British numismatic historian, Justin Robinson, takes us on a fascinating journey spanning 2000 years as he examines how the powerful symbol of Britannia changed and evolved over the centuries.
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).
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”.
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
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.
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.
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.
The Industrial Revolution, which began in the middle of the eighteenth century, transformed Great Britain’s need for money. People living off the land in rural regions of the country had always been largely self-sufficient. They grew their own food, made their own clothes and bartered with their neighbours for everything else. However, as more and more people streamed into the new urban areas looking for work in the factories, so the need for good quality money to pay their wages became acute.
An official examination of coins in circulation in 1786 confirmed that the nation’s coinage was in a shocking state; badly worn, barely legible, underweight and mostly fake. It was determined that only about eight per cent of ‘halfpennies’ in circulation were genuine, and coins were often so badly worn that it was impossible to discern whether they were foreign, counterfeits or decades old. A population explosion between 1750 and 1800 did not help matters, putting additional pressure on the already inadequate coinage. Genuine coins were often hoarded, with the fakes spent first, thereby proving Gresham’s Law that “bad money drives out good”.
Matthew Boulton (1728 – 1809) was one of the founding fathers of the Industrial Revolution. Together with his business partner, the Scottish inventor James Watt, they developed and championed steam engine technology which powered the new factories and introduced a new era of transportation via the railways.
The Royal Mint responded to the crisis by effectively shutting down and producing no copper coins at all between 1775 and 1821. It was left to others to come up with a solution to the problem of inadequate coinage. Some enterprising business owners began making copper tokens, which could be redeemed by their employees in company shops. Unlike coins, tokens did not require the value of the metal to match the face value of the coin, and so they could be struck in large quantities at little cost. Provided the tokens did not resemble official coins, they were also completely legal to produce.
In 1788 Boulton installed a set of steam-driven coin presses at his Soho Manufactory in Handsworth, Birmingham. Each was made to his patented specifications and could strike up to 84 coins per minute. Boulton had shares in several Cornish copper mines, which gave him access to large quantities of the metal when the mines could not sell it elsewhere.
In addition to producing copper tokens and medals, the Soho Mint also signed lucrative contracts to strike coins for India, Sierra Leone and Russia. They also produced high-quality coin blanks for mints around the world to strike into coins. Over twenty million blanks were produced for the US Mint in Philadelphia, where Mint Director Elias Boudinot described them as “perfect and beautifully polished”.
Despite these successes, Boulton’s attempts to persuade the Treasury to let him use his pioneering steam-powered technology to strike new British copper coins repeatedly fell on deaf ears. He championed his machines at every opportunity, declaring that;
“(they) will coin much faster, with greater ease, with fewer persons, for less expense, and more beautiful than any other machinery ever used for coining … It strikes the pieces perfectly round, all of equal diameter, and exactly concentric with the edge, which cannot be done by any other machinery now in use.”Matthew Boulton
On 14th April 1789, Boulton wrote to the Treasury to complain that two-thirds of the halfpennies he received in his change as he travelled around the country were counterfeit. He offered to produce new copper coins at half the cost incurred by the Mint, but his offer was ignored.
Boulton continued to pester the Treasury for the next eight years until he was awarded a contract to strike copper pennies and two pennies. They had to weigh one and two ounces respectively, so that the costs of the metal and production would match the denominational value. The Treasury hoped that this would restore the public’s confidence in the currency by making them uneconomical to counterfeit. This would encourage people to reject fake coins when they received them in their change.
Boulton’s 1797 dated copper coins were unlike anything people had seen before. The first coins to be struck using steam power were by far the largest and heaviest coins ever to circulate in Britain, with the penny weighing in at one ounce (28.3g) and measuring 36mm in diameter. The two penny weighed two ounces (56.7g) and had a diameter of 41mm. Both coins featured the same design by the Soho Mint’s sole artist and engraver, Conrad Heinrich Küchler (c.1740-1810).
In addition to creating a new portrait of the King for the obverse, Küchler, a German immigrant, also presented a new maritime interpretation of the female personification of Britain. Britannia now sits on an island surrounded by water to convey Britain’s supremacy of the seas.
