Last month we started shipping new 2022 proof Britannias which feature two new
reverse designs. These were gold coins commissioned by The Royal Mint to celebrate the fact
that this iconic female figure has appeared on British money in some form for an
uninterrupted 350 years. That’s a long stretch of fascinating numismatic history but
her origins date back much further.
Who is Britannia?
‘Britannia’ is the Latin name for the island of Great Britain and came to refer to the
Roman province that encompassed a good portion of the landmass after the
conquest of 43 AD. From the second century, Britannia was personified as a warlike
goddess, armed and holding a shield.
She appears on the reverse buy gold couns of coins issued under the Emperor Hadrian, seated, her
shield at her side. It’s a strong, elegant depiction, similar to contemporary images of
Athena-Minerva, but also a reminder of Roman hegemony, achieved through bloody
occupation. On the coinage of the Emperor Commodus, Britannia is ready for battle,
holding a sword and a helmet. She reminds us of legendary queen Boudicca who
resisted the Roman invaders.
The term ‘Britannia’ remained in use after the Roman withdrawal as a way to refer to
‘the land of the Britons’ but employing a female figure to give face to this idea fell out
of favour for a millennium.
It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that Britannia the woman made her appearance
again, dredged up from England’s distant past during the reigns of the nation’s first
queens regnant: Mary and Elizabeth. Drawings of those old Roman Britannia coins
were printed in William Camden’s chorographical survey of the British Isles –
appropriately named Britannia – translated into English in the early years of James I’s
rule. She’s also shown on the frontispiece of later editions, tying the goddess to the
newly unified kingdom.
Britannia on British Coins
It would be a few more decades before Britannia returned to coinage. She’s first seen
on the reverse of a Charles II pattern Farthing of 1665, entering circulation in 1672
with a Halfpenny issued the following year. The diarist, Samuel Pepys, tells us that
the model was Frances Stewart, later the Duchess of Richmond and Lennox.
A renown beauty, Stewart’s likeness is also reputed to feature on a 1667 medal
commemorating the Treaty of Breda, designed, like the coins, by the engraver John
Roettiers. On the medal Britannia is seen seated on the seashore, contemplating a
fleet of ships. Its images like this that would create a strong association between
Britannia and British naval power, emerging at the same time as the Royal Navy
attained supremacy at sea.
In this period, anthropomorphic personifications of states became common in
Europe, either reviving Roman concepts like Germania or creating them from whole
cloth in the same model, a good example being Helvetia. These usually female
symbolic figures connect the nation to a real or imagined ancient tradition, distinct
from that of its neighbours, suggesting continuity of culture in a period when the
concept of nationalism was in its infancy.
Britannia would feature on the coinage of every monarch after Charles, co-opted for
the coinage of Great Britain after the Acts of Union, passed during Queen Anne’s
reign. At this point Britannia’s shield gains a Union Jack motif. It’s said that under
Anne, Britannia begins to look a little like the monarch, blurring the lines between
symbol and sovereign and presaging the association between Britannia and royalty,
as well as the nation at large.
The Soho Britannia
Of all denominations, Britannia is most closely associated with the Penny. She
appeared on these coins from 1797 to 1970.
The earliest Britannia Pennies, struck in copper, were produced at the Soho Mint.
Established in 1788 by the Scottish manufacturer, Matthew Boulton, this private mint,
based near Birmingham, used steam power to drive its presses and innovated new
techniques designed to thwart counterfeiters.
Boulton spent a decade lobbying for the contract to strike official British copper
coinage before his large, heavy Pennies and Twopence coins were approved. Both of
these coins featured a reverse design by the German engraver, Conrad Heinrich
Küchler. His Britannia is seated facing left on a rocky promontory amid waves, a
sailing ship in the distance. A shield rests at her side and she holds an olive branch in
one hand and trident in the other.
This was the first time that Britannia has been shown on coinage with a trident. The
three-pronged spear was carried in ancient legend by the Greek god Poseidon and
his Roman equivalent, Neptune. Placing this weapon in Britannia’s hand positions
her at the helm of a naval superpower, then approaching its zenith.
