Comet of the Archduke Mathias 1577

A comet that portended hope. At least for people in the Netherland.

The historical background of this bright comet was described in the Americal Journal of Numismatics Volume XXIV. No. 3 in January, 1890 by David L. Walter. Also he gave the detailed description of this token as well as other versions of comet 1578 obverseit. I strongly suggest the enquirer reader to study the original document. Here I cite some of Mr. Walter's original text only with slight modifications (in Italics):

On the obverse a landscape by the sea, two pieces of land, one in the bottom, small, with a tower or lighthouse, and one larger above, also with towers ; between them the sea, and in the upper land the mouth of a river ; above all an immense Comet, under which are clouds and in the centre a dot. Legend: "OFFENSI .x. NVMINIS .x. ASTRVM .x." (the star of offended divinity.) Traces of an inner circle.

On the reverse the Archduke in a chariot (quadriga) driving four horses at great speed ; underneath are clouds, in his left hand is a whip, one of the horses rears, and his head is visible above those of the other three ; overhead is the sun. Legend: "SPEM .x. FERT .x. MATHIAS" (Mathias brings hope) Below in exergue: 1578 ; Signs of an inner circle.comet 1578 reverse

As Mr. Walter describes the original tokens were issued in 1577, however some of them were issued in 1578. The date on the die were altered from 1577 to 1578 and this is well visible on the piece displayed here. For me it looks as if the S of the word MATHIAS was also altered, maybe an earlier fault of the engraver was corrected by this way.

But now let's see the what Mr. Walter wrote on the history behind this medal.

The Dutch jetons commemorating this Comet (I know of no other medallic memorials) , at the same time celebrate the coming into the Netherlands of the Archduke Mathias, brother of the Emperor Rudolph. Mathias had been invited by many Catholic noblemen, who feared the ascendency of the Protestant Prince of Orange, and yet were opposed to Don John of Austria, the Governor for Philip II of Spain, to come into the Netherlands and assume the Governor-Generalship ; Mathias being the nephew of Philip as well as brother of the Emperor. Mathias, still under age, fearing that the Emperor, his brother, would be averse to the scheme from dread of offending Philip II, and would prevent his acceptance of the office, slipped out of his chamber at night (October 3, 1577), in his nightdress and barefooted, and left Vienna the same night disguised as a servant, with his face blackened. He arrived at Cologne attended only by two gentlemen and a few servants. Don John of Austria (the Governor) was naturally furious, and the Emperor (Mathias' brother) affected to be so, although some writers seem to think that he was not so ignorant of Mathias' journey as he pretended to be.

The Queen of England (Elizabeth), who was the ally of the States at the time, informed the States General through her minister, that she would withdraw her aid from them if the Prince of Orange were deposed from the leadership, "for on him only did she rely for a favorable result of the war and the troubles in the Netherlands." The representative of the States General answered, that "the great nobles thought that by making Mathias Governor-General, with a Council of native Netherlander, the liberties of the country would be safe, and that through the influence of his brother, the Emperor, who would no doubt be easily reconciled, the Spanish king might be induced to acquiesce, and thus all further trouble avoided." The English representative answered emphatically, that unless the Prince of Orange was appointed Lieutenant-General for the Archduke, the Queen would withdraw her aid. The medals described hereafter were no doubt struck by the Catholic party ; those of 1577 when Mathias first came into the Netherlands. They are dated November 14, and that according to Van Loon was the date on which the Prince of Orange met Mathias and solemnly welcomed him to Antwerp. Other historians give other dates to this event, as the 11th and 21st November, and still others the 17th of December.

The medals dated 1578 were probably struck when Mathias made his Triumphal Entry into Brussels in that year, after being reduced to a mere figure-head by his signature to the Declarations which the States General and the real ruler (Orange), had demanded of him. The details of the career of Mathias in the Netherlands are most accessible to English readers in the great work of Motley. Particularly noticeable are the accounts of the entry of Mathias into Brussels, which is also described with great detail in the "Triumphante Inkomst van Mathias," by Jean Houwaart, a sort of Dutch Lord Chesterfield, who arranged the reception ceremonies, as he had done on the occasion of the entry of the Prince of Orange. Besides the aforesaid valuable work, Houwaart had also composed many plays and poems, and sixteen books, prescribing to young folks the rules of duty which they ought to follow when married. So vivid are the descriptions of the Triumphal Entry, that when we read them we seem to witness the scene itself. We almost hear the music of the many bands, the gorgeous cavalcade passes before us, we behold the fair ladies in the balconies from which hang the rich stuffs of the Orient, the blazing torches, although it was broad daylight, and the streets strewn with flowers, although it was January. Twenty-four theatres were erected upon the square, filled with the allegorical tableaux which the Dutch " Rhetorical Societies" were so fond of representing. And the Comet was seized upon by the medalist as a fitting reverse, for did it not portend good in this instance?

It was not known to Mr. Walter that a commemorative medal was issued in 1881 at the 300th anniversary of foundation of the Dutch Republic. On this medal one of the 1578 comet token was reproduced (that was Fig. 7 on Mr. Walters list.)comet 1881 reversecomet 1881 obverse


For the description of the original token let us go back to Mr. Walter. On the obverse the comet among many clouds, over a walled and many-towered city (no sea), all within an inner circle. Legend: "OFFENSI . NVMINIS . ASTRVM . 1578 :". On the reverse the Archduke in a chariot drives more leisurely, no whip in his hand, and no sun above. Legend: "SPEM ADFERT MATHIAS".

Regrading the comet itself it was important from scientific point of view. Tycho Brahe observed and logged the position of the comet precisely and he was able to determine that comets were above the Earth's atmosphere, beyond the Moon's orbit. Also the comet must have been a spectacular one. Discovered in November 1, 1577 it reached an absolute magnitude -1.8, one of only five comets known to have had a negative absolute magnitude.

Mathias was not a successful governor, and was disgraced by his brother for a long time. Later he got more and more power and in 1608 he became the king of Hungary and in 1612 the Holy Roman Emperor.