To reinforce the maritime theme, Küchler removed the spear that Britannia had carried since her first appearance on coins struck during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian during the Roman occupation of Britain in the second century. In its place, he gave her a trident, like the one wielded by Neptune, the god of the sea. In her other hand, she holds out an olive branch as a symbol of peace. To complete the design, a ship sails by on the horizon to symbolise Britain’s naval dominance. The ship is believed to represent a warship, with its gun ports visible. The small mint mark of the Soho Mint (the word ‘SOHO’) can be seen in the rock below Britannia’s shield.
The new coins marked the first time that Britannia had appeared on the penny and two pence. Both denominations were struck with tremendous accuracy to a very high-quality standard. To further frustrate the counterfeiters, each coin had a broad raised rim on each side with letters and numbers stamped into it, which earned them the nickname ‘cartwheels’. Although fraudsters did try to imitate the coin, their efforts were largely unsuccessful. However, once the novelty had worn off, people began to appreciate just how impractical they were in their pockets and purses.
Eventually, the widespread use of lightweight copper tokens convinced the Treasury that the public would accept and even prefer coins with a face value above the cost of the metal made to produce them. When more copper pennies were required in 1806, Boulton was permitted to make them smaller and lighter. Küchler’s maritime Britannia later appeared on copper farthings, and halfpennies struck at Boulton’s Soho Mint in 1799 and again in 1806.
Matthew Boulton provided Britain with a supply of reliable copper coinage for the first time and ably demonstrated that his new steam-powered technology could produce coins of exceptional quality and accuracy in large numbers at a relatively low cost. After he died in 1809, his colleague paid tribute to his business partner in a eulogy, declaring;
“Had Mr. Boulton done nothing more in the world than he has accomplished in improving the coinage, his name would deserve to be immortalised.”James Watt
By the time new copper coins were required in 1821, the Royal Mint in London was ready and willing to produce them once again.
Today, Benedetto Pistrucci is probably best remembered for his neoclassical masterwork of Saint George fighting the dragon on the British gold sovereign. The design has been popular ever since it first appeared in 1817, and is still struck on sovereigns today. However, his second great coin design, created for Britain’s lowest value coin, the farthing, in 1821, has been largely forgotten today. This might be due to the fact that the design was only struck for five short years before it was unceremoniously dropped after the artist suffered a spectacular fall from grace.
The design is of a striking young woman, wearing a long flowing robe and the battle helmet of an ancient warrior. Armed with a trident and a shield emblazoned with the Union flag, she looks out to sea with a proud and focused gaze, as if scanning the horizon for signs of danger and ready to defend her land from invasion. Her name is Britannia, and she is the female personification of Britain.
Britannia was already an established figure on British coins when Pistrucci decided to give her a radical makeover. She first appeared on Roman coins during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian in the second century. The unknown engraver depicted her in long flowing robes and carrying a spear with a large shield at her side. However, after the Romans left Britain, Britannia did not return to the coinage until 1672, when the Dutch artist John Roettiers emblazoned her shield with the Union Flag to symbolise the unity of the Kingdom. More than a century later, in 1797, the German engraver Conrad Heinrich Küchler incorporated a maritime theme into the design, replacing Britannia’s shield with a trident and placing her on an island surrounded by water to convey Britain’s supremacy of the seas.
Born in Rome, Pistrucci quickly acquired a reputation as the finest engraver of his age. Shortly after arriving in London in 1816, he was commissioned to design new coins of the realm. The Italian artist had a passion for classical art, and it was said that he liked to “study Greek originals day and night”. In 1817 he crafted a depiction of Saint George and the dragon for the new gold sovereign and gave England’s patron saint the plumed helmet of an ancient Greek warrior. Four years later, he was inspired to give Britannia the same battle helmet on the humble farthing, which was Britain’s lowest value coin.
Pistrucci may have been inspired to make this radical change to Britannia’s appearance by a popular eighteenth-century painting of the Celtic warrior Queen Boudica by the artist John Opie, who anachronistically depicted her wearing this plumed headgear. It is also possible that he was inspired by artistic depictions of the Pallas, a Titan god in Greek mythology. Pallas appears as a robed female figure with a plumed helmet and shield on several medals, including the medal struck for the coronation of Queen Anne.
