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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.