The First Franc – a King’s Ransom

Gold coins are something special. While silver coins were for the most part the common means of exchange in the mundane world, gold coins were destined for greater things, in this case the ransom of a captured king and in essence the arrival of two great powers, England and France. 

In the 13th century, gold coins started reappearing in Europe. They were still scarce, but they at least existed. No longer were the Byzantine solidus coin, or is successor, the hyperpyron, the dominating gold coin. Northern Italian city-states took over the mantle, with especially the Florentine florin as the leading gold coin. First struck in 1255, was the first gold coin to be struck in significant numbers and for commercial use for about 600 years. In one coin lay the signal of a new dawn of European civilization. 

Surprisingly quickly after the first florin, the French court introduced their own gold coin in 1266. King Louis IX, or Saint Louis, had the Coat of arms of France on the obverse, giving the coin its name, Écu, or “shield”. The coin was not popular, and disappeared again to make infrequent reappearances throughout the next century.

A Century to Forget

In fact, France was the richest country in Western Europe. The summers were long and warm, the winters mild and advances in agriculture gave a huge turnover. That, however, changed dramatically in the following century. 

The Fourteenth Century was a saeculum horribilis, or horrible century, for Europe. The warm weather period which had lasted for two hundred years subsided, and a cold front took its place. These changes lead to bad harvests and a lack of food. The population, which exploded in the previous centuries, now faced several famines. As that was not enough, France and England were embroiled in a war from 1337 on which would take almost 116 years to resolve. Most of the fighting consisted of plundering of large areas in the French countryside. About ten years later, the extremely deadly plague, the Black Death, killed large amounts of the populous. 

Gold for the King

In 1356, the French and the English clashed in the Battle of Poitiers. While they did fight honorably, the French forces were weakened by internal squabbles, and even though they had the numerical advantage, the English were both better tactically and better equipped. The English-Welsh-Gascoigne army, lead by The Black Prince Edward, captured the king of France, John II.

Portrait of King John II, the Good aged 30–31

The French humiliation showed the open wounds in the French nobility for all to see. Outdated, divided and ineffective, they blamed each other, and mainly the king. When the English demanded first four, and then three million écu, many nobles balked.

The regent in the king’s captivity, Charles, had the unenviable task of raising money for the ransom and for the needed upkeep of the now weak army. The Estates General refused to grant the money, and ousted the regent. A civil war ensued, and Charles returned to power. He raised the money, and the king was set free.

Well, to be precise, the Black Prince treated the king to such luxuries during his captivity that the king probably saw little point in returning to the impoverished France. He would hunt pheasants, go to balls, eat lavishly, meet his family and converse with interesting people. 

In fact, rumours have it that the king negated several reasonable demands made by the Estates General to prolong his stay. When he did return, it was in exchange for his second oldest son, Louis. As Louis escaped, John returned to England. If this was a matter of chivalry or longing for British hospitality is a matter of debate.

France would probably have produced gold coins faster and with much less opposition a century earlier, when the king was popular and finances were good. Now, however, the coins were minted in few numbers each year, and the amount was not met until the reign of Henry V about 60 years after the ransom was set.

The Majestic Coin

While the ransom was expressed in écu, it was paid in another currency. The coin had its own motif, and it did not feature a shield. To unite the French, Charles had made the image of King John II in full armor on horseback on the obverse. The motif was understood as the king free and on horseback, or in French: Franc à cheval. This, or possibly the legend “Rex Francorum” was the reason for the new name – the Franc.

The Franc lined the English coffers for a long time, and helped the English in their own development towards a sound money-based economy which was the backbone of the English Empire from the late 15th century onwards. The coin might have been French, but the fortunes were English.

It was also the start of a more sound financial policy for France. The Franc was fixed at a livre tournois, a specific weight, of gold. This predictability meant that for a good two hundred years, the French had a gold coin which could compete with both the Florin and the Ducat.

That is not all. The gold Franc followed the fortunes of the war. For while the gold coins did pay for the king who would defeat the French at Agincourt, it also paid for the 16 year old girl who rallied the French army to turn the tide and lift the siege of Orléans. Joan of Arc started the ousting of England from Europe and the defeat of their French allies. 

