Edward VII was 59 years old when he became King. During his mother’s long reign, he had taken little interest in the affairs of state and had instead acquired a reputation as a notorious playboy, much to her displeasure. It was Queen Victoria’s wish that he reign under his birth name, Albert, but he chose not to do so, believing it would diminish the status of his father Prince Albert, whose name, he felt, should stand alone. The playboy prince became a beloved King, hailed as “the Peacemaker’ for strengthening ties with other countries. Like his mother, he gave his name to an era, one defined by major social change, patriotism, modernisation and new technology.
The silver florin struck during the short reign of King Edward VII is rightly hailed as an artistic triumph. The Royal Mint’s Chief Engraver Geroge William de Saulles (1862-1903) created a striking new image of Britannia for the coin to distinguish it from the silver half-crown, which had until then both carried heraldic designs.
Unlike the traditional image of Britannia on bronze coins, in which she sits passively on the shore looking out to sea, de Saulles chose to present the female personification of Britain standing proudly on the bow of an ancient ship with her cloak billowing around her surrounded by a rough sea. Her steely gaze and defiant demeanour against the raging elements show that she is undeterred, undaunted and unafraid. One hand grips a long trident; the other firmly grasps a shield on which is displayed the Union flag. The message could not be clearer;
Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves
The public immediately warmed to the new Britannia, who, it was felt, accurately reflected the sense of patriotism, boldness and adventurous spirit of Edwardian Britain. Tragically, de Saulles did not have long to enjoy his success. He died the following year after a short illness at the age of 41.
To obtain the naturalistic realism he wanted for Britannia, de Saulles asked a young woman to model for him. His choice would prove to be a controversial one. Lady Susan Hicks Beach (1878-1965) was the daughter of Sir Michael Hicks Beach, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Master of the Mint. She was seventeen years old when she first modelled as Britannia for de Saulles as he designed the British trade dollar in 1895. Six years later, she did so again, as he designed the florin.
The revelation that the artist had used the daughter of his employer as his model prompted a question in the House of Commons as to whether the Royal Mint had held a competition to select the designer, as they were supposed to do. However, it would have been clear to all who knew Susan why de Saulles considered her an ideal subject. She displayed the strong independent personality and the spirit of adventure that he wanted his Britannia to convey. She had the advantage of being born into a wealthy family, which allowed her to pursue her love of travel and adventure.
A tragic love story connects de Saulles triumphant image of Britannia on the reverse of the florin and his iconic depiction of the bearded monarch on the obverse. Susan’s close friend and travelling companion was a woman who, but for a cruel twist of fate, would have become King Edward VII’s daughter-in-law and the next Queen of Great Britain.
In 1887, Princess Hélène of Orléans (1871-1951) met the Prince of Wales’ eldest son Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence (1864-1892). The two fell in love, declared themselves engaged and even exchanged rings. In 1890 they visited his grandmother Queen Victoria to request her permission to marry. Seeing their devotion, she gave them her blessing but warned them that they faced a major obstacle.
Hélène was a Catholic, and as an heir to the throne, Albert Victor was forbidden by Act of Parliament to marry one. She offered to convert to Anglicanism, but her father, a pretender to the French throne, refused to allow it. In desperation, she went to Rome to appeal to Pope Leo XIII personally, but he sided with her father.
Meanwhile, Albert Victor offered to renounce his rights to the throne, confiding in a letter to his younger brother George that “I feel I could never be happy without her”. The Queen appealed on his behalf to her Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, but he insisted that the Act must be strictly applied.
To avoid a constitutional crisis, Hélène wrote to her heartbroken lover in May 1891, urging him to “do your duty as an English prince without hesitation and forget me”. Tragically, just eight months later, Albert Victor died suddenly of pneumonia, leaving his younger brother to become King George V after their father’s death in 1910.
In 1895, as Susan modelled as Britannia for the first time, Princess Hélène married Prince Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy, Second Duke of Aosta. The Prince and Princess of Wales attended the society wedding in London, reflecting no doubt that had it not been for religious intolerance and a fatal outbreak of influenza, Princess Hélène would have been their daughter-in-law and the country’s next Queen.
In November 1907, the woman who had modelled as Britannia and the princess who had nearly married the heir to the throne left Naples together and embarked upon a seven-month tour of Egypt, Sudan, the Congo, Uganda, Kenya, German East Africa, Zanzibar, Djibouti and Eritrea. They camped, trekked across inhospitable landscapes and hunted. The adventure was clearly agreeable for both ladies because they made several more foreign trips together before and after the First World War.
During the War, Susan went to France and served coffee on a Red Cross stall in Rouen. In 1915 her father accepted a peerage and became Earl St Aldwyn, and she became Lady Susan. Later, she served as a Justice of the Peace and district council member and helped run the family estate at Williamstrip in Gloucestershire. She never married and so retained her title for the rest of her life.
Sadly, de Saulles majestic image of Britannia on the silver florin survived only for as long as the King’s reign. Upon the death of Edward VII in 1910, the florin’s design reverted to a heraldic motif for his successor King George V.