The origin of the French gold franc
The fascinating history of the gold franc began in the 14th century during the Hundred Years’ War. This was the time of a series of waged conflicts between France and Britain, and during the Battle of Poitiers in 1356, in France, the French King John II was captured by his English foes. The English sought a ransom for the French king, three million gold coins to be exact. Once the terms were agreed upon, King John was released, and his return from captivity was glorified with the introduction of a gold coin called the franc à cheval, meaning “free on horse”, alluding to how the King rode out as a free man. Although the new gold franc was thereafter used in trade throughout France, its uniformity was often subject to revaluation. This changed when Napoleon Bonaparte came to power at the beginning of the 1800s.
The French 20 franc gold coin was authorised by Napoleon Bonaparte
Considered one of the world’s foremost military leaders, Napoleon Bonaparte, highly skilled in politics, managed during the end of the French revolution to assert himself as the First Consul of the new French government. A staunch proponent of gold, he authorised the standardisation and creation of the Napoleon gold coin in 1803. The new coin was originally minted in two denominations, 20 and 40 francs. Denominations of 5, 10, 50 and 100 francs were later introduced and minted at various times, but the most popular and consequently most minted was the 20 franc gold coin. The 20 franc Napoleon gold coin weighed 6.45 grams, and contained 90% gold, or 5.805 grams of gold. The 20 franc gold coin was last issued in 1914, and although the design and the depicted effigy changed during this period, the coin’s denomination and uniformity stayed the same, contributing to the coin’s reputation and popularity as a trustworthy and accurate gold coin. Consequently, all 20 franc gold coins minted in the 19th and 20th centuries are referred to as “Napoleons”.
Napoleon III depicted on the French 20 franc gold coin
Born in 1808, in Paris, Charles Louis-Napoleon (III) Bonaparte was nephew of Napoleon I. He grew up in exile due to the removal of Napoleon I from power in 1815 and the subsequent ousting of his dynasty from France. During his adult life in exile, Charles Louis-Napoleon constantly hatched plans how to reinstate himself as the rightful heir of the former Napoleonic empire.
In 1848, the window of opportunity presented itself when the French King Louis Philippe, as a result of the February Revolution was overthrown. Charles Louis-Napoleon, who had returned to France, managed to secure a majority of the popular vote in the general election which followed. Consequently, he was sworn in as the president of the new French Republic. During his early tenure, he ruled as a president, but due to being constrained by the French constitution to only one term in power, he would execute a coup and in the process making himself Emperor of France, thus continuing his rule as dictator.
Although governing with authoritarian leadership, Napoleon III proved to be an effective leader who brought dramatic positive changes to the French society. During his two decade of rule, France prospered both economically and socially. His more noteworthy social reforms included giving workers the right to strike and the right to organize, and providing women greater access to public education. His economical policies included opening up the French economy by lowering tariffs, thus stimulating trade. He invested large sums of money into France infrastructure; railways, canals, roads, and seaport were constructed. During his rule, the French fleet grew into the second largest after the British. Likewise, the French industrial and agricultural production increased dramatically, leading to the threat of famine to recede for the first time in centuries.
Even though Napoleon III enjoyed a wide support among the French electorate, he faced a growing internal political opposition. In 1870, Napoleon III was taken capture when his army lost a decisive battle against Prussian forces. Defeated in battle, France surrendered and lost the Franco-Prussian war. Napoleon’s III political foes took advantage of France weakened position and Napoleon III absence, by relinquishing him of his powers as emperor of France. Once the peace treaty was negotiated between France and Prussia, Napoleon III was set free. Even though he was free, Napoleon III was not able to return home because of his deprived political position and the still heated public anger over the lost war. Charles Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte decided to move to Britain with his wife where he stayed until his death in 1973.