This is therefore not only a coin, but also so much more. It is the start of sound French policy and unity. France had arguably never been in a more humiliating position than the one they were in when the coin was minted. When the Franc was discontinued in 1641, France was the strongest country in Europe militarily and arguably financially. It was feared by most and commanded the respect of all. This coin is quite simply French pride and honour minted in precious metal. 

The First U.S. Commemorative?  A Gold Rush Treasure Story

Image courtesy of Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS)

While the 1892 Columbian Half Dollar is officially published as America’s first commemorative coin, there is another legendary issue that many argue is the true heir to this prestigious title:  The 1848 “CAL.” Gold Quarter Eagle

The reason for this claim? The 1848 Gold piece was minted from the very first gold sent east from the famous California Gold Rush, and each coin bears a special “CAL.” Stamp above the eagle as recognition of the pedigree and source of the gold.

Born in the Gold Fields of California

On January 28, 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill near Coloma, California – and this single event ignited one of the most exciting times in the young nation’s history. People from all over the country, and indeed, the world, flooded into the gold fields of California and surrounding areas armed with rustic tools, a strong back, and the dream of striking it rich.  

Between 1848 and 1855 an estimated 300,000 people arrived in the California territory.  Settlements quickly sprung up, many of which would become cities which thrive to this very day. San Francisco became a boom town – eventually getting its own branch mint to strike coins from all the gold being mined from the surrounding countryside. Transportation also rapidly improved – including advancements in railroads and steamships – and this all fueled the further development of California.

All these changes ultimately led to the admission of California into the Union as a state in 1850 – only two years after the Sutter’s Mill discovery!

Gold Rush Gold Travels East

Less than a week after the original discovery at Sutter’s Mill, California’s military governor, Col. Richard B. Mason, ordered Lt. Lucien Loeser to immediately depart for Washington, D.C. carrying samples of the newly found California gold.  This first gold, packed in a tea caddy, made the long overland journey to the East coast, where it ultimately ended up at the Philadelphia Mint to be assayed (tested for purity.)  

After it was assayed, the Philadelphia Mint struck an estimated 1,389 gold Quarter Eagles ($2.50 denomination) made exclusively from this California gold.  To commemorate this event, the abbreviation “CAL.” was counter stamped into the surface of each coin – directly above the head of the eagle.   

A Legend Is Born

Because of this incredible pedigree and the commemorative nature of the CAL. designation, many argue that the 1848 CAL Gold Quarter Eagle truly deserves the honor of being called the First US Commemorative Coin.  

Only 1,389 coins were ever stuck, and only a fraction of that mintage have survived to this day.  The coin’s romantic story, great historical significance and scarce numbers have all served to make it incredibly popular and justifiably valuable.  

A review of the major grading services reveals that this gold treasure has been submitted for grading around 127 times, and they have achieved grades from Good 6 to MS68.  These days, an 1848 CAL Quarter Eagle in Mint State 60 grade is valued at around $130,000 – while the same coin in highest grade can be expected to bring $475,000 – $800,000 at auction. 

Buyer Beware!

Of course, as one might suspect, the nature of the CAL counter stamp and the high value of these rarities have led to many forgeries of this historically significant rarity over the decades.  

The Infamous ‘Folsom Prison Nickel’

What follows is the text of an article which appeared in San Francisco’s The Call newspaper, March 10, 1898. 

Outside of California residents, most of the rest of the world was to first hear the name Folsom Prison in the 1955 hit song “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash. In 1968, Johnny Cash performed live at the prison to the delight of inmates and jailers. 


Guards Surprise Convicts Busily Engaged in Coining Nickels in the Engine-Room.

SACRAMENTO, March 10. 

