Britannia rules the tails side [Stamp and Coin Mart, October 2010, Page 98, 99]
Britannia's image has appeared intermittently on the reverse of a variety of coins during almost two thousand years; but we can trace the genealogy of her name even further into the roots of history, writes Brett Hammond of TimeLine Originals
The Ancient Greeks had a name - Prettanike - for the group of islands, including our own, that lay to the north-west of the European mainland. The Romans borrowed the word, Latinized it to Britannia, and applied it to what was soon to become a Roman province when they began their conquest in AD 43. By the time the emperor Hadrian paid the province a visit (AD 122 ) another Latin word - Caledonia - described all the lands to the north of the great wall Hadrian would order constructed as Rome's north-west frontier, with Britannia securely to the south.
The Romans regarded their provinces as living entities with recognizable characteristics appropriate to their geographical location. They personified Britannia as a warlike female goddess wrapped in a cloak against the northern winds and wearing a centurion's helmet and carrying a spear and a shield as though on guard against invasion threats. Hadrian used such an image on coins issued to commemorate his visit. Hadrian's successor, Antoninus Pius, who briefly established a frontier wall even further north than Hadrian's, also used Britannia on some of his coins, and the image appeared occasionally on Roman coins until the end of the empire in the west.
The Latin name for the former Roman province found its way into the vocabularies of several European languages, and into modern English as Britain. But sovereigns of the late Anglo-Saxon, Norman, indeed all dynasties down to Tudor times, regarded themselves as monarchs of England, and Scotland, and Ireland rather than of Britain. It was not until the Stuart era that strident voices were raised in favour of a British identity. Once again Britannia's images appeared on regal coinage, in the first place on the small change of Charles II. He was a monarch for whom unity between England, Scotland and Ireland would stabilize the throne. Additionally, with the English navy under attack from the Dutch, assertions of supremacy at sea were essential. What better means to those ends than to display Britannia on the king's coins?
Note, however, that as an offering of future peace and friendship Charles provided the Britannia on his coppers with an olive branch clasped in the hand not holding her spear. As an interesting aside, let me mention that the female who modelled for this Britannia was Frances Teresa Stuart, the future Duchess of Richmond. The king's infatuation with her was well known, but she reputedly refused to become his mistress. The last of the Stuart monarchs, Queen Anne, also featured Britannia on her copper farthings, still offering an olive branch, but considerably slimmer and daintier than the aforementioned duchess.
For much of the Georgian eighteenth century dominance of the world's oceans was crucial to Britain's aspirations to empire building. A powerful navy ensured economic, military and political success. Thus the personification of the now unified country as a more maritime Britannia required some alterations to her attire and her arms. During the reign of George III she traded her spear for a trident; additionally a sailing ship appeared in the ocean over which she rode. And when we reached the reign of George IV Britannia lost her olive branch, preferring to grasp her shield instead. Her helmet reverted to the more military style of the Roman centurion who had first appeared on Hadrian's coins.
A crisis blamed on the Napoleonic Wars occurred during the reign of George III when the Bank of England was obliged to issue emergency silver currency by re-striking Spanish eight-reales drawn from reserves in its vaults. The design chosen for this new issue of five-shilling dollars had George III's bust as its obverse, with a silver Britannia taking centre stage on the reverse. To ensure that the Spanish monarch's bust, legends and reverse designs were totally obliterated during re-striking, the bank engaged the services of Matthew Boulton, whose powerful stream presses could tackle the job.
If your interest in collecting a few images of Britannia is already aroused, the reigns of George II and III offer much scope for beginners. Huge numbers of contemporary forgeries circulated in those decades, mainly halfpennies and farthings illegally stamped or cast in the years before steam powered coin presses made forgery much more difficult. In poorer districts of cities and towns where so many worn coppers and tokens passed from hand-to-hand people relied on the reverse image of Britannia to identify a coin as British, rather than on the worn obverse bust of a monarch who might be a foreigner. Those 18th century forgeries are enthusiastically collected today.
It was in the same decades that Rule Britannia became a popular and rousing patriotic song among all classes. A few decades later, in Victorian times, the image on the reverse of copper pennies became an advertising symbol seen on everything from public house signs, to farm machinery, to patent medicines. The popularity of the image no doubt received a boost now that the young Queen Victoria on the obverse could be identified with the female figure on the reverse. When Victoria's bronze bun-head pennies, halfpennies and farthings were introduced in 1860 Britannia was accompanied on the reverse by both a sailing ship and a lighthouse. Those coins proved so immensely popular they were minted in every year from 1860 to 1895.
In the new 20th century the lighthouse and ship vanished from Edward VII pennies, halfpennies and farthings, leaving Britannia sitting alone. However a standing Britannia appeared on the short-lived silver florin of that reign (1902-1910). There were no further innovations until George VI pennies (1937-1948) displayed the lighthouse. When our present monarch took the throne she kept faith with Britannia on her pennies until 1970 when we entered our decimal era. Only the new cupro-nickel fifty pence continued the Britannia tradition until production ceases in 2008, though many millions of well-worn fifty pence coins remain in active circulation.
It is still possible to collect new British coins depicting Britannia - if you can afford to buy gold. Since 1987 a series of bullion coins known as Britannias have been issued, containing one troy ounce, half ounce, quarter ounce, and one-tenth ounce of fine gold with face values of £100, £50, £25, and £10. Each has a 21st century version of Britannia on its reverse.
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