Wyon, Wyon and de Saulles
Minting those large Soho Pennies became uneconomical as the price of copper rose
so smaller coins, bearing a modified Britannia reverse, also by Küchler, were
introduced in the early nineteenth century. This was itself replaced in 1821 with a new
design by the engraver William Wyon for the coinage of George IV.
Wyon’s Britannia wears a grecian helmet and faces left. It’s easy to compare her with
the artist’s other allegorical depictions of women for British coins including his Three
Graces (1817) and Una and the Lion (1839). On early George IV Farthings, Britannia is
shown with a a lion at her feet, an olive branch in hand. A lion-less design was used
on other copper denominations and later Farthings.
This simplified design was used into the early part of Queen Victoria’s reign, as the
figure of Britannia became increasingly conflated with the image of Victoria herself.
It’s a regal, sometimes warlike Britannia, very like Wyon’s version, that appears in Sir
John Tenniel’s Punch cartoons and a host of contemporary paintings.
When copper coinage gave way to hard-wearing bronze in 1860, Britannia would
remain a feature on Pennies, Halfpennies and Farthings though a modified
engraving was introduced. This was the work of Leonard Charles Wyon, son of
William. LC Wyon’s Britannia is similar to the earlier design though a lighthouse and
a ship are added in the background.
The younger Wyon’s Britannia featured on British bronze coinage until 1895 when
the design was again reworked, this time by George William de Saulles. His Britannia
– sans ship and lighthouse, holding a larger shield – would be used for the remainder
of Victorias reign and that of her successors: Edward VII and George V. A slightly
modified design (including a lighthouse) was used on the Pennies of George VI.
Ironside’s Britannia and £2 Coins
The image of Britannia endured on British Pennies until decimalisation brought with
it a new portcullis design. She wasn’t lost, though, simply transferred to a new
denomination, introduced in 1969.
When the seven-sided Fifty Pence piece was first issued, just before Decimal Day, it
featured a reverse designed by English artist Christopher Ironside. His Britannia is
again seated, a lion at her feet, olive branch in one hand trident in the other: the
perfect balance between might and mercy. The model for this twentieth century
Britannia was Ironside’s second wife, Jean, who supposedly held a ruler and a piece
of paper in lieu of other implements.
There was a brief gap before Britannia returned to circulating British coins: she
began her reign on the Two Pound in 2015 in a new reverse design by Antony Dufort
which dresses Britannia with all her traditional accoutrements. The edge inscription
on these bimetallic coins reads ‘QUATUOR MARIA VINDICO,’ which translates as ‘I
claim the four seas’ if the trident didn’t make that naval connection obvious.
Though there was an interregnum between the last Ironsides 50ps and the first new
£2s, Britannias reign has continued uninterrupted on an influential range of British
bullion coins.
Britannia Bullion Coins
The gold Britannia was launched by The Royal Mint in 1987 to compete with similar
one ounce bullion coins like the South African Krugerrand, the Canadian Maple Leaf
and the US gold Eagle. Like British Britannias, these investment coins were all
named with reference to the history and iconography of the countries in which they
The classic gold Britannia – composed of one troy ounce of gold – was joined by a
range of larger and fractional issues as well as a silver edition, struck from 1997
onwards. In 2013 the millesimal fineness of Britannias was increased, resulting in 24
carat gold Britannias and 99.9% silver coins.
Britannia appears in many guises on her own coins, rendered by a wide range of
artists for annual proof editions. She drives a chariot, tames lions and owls (Robert
Hunt’s 2013 reverse) and even takes on the form of the British Isles in a thirtieth
anniversary design by Louis Tamlyn. She’s most commonly seen standing against
the wind, surveying her kingdom, in a design by sculptor Philip Nathan, used for
bullion-grade Britannias.
His standing Britannia owes a lot to an earlier depiction, crafted by De Saulles for the
British Trade Dollar, struck in London and at branch mints in Bombay and Calcutta
between 1895 and 1935. These silver coins brought the instantly-recognisable image
of Britannia to the furthest reaches of the Empire and supported British trading
interests in the East. A similar design, reworked by De Saulles appeared onsite Florins
of Edward VII.
Gold and silver Britannias uphold the close ties between Britannia and British
currency while interpreting her image for modern audiences. From a Roman subject
to a point of national pride, she’s an icon with a long history and a vibrant future.
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