A counterfeiter’s layout has been discovered at Folsom within the State prison walls, the last spot on earth where one would look for the illegal minting of Uncle Sam’s coin. If there is a place in the broad universe where neither the opportunity nor demand of money arises it is within the walls of the State prison; at least such is the general impression of people who are without experience with criminals. To those who have had dealings with me sentenced to long terms of imprisonment for the commission of crime it is known that there is no passion or desire stronger than the predilection of a prisoner to carry upon his person some small amount of money. On the part of many it becomes a mania, and they will resort to all sorts of devices and any kind of a subterfuge to withhold a few pieces of coin from the Warden upon entering the prison. Secretary Smith, in speaking of this peculiarity on the part of prisoners, once said to The Call correspondent: 

You would be surprised to know what difficulty we have in securing money from the prisoners who are brought here. No second termer ever comes without an endeavor to conceal upon his person some bit of money. I have known them to have five-dollar pieces covered with cloth and sewed upon their vests as buttons. They conceal money in their hair and in their ears, and we are not always successful in obtaining possession of it. Not long ago I brought $75 worth of books for our library with money found around the prison grounds — money that had been hidden by convicts or carried in, notwithstanding the precaution we take to relieve all the prisoners of every cent they have upon their person when entering for registration .” 

But while it may not be astonishing to find this overwhelming desire on the part of convicts to conceal their spare change, there is probably no prison in the United States where the criminals successfully operated and circulated bogus coin, manufactured within the prison walls under the very eyes of the officers. For some time past Officer Charles Jally. whose station is at the rock crushing plant, has had his suspicions aroused by the peculiar conduct of some at the prisoners under his control At first he thought these whisperings and signals were carried on in the planning of some scheme to smuggle in opium. This is a very common matter at the prison, and only last week Guard Lamphry burned ten pounds of the drug which had been surreptitiously brought within the confines. After three or four days of watching Jally informed Superintendent Taylor, and both became convinced that some deeper plot was being laid, and they became more determined than ever to ascertain the cause of so much suppressed excitement among the convicts. 

Yesterday they were rewarded. Some time during the morning Jally informed Taylor  that there was something wrong in the engine room. Taylor gathered about him Guards Jally and Silak. and the three made a rush for the engine room. Convicts Cayne(sic) and Brown were encountered, and as the officers rushed in both convicts leaped through a window in the engine room and ran to the tank of the canal, which was within a short distance of the engine house. One of the guards followed them, while the others proceeded to Inspect the engine room.

As the convicts reached the edge of the canal there was a splash of muddy water. The crucible and dies they had used were forever beyond the possession of those in pursuit. The quick sands and murky waters of the American River were safe custodians of their guilt.

There were other evidences, however, and they consisted of a pile of nickels which were captured by the guard who entered the engine room. These nickels were splendid specimens of workmanship. The material out of which they were made consisted of babbiting, which is a white soft metal which forms the inside rim of the axle box found on a locomotive. This substance was taken from the engine which runs through the prison grounds and hauls the trains of crushed rock which are shipped from the prison rock crusher.

The nickels are seemingly as perfect and complete as any ever made by Uncle Sam. Many of them have been given circulation and The Call correspondent found no difficulty in procuring one of them in the town of Folsom.

How the dies and crucibles were ever made will perhaps remain a mystery. Plaster of parts molds were used, and in the engine room were found many fragments of this material.

Captain Murphy was rather reticent when asked about the affair.

It amounts to nothing,” the captain said, “and if it did I would not talk about it in the absence of the warden. I do not deem it to be best for the prison discipline to take such matters up and give them undue publicity in the papers.”

When shown one of the spurious coins the captain admitted that he had seen them, but beyond the admission he preferred to say nothing.

It is not supposed that Cayne and Brown are the prisoners who made the molds, but as there are several counterfeiters doing time in Folsom, it is probable that the devices used were made by some of them, and the coining of the counterfeit left to Cayne and Brown.

A very extensive traffic has for a long time been going on among the prisoners, and the officers have been at a loss to know where the convicts obtained the money which had been so freely circulated. The cigarette paper among the convicts is a very choice article, and they will give almost anything: to obtain a package of it. On the other hand, there has been a great quantity of opium smuggled in lately, and there is no doubt that these coins ; were being made for the purpose of paying those who sent it in from the outside, as well as exchanging them for cigarette papers.