Britannia’s striking new appearance on coins arguably transformed her in the public consciousness from a remote, ethereal observer into the strong warrior Queen and protector of the realm. Pistrucci also depicted her on the reverse of his bronze Coronation Medal struck in 1821. This design shows the new King, George IV, crowned by the winged figure of victory, while the female personifications of the British realms, namely Britannia, Scotia and Hibernia, all swear allegiance to him.
Today, one only has to visit the Italian Mint museum in Rome, which holds the world’s largest archive of Pistrucci’s work, to see that the pairing of an ancient Greek battle helmet with the head of a beautiful young woman was a subject that fascinated him.
Another remarkable feature of Pistrucci’s 1821 farthing is the inclusion of a lion at Britannia’s feet. Only the head and front paws are visible, and position is, in heraldic terms, ‘couchant’, that is, lying down with the head raised. He appears to be watching the horizon with Britannia for signs of danger. The striking proximity of the majestic reclining lion to the seated woman is particularly effective and adds to Britannia’s mystique as the fearless protector and guardian of the British Isles.
In keeping with the maritime theme introduced by Küchler in 1797, Pistrucci retained the trident for his Britannia, but she now grasps it like a warrior, pointing it firmly outwards in a combat-ready stance. There was no room on the small farthing to depict her surrounded by water. Small waves appear under her feet to indicate that she is sitting on the shoreline and looking out to sea. Pistrucci also turned her to face the right for the first time, as if to recognise that any future threat to Britain would likely come from the East rather than the West. It would have felt like a pertinent observation, coming just six years after the Battle of Waterloo. Britannia would remain facing right on Britain’s coinage for the next 187 years, until 2008.
Sadly, Pistrucci did not have the opportunity to create a Britannia reverse for the larger copper coins, namely the penny and the halfpenny, which would have allowed him the opportunity to expand his design. No new copper coins were required until 1825, and by that time, Pistrucci was no longer employed as a coin engraver after suffering a spectacular fall from grace.
King George IV was unhappy with the way Pistrucci had depicted him on coins as an overweight Nero with short curly hair and crowned with a laurel wreath in the Roman Imperial tradition. This neo-classical portrait was at odds with the reputation he tried to cultivate as a fashionably modern and debonair ladies’ man. He requested that the Royal Mint change his portrait, and he supplied them with a flattering marble bust of himself by the sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey to use as a model.
Pistrucci was outraged, claiming that copying the work of another artist would violate his artistic integrity. When the King helpfully sent an equally flattering painting of himself by Sir Thomas Lawrence to inspire the artist, it is said that the volatile Italian, after being ordered by his superiors at the Mint to hang it in his studio, stubbornly turned it to face the wall.
Pistrucci’s unwillingness to give the King what he wanted would quickly see him out of royal favour and replaced as a coin engraver by an artist who would. William Wyon dutifully supplied a new portrait of the King modelled on the Chantrey bust, which met with royal approval. The designs that Pistrucci had created for Britain’s coinage were replaced, and he would not live to see his work appear on coins again.
Wyon became the first English artist to depict Britannia on circulating coins. His depiction of Britannia is elegant and well proportioned, but when viewed alongside Pistrucci’s farthing, she arguably lacks the regal bearing and poise of that short-lived design, which was dropped from the farthing in 1826.
Noticeably absent from Wyon’s redesign is the lion that Pistrucci had placed at Britannia’s side and the olive branch she carried as a symbol of peace. But he did choose to retain the battle helmet that Pistrucci had given her. By doing so, he ensured that this would form part of Britannia’s distinctive identity to this day.
A right-facing Britannia continued to appear on British coins throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In 1968, the artist Christopher Ironside chose to reunite Britannia with the lion on the reverse of the new decimal Fifty Pence. Since 2015 she has appeared on the £2 coin, designed by Anthony Dufort. She still wears the battle helmet of an ancient warrior, just as she did for the first time on Pistrucci’s farthing in 1821.
