The history of the Hungarian forint
To better appreciate the Hungarian 20 franc / 8 forint gold coin, one most delve into the part of Hungary’s striking history when King Charles I transformed the Kingdom of Hungary into a great power. Already a significant nation during the early second millennium, Hungary would in the 14th century under the reign of King Charles I become, geographically speaking, the second biggest kingdom in Europe. At its peak, the Kingdom of Hungary stretched from along the Adriatic coast in the west, to the Balkan mountain range in the south, encompassing most of Transylvania in the east, which today is considered part of Romania, and laying claim to the Carpathian Mountains in the north. In other words, Hungary today is only a shadow of its former glorious self.
Charles I, also referred to as Charles Robert, descending from both Italian and Hungarian royalty, laid claimed to the Hungarian throne in the early 1300s. His rule saw the Kingdom of Hungary rise both territorially and economically, establishing itself as one of the foremost countries in Europe. How did he accomplish this? Well, his political and military skills surely helped along the way, but the primary source of his power that enabled him to reign effectively and successfully was gold, and lots of it.
Around the time of his rule, rich gold deposits had been uncovered and were being mined in the mountainous region in what today would be considered central Slovakia. These mines were so rich in the precious metal that the Kingdom of Hungary became Europe’s biggest and one of the leading gold producers in the world. The steady stream of precious metal flowing into the treasury coffers greatly enhanced Charles’s ability to govern. However, the wealth from the mountains would not have contributed to the prosperity of the kingdom as a whole had it not been for Charles’ reform of the country’s monetary system that laid the foundation for the Hungarian gold forint coin.
Witnessing the success of the florin, a 24-karat gold coin minted by the Italian city-state of Florence that dominated European trade at the time, Charles introduced a similar coinage that shared the same uniformity with regard to weight and purity, albeit with a slightly different design. The new gold coinage was in Hungary referred to as “florentinus”, which was eventually shortened to “forint”, hence the name of the denomination depicted on the Hungarian 20 franc / 8 forint gold coin.
To mint the new coinage, Charles granted Kremnica, a major mining town near the abundant gold deposits, royal privileges to set up a mint that would produce the gold forints. The mint began to transform the gold ore into forint coinage that was subsequently distributed throughout the kingdom. Because of Charles’ pledge to keep the uniformity of the gold forint stable, inflation, which had previously been wreaking havoc with the economy, was brought under control. The integrity of the forint also contributed to boosting trade, which quickly picked up as a result of the more convenient and safe way of transacting. This led to an improved fiscal situation for many towns and municipalities, which also benefited the royal coffers through higher tax receipts. Besides helping to grow and enrich the kingdom, the gold forint would become a regional currency of choice for the settling of payments.
The Kremnica Mint that Charles had commissioned to mint the gold forint would outlive Charles, becoming the region’s most important producer of precious metal coinage that, besides striking forints, would be responsible for minting many of Europe’s most famous gold coins, one of them being the ducat. In fact, the Kremnica Mint is today still running, which makes it one of the oldest continuously producing mints in the world.
The founding of the Hungarian 20 franc / 8 forint gold coin
The Kingdom of Hungary was in the next couple of centuries slowly assimilated into the domain of the Habsburg Emperors, at that time one of the most powerful royal families in Europe, and would be part of the Austrian Empire by the early 1800s. Following Austria’s defeat in the Austro-Prussian war in 1867, Hungarian nationalists exploited Austria’s weakened political position and secured partial independence for Hungary, one that gave it full autonomy of its domestic affairs, but which shared a common foreign policy with Austria, thus establishing the dual monarchy referred to as the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Once again in control of its monetary affairs, Hungary introduced the 20 franc / 8 forint gold coinage in 1870. The reason why the new gold coins depicted the denomination of 20 francs was that Austria had three years previously made a treaty with France to become a member of the Latin Monetary Union, which then naturally applied to Hungary as well.
This monetary union was originally founded in 1865 by Italy, France, Belgium and Switzerland, and was an attempt to unify the respective countries’ money into a single uniform currency. The founding members of the union agreed on a uniform fineness and weight of their coinage, which was set to equal the French silver and gold franc, and they agreed to interchange each other’s gold and silver coinage at parity, irrespective of whether it carried another design, effigy or name. This standardisation facilitated and simplified trade among the member countries and was seen as an appealing concept, leading Austria and Hungary to join.
Hungarian 20 franc / 8 forint gold coins facilitated daily trade in the Austro-Hungarian Empire
After the 1870s and leading up to World War I, the Austro-Hungarian Empire prospered. Industry expanded, artistic and scientific segments of society were thriving, the infrastructure was being modernised, railway networks, river channels and ports were being constructed throughout the dual monarchy, Hungary became a leading source of food for the rest of Europe, and the Empire as a whole became the world’s fourth largest machine manufacturer. It was a dynamic economy in which the Hungarian 20 franc / 8 forint coin played an important part by facilitating day-to-day commerce. With incomes rising and trade flourishing, the ruling Emperor of that time, Franz Joseph (who is depicted on this coin), became naturally associated with a time of “plenty”, boosting his popularity as a consequence. He drew a strong loyal following in Hungary, especially considering his pacifist approach towards Hungary that included granting the country autonomous rule.