It is a matter of some regret that the entire layout was not captured, as it no doubt would have given the officers some clew (sic) as to the means employed in obtaining it. Some of the officers think that the dies were smuggled in from the outside, while others hold that the entire apparatus was made within the prison walls. As there are many tools and furnaces available around the quarries, it is very probable that the latter theory is the correct one.

The ladle used appeared similar to those used around assaying establishments, while the crucible was crude in form, and appeared as though it had been melted into shape from railroad couplings.

There are many cars arriving every day in the yard, and it is from these that the prisoners are supplied with opium from the outside. The most wonderful devices are employed in this prohibited traffic. Opium has been found in the axle boxes of the cars, or fastened to the inside of a brake beam; in fact there is no place about a flat car that has not been used in concealing the drug.

The impression prevails among the officers that it was the intention of the convicts to coin a great quantity of nickels and then ship them out on the freight cars, where their friends on the outside could receive them in exchange for opium.

It is probable that nothing but nickels were attempted to be made for the reason that the convicts could not obtain the metal necessary to manufacture silver coins.

An 1898 Liberty “V” Nickel

The Treasure from the SS City of Cairo

In 2013, Deep Ocean Search Ltd, a British-led team, successfully retrieved £34 million of silver coins from a shipwreck in the South Atlantic ocean. Working at a depth of 3.2 miles, the operation set the world record for the deepest salvage of cargo in history. When the news was made public in 2015, it was widely reported that the recovered coins had all been melted down.  But in reality, a small number were saved from the melting-pot. Collectors now have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own treasure from this record-breaking operation and hold history in their hands.

The SS City of Cairo

On a cold November evening in 1942, the SS City of Cairo, a British passenger steamship travelling from India to the UK, was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-Boat in the middle of the South Atlantic. At the time of her sinking, few people knew that she was carrying top-secret cargo. A huge consignment of silver coins, which had circulated for decades through British India, was being transported to Britain to be melted down for their high silver content. 

As men, women and children struggled in the water, the U-boat that had sunk them surfaced alongside them. Commander Karl-Frederich Merten informed them that the nearest land was the small island of Saint Helena, 480 miles to the north-northeast. Privately, he considered their chances of reaching land or being rescued at sea to be almost zero, and U-boats were forbidden from attempting to rescue civilians on enemy ships. Merten concluded the conversation by saying, “Goodnight. Sorry for sinking you”, and then sailed away into the night.

With no distress signal having reached the mainland, meagre rations and only one sextant to navigate their course, the prospects for the 296 survivors huddled together in six damaged and overcrowded lifeboats looked bleak. Yet astonishingly, people were rescued from all six lifeboats. Four lifeboats were picked up after spending thirteen days in the shark-infested waters. Sadly, rescue came too late for many in the two remaining boats. A German vessel picked up three survivors after 36 days, though one later died of her injuries. The last lifeboat remained at sea for 52 days before it was spotted off the coast of Brazil. By that time, only two occupants were still alive.


Of the 302 people who sailed on the last voyage, six were lost on the night of the sinking. Sadly, 93 more would perish in the lifeboats as they waited for rescue, and a further eight would die shortly after being rescued. Against all expectations, 195 men, women and children survived their ordeal and made it safely back onto dry land.

For nearly seventy years, the wreck of the SS City of Cairo and her top secret cargo lay undisturbed on the ocean floor. Then, in November 2011, a company called Deep Ocean Search Ltd began searching for the ship, having been authorised by the UK Ministry of Transport to recover the silver coins on board.  

The plan to search for the ship and salvage her lost treasure was the brainchild of deep-sea salvage pioneer John Kingsford, who set up the company. In 1984, he read an account of the sinking by one of the survivors, the ship’s surgeon, Dr Douglas Quantrill, who described seeing boxes of silver coins after the torpedo had blown off the hatches in hold number four. 