Because Pistrucci’s iconic depiction of Britannia appeared for just five years on Britain’s lowest value coin, his contribution to creating such an enduring symbol of Britain has been largely overlooked today. Unlike his Saint George and the dragon, which continues to be struck on gold sovereigns to this day, Pistrucci’s second great coin masterwork has, at the time of writing, never appeared on coins again.
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.
Amidst the long and illustrious history of British gold coinage, few coins have had such a troubled origin as the 1823 double sovereign. The year marked the first time that the double sovereign had been struck as a circulating coin, and it was destined to bear a one-off portrait of the monarch that would never appear on a coin again.
The Great Recoinage of silver and gold coins, which began in 1816, was still underway when King George III died on January 29 1820. His eldest son George IV (1762-1830), was fifty-seven years old when he became King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Ireland, and Hanover. He had already served as Prince Regent for nine years due to his father’s incapacitating mental illness.
George III had attempted to instil in his son his own high moral values, frugal lifestyle and sense of duty but without success. The new King’s extravagant lifestyle, multiple mistresses and wasteful spending won him few friends amongst ministers and taxpayers, who condemned his behaviour as selfish, indulgent and irresponsible. However, he influenced the fashion of the time in what became known as the ‘Regency’ style and was nicknamed the ‘First Gentleman of England’ for his refined tastes.
George amassed vast debts from spending on horses, palaces, paintings, and numerous mistresses to achieve this cultured status. He left a legacy of many fine Regency buildings, including the Brighton Pavilion. However, his notorious vanity would ultimately result in the removal of one of the most exceptional engravers ever to work on the nation’s coinage.
The task of sculpting the new King’s official coin portrait fell to Benedetto Pistrucci, the brilliant engraver who the Master of the Mint, William Wellesley-Pole, had recruited to create the designs for the Great Recoinage in 1816. As an Italian, Pistrucci was not permitted to hold the official title of the mint’s Chief Engraver as the position was open only to British subjects. However, Wellesley-Pole gave his friend the salary and the workload and left the position vacant.
However, the new King was unhappy with the way Pistrucci depicted him on coins as an overweight, middle-aged Nero in the neo-classical style with short curly hair and crowned with a laurel wreath in the Roman Imperial tradition. The portrait was, arguably, at odds with the reputation he tried to cultivate as a fashionably modern and debonair man about town – a man, who as The Times famously put it, would always prefer “a girl and a bottle to politics and a sermon”.
As soon as the first coins of his reign were in circulation, George IV requested that his coin portrait be changed. He proposed that the new portrait be modelled on a flattering marble bust of himself by the sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey.
Pistrucci was outraged, claiming that copying the work of another artist would violate his artistic integrity. When the King helpfully sent an equally flattering painting of himself by Sir Thomas Lawrence to inspire the artist, it is said that the volatile Italian, after being ordered by mint officials to hang it in his studio, stubbornly turned it to face the wall. Eventually, the King agreed to sit for Pistrucci, but it soon became clear that the artist would not pander to his vanity. As the official record of Mint business was to note;
“To copy the work of another artist appeared to Mr. Pistrucci a degrading act. He declined obeying the order, and the Master was under the necessity of procuring an inferior artist to engrave the Dies from the Model.”
Unwilling to fire his celebrity engraver, Wellesley-Pole attempted to diffuse the situation by persuading Pistrucci’s French assistant Jean Baptiste Merlen to engrave the King’s portrait for the new gold double sovereign in 1823. Merlen did as he was instructed and modelled his design on the Chnatrey bust to comply with the King’s wishes.
Merlen’s design marked a radical departure from traditional coin portraiture. It was the first time that a British monarch had appeared on a circulating coin without a laurel wreath or a crown, something which would have appealed to the King’s elegant style and reputation as a modern trendsetter.
Despite doing an admirable job, Merlen’s elegant ‘bare head’ portrait was destined to appear only on the 1823 double sovereign, making the coin particularly sought after today. His initials (JBM) appear under the truncated neck, and Pistrucci’s Saint George and the dragon masterwork appears on the reverse.
