncommon 2 and 4 Tari coins are those with all the possible countermarks and time with none of the countermarks.
Countermarked 1 Tari coins are seen with such infrequency as to make any generalizations about them prone to significant error.
The British, who acquired Malta after the defeat of Napoleon, allowed the copper coinage of the Order to continue in circulation until 1827 when the British ordered it's withdrawal. This retirement from use was well earned for much of the Maltese copper coinage had been in active circulation for well over 250 years as attested to by the various countermarks placed on them over the years
The following countermarks were employed by the Order to validate its copper coinage.
1. Double-headed eagle within a circular impression (approximate dia. 6-7 mm). Countermark of Jean Paul Lascaris Castellar, 1636-57. Countermark -authorized by decrees of 17th May, 1646 and 28th May, 1646.
2. Double-headed eagle within a shield impression (5 mm x,6.5 mm). Countermark of Jean Paul Lucaaris Castellar, 1636-57. Countermark authorized by decrees of 17th May, 1646 and 28th May, 1646
Note: It appears that the above two countermarks (#1 and #2) are merely distinctive varieties of the countermarking authorised in 1646. Also, the countermark within the shield impression (# 2) seems to be the more uncommon of the two varieties
3. Head of St. John the Baptist within an oval impression (app. 4.5 mm x 7 mm) Countermark of Raphael Cotoner, 1660 -63 Countermark authorized by decree of 19th April, 1662
4. Crowned fleur-de-lys within an irregular impression (app, 4.5 mm x 7.5 mm). Countermark of Adrien Wignacourt, 1690-97. Countermark authorized bar decree of 27th August, 1696.
5. Crowned star within an irregular impression (app. 10 mm x 7 mm). Countermark of Raymond Despuig. 1736-41. Countermark authorized decree of 13th December,1740.
Note: The above countermark (#5) is reported to be the most uncommon of all the countermarks This is attributed to the close of Despuig's reign within months of the authorization of his reign's countermarking.
6. Crowned crescent within an irregular impression (app. 6 mm x 10 mm). Countermark of Emmanuel Pinto, 1741 - 73. Countermark authorized by decree of 31st January, 1741.
7. MA monogram within an irregular impression (app. 6.5 mm x 7 mm). Countermark Emmanuel Pinto 1741-73.Countermark authorized by decree 30th May. 1766.
8. Crowned diamond within an irregular impression (app. 5 mm x 7 mm). Countermark of Emmanuel de Rohan 1775-97, Countermark authorized by decree of 19th June, 1777 and 10th January, 1778.
9. Paschal lamb with banner of the Order within an octangular impression (app. 6 mm x 6.75 mm). Countermark of Emmanuel de Rohan 1775-97..Countermark authorized by decree '17th July, 1792 and 29th October, 1792.
Note: Schembri Pridmore and other early sources erroneously attributed the above countermark (#9) to the reign of Grand Master Raymond Perellos (1697 - 1720) The scholarship of Sammut has definitively attributed this countermark to Rohan's reign.