Secret government papers confirmed that the ship had been carrying silver on her last voyage. A despatch from Embarkation Bombay to the War Office established that she left Bombay (now Mumbai) with 2,182 boxes of silver coins weighing 122 tonnes. DOS researchers scoured key documents about the sinking as they became publicly available. Military records from both sides provided details of how the ship had sunk and the likely location of the wreck.  

The scale of the challenge facing the team was formidable. The ship’s last recorded position was about 1,000 miles off the coast of West Africa, where the weather, swell, and currents are extremely changeable. Furthermore, there were contradictions between the last known positions of the ship given by the U-boat and the ship’s officers. It meant that the team, which included twenty French oceanographers, would have to search an area of the ocean floor that was around twice the size of London. 

A salvage operation at a depth of over five kilometres had never been successfully accomplished before. Nonetheless, Kingsford believed it was possible and signed a contract with the British Government authorising him to search and retrieve the lost silver treasure. 

Deep Ocean Search took the survey and salvage vessel John Lethbridge, equipped with sonar and robotics, to the target area and began scanning the seabed for signs of the wreck. On board was a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) capable of working in extreme depths and 11,000 meters of sonar cable which tethered it to the ship. It was slow and laborious work. The ocean floor was littered with rocks and canyons, and the team watched the monitor screen intently as the ROV sent back video. It would take a highly experienced eye to spot a man-made object amongst all the naturally occurring features. 

Deep Ocean Search at work

After several weeks of scanning, the team identified a small target that didn’t appear to be a natural occurrence. Kingsford was initially unconvinced that it was the SS City of Cairo because it didn’t correspond to his expectations of how the wreck should look. However, he trusted his team’s view that the seabed looked disturbed, and the curious anomaly was deemed worthy of further investigation. Closer inspection revealed that it was indeed a shipwreck that had broken into two parts and was partially buried in the silt and mud on the ocean floor. But was this the ship they were looking for? 

Images of the wreck site revealed no visible name or builder’s plaque to identify it. So, the team had to analyse photographs and plans of the SS City of Cairo to determine that they had found their target. Eventually, after six frustrating hours, they were able to make a positive identification using the ship’s porthole formation. Then, to confirm their discovery, they saw silver rupees struck with the portraits of British monarchs in hold number four, where they had laid undisturbed for 69 years.  

Silver coins from the SS City of Cairo wreck

The ship had come to rest at a depth of 5,150 metres (nearly 17,000 feet) which meant that any successful recovery of coins from the site would enter the record books as the deepest salvage of cargo from a shipwreck. By comparison, the RMS Titanic lies at a depth of 3,800 metres (12,500 feet).

Working remotely 3.2 miles beneath the waterline, Kingsford’s team overcame huge technical and logistical challenges to bring almost 100 tons of the silver coins to the surface. The operation took eight months, finally reaching completion in September 2013. Before leaving the wreck for the last time, the ROV left a plaque honouring those who had died. It read,

“We came here with respect.”

Plaque left at the wreck site

The recovered coins worth £34 million were handed over to the UK Treasury as per their contracted agreement, and Deep Ocean Search received a share of the sale. When the British authorities permitted the news to be made public in 2015, it was widely reported that all of the silver rupees had been melted down.

However, that wasn’t entirely accurate. 

When the momentous news broke that silver rupees had been recovered from the SS City of Cairo wreck, the Samlerhuset Group began a six-year quest of their own to rescue some of the coins for collectors before they all went into the melting pot. Realising that their customers would welcome the opportunity to own treasure recovered from the deepest cargo salvage in history, the European coin company approached Deep Ocean Search and asked to purchase a batch of the coins.

Their persistence eventually paid off. Almost 22,000 Indian rupees from the record-breaking salvage operation have now been professionally conserved by industry experts, giving international collectors a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own these salvaged coins and hold history in their hands.

Coins recovered from the SS City of Cairo

Speaking about the sale, John Kingsford said,

“It is our wish that the history and amazing story of the SS City of Cairo continues to live on through the silver coins that survived her tremendous ordeal. We are delighted to confirm that the last surviving coins from her treasure have been saved from being smelted and have been professionally restored and made available to collectors worldwide.”