Unfortunately for Pistrucci, his friend and supporter Wellesley-Pole stepped down as Master later that year. His successor, Baron Thomas Wallace, was not prepared to tolerate the artist’s stubbornness in refusing to follow the King’s instructions. In a terse letter to his superiors, he reported that;
“The conduct of Mr Pistrucci in refusing to execute the order of the Master, in fulfilment of the King’s command, render him no longer of use to the Mint as Chief Engraver, whose peculiar duty it is to prepare the Head Dies for the Coin.”Baron Wallace, Master of the Mint
Pistrucci’s unwillingness to create a new portrait that flattered the King would see him replaced at the Royal Mint by an artist who would. With Pistrucci out of royal favour, the designs he had created for Britain’s coinage were replaced, and he would not live to see his work appear on coins again.
The task of creating a new portrait for the nation’s circulating coinage was given to the mint’s Second Engraver, William Wyon. He also modelled his design on the Chantrey bust, as the King requested. Wyon’s ‘bare head’ portrait was much acclaimed and appeared on the nation’s coinage from 1825 until the King’s death in 1830.
Just seven years after Pistrucci’s Saint George and the dragon had made a triumphant appearance on the first modern sovereign 1817, his masterwork was unceremoniously dropped from the sovereign. The unenviable task of creating a replacement design fell to Pistrucci’s French assistant. Merlen submitted a heraldic design incorporating the Ensigns Armorial (Royal Arms) of the United Kingdom on a crowned shield, with a smaller crowned shield in the centre featuring the Arms of Hanover. Today, his heraldic coin designs are recognised as some of the finest ever produced on British coins.
The rivalry in the royal mint engraving rooms only intensified when Wyon was made Chief Engraver in 1828. Pistrucci was appointed Chief Medallist so that he could complete his design for the long-awaited Waterloo Medal. It had been commissioned in 1819 and was to have been presented to the victorious powers. Knowing that he would be fired as soon as it was ready, Pistrucci did not complete the work until 1849.
The Industrial Revolution, which began in the middle of the eighteenth century transformed the nation’s need for money. People living off the land in rural Britain had been largely self-sufficient. They grew their own food, made their own clothes and bartered with their neighbours for everything else. However, as more and more people streamed into the new urban areas looking for work in the factories, so the need for good quality money to pay their wages became acute.
For most of King George III’s reign, British coinage was in a desperately poor state, with very few coins being produced and the market flooded with badly worn coins, tokens, foreign currencies and counterfeits. A population explosion between 1750 and 1800 did not help matters, putting additional pressure on the already inadequate coinage.
Fortunately, the King’s final years would witness a transformation in the nation’s coinage that would not be seen again until decimalisation in 1971.
The Northumberland Shilling
The production of silver coins slowed to a trickle during the eighteenth century and they rarely appeared in day to day transactions. A shortage of silver led to the metal price becoming more costly than the face value of coins made from it. Consequently, there was no incentive for the Treasury to strike silver coins despite urgent appeals from the public to do so. Any coins that did appear were unlikely to spend long in circulation, being either hoarded or quickly melted down for their higher bullion value.
In 1763 a batch of silver shillings were struck for Hugh Percy, 1st Duke of Northumberland, who had been appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He wanted to make an impression when he arrived in Dublin with his family in October 1763. To do this he had 2,000 new shillings struck, which he threw into the crowds that lined the streets to welcome him. The extravagant gesture cost him £100 but guaranteed him an enthusiastic reception, and the 1763 shilling would forever be known as the Northumberland Shilling.
From records kept at the time, we know the Royal Mint struck more silver in 1763 than the 2,000 shillings required by the Duke to ingratiate himself with the people of Ireland. Any coins that were produced were a drop in the ocean compared to what was actually needed. Shillings would not be struck again until 1787.
During the first decade of the new King’s reign, the number of counterfeit copper coins in circulation increased dramatically. To combat this, in 1770 the Treasury ordered the Royal Mint to produce copper coins in huge quantities, and over the next six years, millions of farthings and halfpennies were struck and issued into circulation.
However, far from dissuading the counterfeiters the huge influx of quality copper into the market only facilitated the production of more fakes. A skilled fraudster could melt down one genuine coin and make two or three underweight coins with the metal. In 1775 the Treasury admitted defeat and the official Government coin presses fell silent again.
