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.
Coins and the Importance of Where to Look
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.
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