An Edward VII silver rupee recovered from the SS City of Cairo

The operation to recover the coins from a depth of over five kilometres will forever stand as a triumph of human engineering, ingenuity, and skill. Furthermore, each salvaged coin from the top-secret cargo provides a tangible connection with the people who used them in British India and who unknowingly travelled with them on the final voyage of the SS City of Cairo.


Vibece Furseth in the Samlerhuset Group is taking on a new role, becoming the first female mint master and CEO of the Norwegian Mint in Kongsberg.

Vibece Furseth will take on the role of CEO and mint master for the Norwegian Mint in March. She has held many important positions in the Samlerhuset Group over the course of 25 years, and currently holds the role of Operations Director in Samlerhuset Norway. Vibece will continue to lead Samlerhuset Norway’s operations department and is part of the company’s management team, while also becoming the mint master in Kongsberg.

She takes over from Ståle Løkken by the end of March.

The Mint has a first-class team that is in the international league in the field of coin minting, and with commercial insight and in-depth knowledge of the industry, I believe Vibece will be an ideal leader and bring many business opportunities to the Mint in the future,” says founder and chairman of the board of the Samlerhuset Group, Ole Bjørn Fausa.

We thank Ståle Løkken for his good years at the Mint and wish him good luck with new important tasks at a new, strong Kongsberg enterprise,” he continues.

The Norwegian Mint was established in Kongsberg in 1686 and has had almost 50 mint masters during this time, all of whom have been men. Furseth thus becomes Norway’s first female CEO and mint master for the Norwegian Mint.

I am taking over a well-run Mint with over 300 years of traditions in Norwegian industrial history, and I look forward to being part of the competence environment that the Mint represents in coin and minting technology. I have broad experience in the industry and am excited to explore new commercial opportunities for the Norwegian Mint,” says incoming CEO, Vibece Furseth.

The Norwegian Mint in Kongsberg is owned by the Samlerhuset group and produces coins and medals, including the official circulation coins in Norway, on behalf of the Norwegian Bank. The Norwegian Mint also produces the Nobel Prize medals annually.

A Million Silver Dollars

The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair offered its ten million visitors many exciting sights.  Astronaut John Glenn brought his Friendship 7 space capsule, Elvis Presley even filmed a movie there, and Seattle’s famous Space Needle was built as the fair’s futuristic symbol.  However, if you had purchased your ticket and walked on the fairgrounds in the spring of 1962, you would have been treated to a spectacular display which has never been re-created:  a wire corn crib holding 1 MILLION gleaming US Silver Dollars!

This incredible display was the result of an unlikely partnership between the Philadelphia Mint and three Washington numismatists.  The three convinced a Columbus, Nebraska manufacturing company to build a steel building on the fair site, while two large semi trucks each carried 500,000 silver dollars in mint-sealed bags from Philadelphia all the way across country to Seattle.  (Of course, the trucks also carried armed Pinkerton guards, while state troopers and local police provided additional escort.)

To construct the Million Silver Dollars exhibit, 800,000 Morgan silver dollars in mint bags dated 1910-1915 were carefully stacked in the center of the aforementioned corn crib.  Then, once the mountain of bags was completed, the final 200,000 Peace dollars were poured in to completely cover the bags.  Fair visitors were allowed to pass within just a few feet of this amazing display from the Fair’s opening day, April 21, 1962, until it closed in October.   Anywhere from 25,000 – 40,000 visitors passed through the steel building every day to gaze upon this once-in-a-lifetime sight.  While most visitors considered themselves lucky to even be close to this treasure, one unsuspecting lady was the luckiest of them all!  In June, as the one millionth fair visitor passed through the gates, she was presented with 100 of the silver dollars from the exhibit.

In the fall of 1962, just after the World’s Fair has closed, an ad appeared in a national coin magazine offering actual dollars from this exhibit, in commemorative holders, for $1.95 each.  Or, you could purchase up to 5 bags per person for $1500 per bag of 1000.  