Counterfeiting was a serious offence punishable by death. On 18th March 1789, Catherine and Hugh Murphy were executed at Newgate Prison in London for coining. The term covered several offences, such as clipping bits off silver and gold coins to melt down, colouring coins to make them look more valuable, producing counterfeits and possessing the equipment to do so.
Coining was an act of high treason in that it was considered to be a crime committed against the King. Therefore, Catherine was not hanged alongside her husband. Instead, she became the last woman in Britain to be executed by burning at the stake, the penalty for female coin counterfeiters until 1790.
The counterfeiting law only applied to criminals making visually exact replicas. Many criminals took advantage of this legal loophole by making coins with deliberate errors in their inscriptions, trusting that people would be unlikely to spot the difference!
An official examination of coins in circulation in 1786 confirmed that the nation’s coinage was in a shocking state; badly worn, barely legible, underweight and mostly fake. Only about eight per cent of ‘halfpennies’ in circulation were genuine. Genuine coins were often hoarded, and the fakes spent first, thereby proving Gresham’s Law that “bad money drives out good”.
Wear and tear over decades meant that smaller denominations were often so worn that it was impossible to discern the image that had once appeared on it. Some dated back to the reign of William III (1650 –1702) and had been allowed to circulate for a century.
The Royal Mint responded to the crisis by effectively shutting down. It produced no copper coins at all between 1775 and 1821. A small batch of silver shillings and sixpences were struck in 1787, but only because the Bank of England wanted to sell them to collectors looking for Christmas and birthday gifts. It was left to others to propose a solution to the problem.
Do coins have the power to bring GOOD LUCK? For centuries, many have believed this to be true. There are countless stories of how coins have ensured fortune and luck (and in some cases, the loss of a coin has led to failure and even disaster!) While your choice of a personal good luck charm remains completely up to you, let’s examine SEVEN of the most popular lucky coins around the world.
1. The Silver Sixpence (Great Britain)
In Great Britain, the Lucky Sixpence appears in the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence as well as the tradition of hiding a Sixpence inside each British child’s Christmas Pudding to bring good luck for the new year.
Even better known is the mention of this coin in the famous wedding rhyme: “Something borrowed, something Blue, and a Sixpence for her shoe.” For centuries, brides have been wearing a sixpence coin in their shoes in the hope that their marriage be filled with prosperity and good luck. For that reason, British sixpence coins are among the most popular wedding gifts for brides.
2. The Lucky Irish Penny (Ireland)
The Lucky Irish Penny was minted in Ireland from 1928-1968. In 1926, as designs were being considered for this new coin, Irish poet William Butler Yeats was named the design committee’s chairman. Ultimately, the committee selected a design of the Irish harp, which traced its origins to a coin first issued by Henry VIII in 1534. The coin’s reverse side, it was decided, would feature a hen and chicks design as a tribute to Ireland’s tradition of agriculture.
These coins were first minted in 1928 and continued to be issued virtually unchanged until 1968. Struck in copper, each coin weighs approximately an ounce. The coin’s inscription is in Gaelic, the native language of Ireland.
Large and relatively inexpensive, the Lucky Irish Penny is a popular good luck piece carried in pockets throughout the world.
3. Leap Year Mercury Dimes (United States)
Many gamblers across the U.S. swear by the luck of the leap year Mercury Silver Dime. This widespread superstition likely stems from an overall belief in the power of silver coins coupled with Mercury being the god of “the crossroads” or fate, as well as chance. The leap year dates that occurred during the run of the Mercury Dime series are 1916, 1920, 1924, 1928, 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944.
The belief in the Leap Year Mercury Dime is particularly ironic, however, since this silver dime has long been misidentified as depicting the Roman god Mercury, when it actually features Lady Liberty wearing a winged cap – symbolizing freedom of thought.
4. The Five-Yen Coin (Japan)
Many Japanese people believe in destiny. The term “go-en” (ご縁) refers to those seemingly serendipitous encounters that result in long and meaningful relationships. The Japanese 5-yen coin is also called “go-en” 五円. Because it sounds the same as the “go-en” of destiny, many Japanese people believe that holding a 5-yen coin will help them discover what the Universe has in store for them. This could involve finding soulmate spouse, a perfect job, a dream home, or many other facets of life.
