Saint Lambert Charity Token
Prince-Bishopric of Liège, 1686
The exact nature of this ecclesiastical token can not be definitively known today. Church-related tokens are known since the late 16th century and were used for various functions. These can be charity tokens distributed by the church to be used to regulate food, or other goods, given to the poor, particularly on feast days. They can also be attendance or communion tokens, also used to regulate access to certain church functions. Often those tokens are rather generic, are of simple design, and express a pious sentiment. Here, with this St. Lambert Cathedral token, we have certain design elements that promise a more interesting story.
The obverse features a rather iconic skull and crossed bones design below the word ANNIVERSARIVM and the date 1686. The reverse has the words ECCLESI LEODI (Church of Liège) above and below a larger set of crossed femur bones with flames above and below that. So, that was enough to whet my appetite to know more, thinking that it might be related to the Jolly Roger of pirate fame, a romantic notion that proved to be just that. The ‘skull and cross bones’ can be seen on some Roman and early Christian tombs. The Knights Templar used it around the 13th century and, yes, the pirates on the Spanish Main used variations of it in their heyday. More recently the Nazi SS Death’s Heads Units (Schutzstaffel SS-Totenkopfverbände), responsible for running concentration and extermination camps, used the Totenkopf symbol on their caps and collar tabs. Currently, the Skull and Bones Society at Yale University, with many members of the rich and famous, add intrigue to their secret society with the use of this macabre and sinister emblem.
The token’s reverse legend, ECCLESI LEODI, fixes this token to the Church of Liège (Belgium today) where Saint-Lambert (~640 – ~705 A.D.) has been the patron saint since his tragic death. The one-thousandth anniversary of when Pepin, King of the Franks, allowed Lambert to return to his Holy See at Maastricht was around 1687. St. Lambert served as the Bishop of Maastricht and later, Liège, where he is still celebrated as a martyr and patron saint, having defended the fidelity of marriage and not succumbing to Merovingian politics. Though buried at Maastricht, his successor, Saint Hubertus, had his relics removed and enshrined at Liège. St. Hubert was sent to Rome on a pilgrimage by St. Lambert; while there St. Lambert was martyred and Hubert was designated bishop by the Pope. Upon his return, St. Hubert built a magnificent cathedral at Liege and had St. Lambert’s remains interred there. The diocese seat was moved there and the city soon grew in size and stature. While the details are historically sketchy we do know that St. Lambert’s main claim to fame, beyond the miracles he performed, was that he admonished the Merovingian Duke Pepin II (Pepin of Herstal) for infidelity with a noblewoman named Alpaida. This illicit union was responsible for the birth of Charles Martel (“The Hammer”) who became Pepin’s successor, finishing his work to unite all the Frankish kingdoms and becoming the first King of the Franks. Naturally, this public humiliation and admonishment were frowned upon by Pepin and Alpaida, among others, and they had St. Lambert and two of his relatives murdered (~ 705 – 709 A.D.). Charles Martel (c. 688 – 22 October 741), among his other accomplishments, gained a very consequential victory against an Umayyad invasion of Aquitaine at the Battle of Tours, at a time when the Umayyad Caliphate controlled most of the Iberian Peninsula. Upon his death, the Frankish Kingdom was split between his two sons, Carloman and Pepin (the Short, aka, the Younger). Charles Martel laid the foundations for his son Pepin’s rise to the Frankish throne in 751, and his grandson Emperor Charlemagne’s, imperial acclamation in 800.
This copper token is referenced in the booklet by O.P. Eklund’s “Charity Tokens Of The Netherlands”, 1948, as EK# 85. There are several varieties documented, some with dates, some without, beginning around 1635 to perhaps 1705. On some, the skull faces forward and on others, the 3/4 facing skull can be to the left or right. Others depict the skull centered on top of the crossed femur bones. I’m not sure that Eklund was able to document all of the varieties. A complete variety collection would be difficult to assemble but would present a very skully display.