Oh for a time machine to travel back 48 years, eh?!!

Roman Britannia

History does not record the name of the engraver who first depicted Britannia on coins. She appeared for the first time during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD), and is presented as a rather forlorn figure, with one hand resting on her chin as if she is contemplating her fate under Roman occupation. In some coins she appears to be wearing a rainproof, hooded woollen cloak known as a birrus Brittanicus, which was popular amongst native Britons to protect them from the inclement weather. Britannia sits with her foot on a pile of rocks, holding a spear and with a large spiked shield at her side.

Britannia, depicted during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian.

Hadrian is, of course, best remembered for building the impressive 73 mile stone wall across the north of England, which ran from coast to coast and marked the northwest frontier of his Empire. Perhaps this is what Britannia is guarding on the coin, ready to repel any invaders who try to breach the defences.

Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s decision to depict Britain as a female warrior may have been inspired by events that took place in Britain fifty-six years before his reign began. In 60-61 AD, Rome was left reeling from a series of devastating attacks that killed many thousands of their citizens living in this remote outpost of the Empire. The uprising was led by Queen Boudica of the Iceni tribe, who achieved what the Romans had thought impossible and united previously warring Celtic tribes against their common enemy.

Statue of Queen Boudica in London – © Anhad Arora

Under her command, the Celts fought with a ferocity that took the occupiers completely by surprise and had burned down the thriving cities of Colchester, London and Saint Albans before the Romans could assemble a sufficient number of soldiers to crush their revolt.

The Boudican Revolt (60-61AD)

During the final battle, it was reported that Queen Boudica drove her war chariot between the tribes shouting encouragement and spurring them on. When all hope of victory was lost, legend has it that she took poison rather than be captured. Her inspirational leadership, daring to challenge the might of the Emperor and refusal to take prisoners or become one herself earned her the respect of Rome, who considered her a worthy adversary, made all the more remarkable because she was also a woman.

Looking again at Hadrian’s coin, it is not a great stretch of the imagination to see Britannia seated next to the large wheel of a sythed war chariot, which Queen Boudica is believed to have driven.

Queen Boudica in her war chariot with her daughters

A similar design appeared on coins issued by Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius (138-161 AD) who, unlike Hadrian, never visited Britain. His army successfully pressed further north and built the 39 mile long Antonine Wal. It spans what is today known as the Central Belt of Scotland between the Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Forth. Constructed primarily in turf and timber, the Antonine Wall took about twelve years to complete and was abandoned after only eight years.

Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall

On some coins, Britannia is depicted holding a Roman military standard alongside her spear. This arguably reflects the Emperor’s pride in securing this remote region of his empire for the glory of Rome.

Britannia holding a shield and Roman military standard on a coin issued under Antonius Pius

Britannia continued to appear intermittently on Roman coins throughout the Roman occupation of Britain. During the reign of Commodus (177-192AD), she was depicted standing with a sword in one hand and a helmet in the other. However, after the Romans withdrew from Britain at the beginning of the fifth century, it would be more than a millennium before she would appear on a coin again.

Britannia Returns!

In 1661, King Charles II invited three Dutch brothers to move to London to join the Royal Mint as engravers. Their father, Philip Roettiers, a goldsmith in Antwerp, had loaned money to Charles during his time in exile and had been promised employment for his sons when the monarchy was restored. The royal invitation announcing the appointment of John, Joseph and Philip Roettiers stated that they were to be employed on account of the King’s long experience of their great skill and knowledge “in the arts of graveing and cutting in stone”.

Though it would appear that the appointment was made to return a favour, there is no doubt that all three brothers were extremely talented engravers. Within a year of arriving in London, John Roettiers (1631–1703) had been appointed one of the mint’s chief engravers and entrusted with the task of preparing the nation’s coinage. His younger brother Joseph, who acted as his principal assistant, later became engraver-general of the French mint in 1682. Their youngest brother, Philip, became engraver-general of the mint of the King of Spain in the Low Countries.