Similarly, 5-yen coins are commonly placed into offering boxes at shrines while one utters a prayer of thanks, followed by a wish for something in the future (always in that order). Because this belief all ties back to destiny, a 5-yen coin is seen as simply helping along the good luck and the serendipity that is actually always meant to be!
5. Vault Protector/Cash Coins (China)
In China, “cash coins” featuring a square hole in the middle hold a special meaning. The square in the centre represents the four corners of the Earth while the outer circle shape symbolizes the heavens around it. In ancient China, money was often frequently carried on strings rather than in purses. These coins are also often worn around the neck with a red ribbon as amulets to fight off negativity and illness.
Certain large and heavy cash coins are known as “Vault Protector” coins. Created only for special occasions, Chinese mints would sometimes cast large, thick, and heavy coins with a square hole in the centre. These coins were not for circulation – but instead occupied a special place at the treasury. The treasury had a spirit hall, where offerings could be made to gods such as the God of Wealth. These special coins would often be hung with red silk through their square hole, suspended above the incense table. They were called Vault Protector coins because they were believed to have charm-like powers to protect against evil and disaster, thus ensuring good fortune, prosperity, and wealth.
Giving a gift of Chinese cash coins ensures that the receiver is granted your wishes of wealth, prosperity and happiness.
6. Touch Pieces – Healing Coins (England & France)
Touch Pieces are coins that have been touched by rulers, monarchs or other powerful beings who are believed to hold their authority directly from God. Touch Piece coins were extremely auspicious and are said to have demonstrated healing powers.
Actually, this practice dates back to the Ancient Roman Empire. The Roman Emperor Vespasian (69-79AD) is reported to have initiated ceremonies during which he would hand out coins to the sick. This ceremony became known as “The Touching”.
Centuries later, the Kings and Queens of England and France embraced this practice – holding regular touching ceremonies up through 1714. The fact that an angel appeared on some British coins from the time of Henry VIII onward further cemented the tradition of the healing coin from the hand of your monarch. The British tradition of Maundy Money may have derived from this overall custom, as it features the monarch gifting specific subjects with token gifts of silver coins.
Of course, it wasn’t just about royalty. Clergymen were also known to hand out or even sell healing coins during ceremonies which were said to bring healing powers to the believer. There are many contemporary accounts of people being cured by this method. In a convenient bit of rationale, those who remained ill were accused of not having enough faith.
7. The Gold Angel (France)
As we have just seen, coins with angels on them have been treasured as tokens of good luck, health, and fortune. If a King or Queen handed an angel coin to a subject, it would often become a family heirloom – being handed down through the generations.
The legend of the Lucky French Gold Angel, however, has an even more dramatic start. During the French Revolution, Augustine Dupré, was standing on the platform waiting in line to lose his head to the guillotine. In his pocket, Dupré carried a gold coin that he himself had engraved, a French Gold Angel. He believed that carrying the coin with him would protect him from evil and danger. Sure enough, faced with the dire prospect of the guillotine, the Angel delivered him!
Legend holds that moments before his execution, a huge thunder roared and lightning struck, scaring the executioner and delaying the planned execution. Before it could be rescheduled, Dupré was granted a pardon – and thus the Gold Angel saved his life.
Inspired by this tale, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte also carried a Lucky Gold Angel—but legend reports that he lost his coin just the day before the Battle of Waterloo. We all know the outcome of that battle!
Dupré’s angel design was revived from 1871 to 1898 on 20 Franc and 50 France gold coins. The coin’s legend continued into the 20th century, with sea captains and fighter pilots in both World Wars believing the coin brought them luck and protection.
SPECIAL BONUS: Personal Lucky Charm Coins
The above list details some of the most popular and longstanding lucky coins from around the globe. But you may, in fact, find your own lucky coin(s) quite a bit closer to home.
Commonly, coins dated from your birth year or other significant milestone in your life are believed to be lucky. Also, if you are from an immigrant background, treasuring a coin from the country your parents or grandparents came from is often considered a way to ensure good luck, prosperity and fortune.
No matter what the source, look around you today and see if you can’t pocket a special coin to bring you luck, prosperity, and happiness!
Steve Wolff is an American numismatist, writer, and video producer who has spent over 20 years sharing the fascinating stories behind coins and the historical events and personalities that inspired and shaped them.
by Andreas Kolle
Have you ever wondered why the head of the monarchs appear to look either to the left or the right – and if there is a system with it? Short answer, it’s both complicated and fun.
Long traditions for facing right
Faces on coins first appeared in the 6th century BC, but it was during the following century that profiles of gods and goddesses appeared frequently. The most famous is probably the Owl tetradrachm of Athens. The much-copied tetradrachm and stater of Alexander the Great also looked right. There were exceptions to this rule, for example the Corinth Pegasus stater, but the dominating coins looked right.
Roman emperors almost always looked to the right. Given the significance of these coins, this made right-facing coins dominant both in Rome and in many countries copying them. The outwards-looking solidus coins of the Byzantine Empire did not catch on, and right was the direction to look.
There might be an easy explanation: We write from left to right. This means that this is the “preferred” way of looking. We also know that the devil is associated with the left, and the word “sinister” comes from the Latin word for “left”.
The English Switch
Another interesting development is that queens like Elizabeth I of England and Christina of Sweden often looked to the left. And this might have been the reason for a typical English tradition.
Henry VII and Henry VIII both looked right and straight ahead in some cases. Mary I and Elizabeth I both looked left. James I faced both left and right depending on the coin. Charles I looked left, but Charles II looked both ways. Finally, his younger brother, James II, looked only to the left – and the monarchs that followed him have alternated between looking left and right, all the way down to our current monarch…
Of course, there is one interesting exception to the rule, and it is our old friend, Edward VIII. He was supposed to look to the right, but preferred the left side of his face, and insisted on looking the “wrong” way. The tradition from 1685 onwards did not seem to bother him. The coin was prepared, but no coins made it into circulation. When he abdicated, the Royal Mint pretended that his coin was made with him looking to the right. Therefore, the George VI coin was made with him looking to the right again to keep in tradition.
What could be more British than insisting that a coin never circulated was made with the opposite design to the one it had so that tradition was upheld?
The Emperor and the King
When it comes to portraits, Scandinavia did a bit of everything. Denmark insisted on always looking to the right, whereas Sweden from 1907 onwards always looked to the left. With all due respect to the Anglo-French enmity, this is the real long-standing feud in Europe. Norway, on their part, did exactly like Britain and switched sides.
France, however, is where things get very confusing. It seemed as they alternated every other turn, because Louis XIII and XIV looked to the right, and Louis XV and XVI predominately looked to the left. Then you have the cat among the pigeons: Napoleon. He decided to look to the right, probably to symbolize a new time in opposition to Louis XVI. When he was deposed and Louis XVIII took over, the new king was quick to look to the left again. This is hardly surprising. Louis XVIII was the brother of the deposed and executed Louis XVI. Making a break with Napoleon made sense. When he died, his brother Charles X took over, also looking to the left. When he was deposed in the 1830 revolution, the once-radical Louis Philippe was made king, and perhaps to make a stand against the two conservative kings who preceded him, he faced right.
And now we end up with the wisest fool in Christendom, Napoleon III. In 1851 he was crowned emperor. This made him the second emperor in traditional counting, however the Bonaparte family claimed that Napoleon Bonaparte’s son was emperor for a couple of weeks. This meant that either Napoleon I looked right, and an imaginary coin of Napoleon II would look to the left and Napoleon III should look to the right again or that all emperors, like in Ancient Rome, should look to the right.
Napoleon III looked to the left. Because of course he did.
This might have meant that he considered himself a continuation of the kings of France rather than an abomination with his own rules. It could have had another explanation. After all, Napoleon III was the man who Karl Marx had in mind when he coined the phrase “History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, then as a farce“. Napoleon III was in either case the last monarch of the French.
Andreas Kolle is a Norwegian historian cum laude and the resident historian for Samlerhuset Norway. A professional copywriter with 10 years of experience, Andreas also keeps the Samlerhuset blog active by covering a range of numismatic and historical topics. He has a contagious love for all things numismatic and historical and adheres to the QI adage that there is no such thing as an uninteresting item.