John Roettiers quickly acquired a reputation as one of the finest engravers ever employed at the mint. In 1666, the diarist Samuel Pepys visited him at his studio in the Tower of London, where he saw “some of the finest pieces of work, in embossed work, that ever I did see in my life, for fineness and smallness of the images thereon.” Pepys was so impressed that he resolved to take his wife to see them (Diary, 26 March 1666).

Samuel Pepys

In addition to designing coins, Roettiers produced a new great seal of the kingdom of Great Britain and a large number of important medals. One commemorated the Peace of Breda, which marked the end of the second Anglo-Dutch War in 1667. The large (56mm diameter) medal was struck in gold, silver and bronze, and the obverse was a portrait of the King, wearing a laurel wreath in his long hair. For the reverse design, Roettiers drew inspiration from an ancient coin, first struck during the reign of Emperor Hadrian during the Roman occupation of Britain in the second century.

That design depicted Britannia, the female personification of Britain, dressed in flowing robes and seated by rocks, with a shield in one arm and a large shield at her side. On the Roman coin, she rested her chin on one hand as if contemplating her fate under occupation. Roettiers gave her an olive branch to hold instead, to convey her desire for peace. She continues to hold a spear, and Roettiers emblazoned her shield with the Flag of Great Britain to symbolise the union of England and Scotland. Her proud gaze is fixed on a British Royal Navy ship as it sails out to sea to join others in the fleet on the horizon. The inscription can be translated as, “By the favour of God”.

The Peace of Breda Medal by John Roettiers, 1667

According to Pepys, Roettiers modelled his Britannia on Frances Teresa Stewart, the Queen’s lady in waiting, who became the Duchess of Richmond later that year. If correct, it was an inspired choice by the artist to secure royal approval for his work. When the sixteen-year-old Frances arrived at the royal court in 1661, she quickly attracted the attention of the King, who doted on her and tried unsuccessfully to make her his mistress. When Pepys saw her in the flesh, he described her as the greatest beauty he had ever seen and was in no doubt when he saw the medal that she had been the artist’s muse.

“At my goldsmith’s did observe the King’s new medall, where, in little, there is Mrs. Steward’s (sic) face as well done as ever I saw anything in my whole life, I think: and a pretty thing it is, that he should choose her face to represent Britannia by.”

Pepys Diary, 25 February 1667
Frances Teresa Stuart, believed to have been the inspiration for Roettiers’ Britannia

The medal was a little premature in celebrating the end of the Anglo-Dutch War. Four months after Pepys had marveled at the design,a flotilla of Dutch ships brazenly sailed up the River Medway near Rochester to launch a devastating attack on the English navy in their home port. Thirteen English ships were destroyed by fire, and the Dutch captured and towed away HMS Unity and HMS Royal Charles, considered the pride of the English fleet. The war finally came to an end in July 1667 with the signing of the Treaty of Breda.

The Raid on the Medway in June 1667

Roettiers design of Britannia was so well received that he was asked to adapt it for the reverse of the first copper halfpennies and farthings issued from 1672. It marked the return of Britannia on coins after an absence of more than a millennia. The transition to the smaller surface area meant that the artist had to simplify his design considerably. The maritime setting was lost, along with the ships under Britannia’s watchful gaze. The coins depict her with the Union Flag emblazoned shield at her side, an olive branch in one hand and a spear in the other.

The Charles II halfpenny from 1672 marked the return of Britannia on the nation’s coinage

Roettiers reputation continued to grow. The diarist John Evelyn described him as “that excellent graver … who emulates even the ancients in both metal and stone” (Diary, 20 July 1678). However, in later life, his Catholic sympathies led to him being removed from the engravers house at the Tower of London. In 1696, a House of Commons committee reported that, as a violent papist, he was unfit to remain as custodian of the dies, and he was forced to seek lodgings elsewhere for the last years of his life. When he died in 1703, permission was granted for him to be buried in the Tower that had been his home for thirty-five years.

The inspired decision to return Britannia to the nation’s coinage began an ongoing tradition of depicting her on British coins of the realm. Roettiers design would continue to appear on copper coins until 1775.