By Guy de la Bédoyère



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Britannia is the female symbol of Britain and has been used on coins since the days of the Roman Empire. In the past she was shown as more warlike than she is now, but she has always been associated with the sea that has both protected Britain and been the source of her power. Today the Royal Navy’s college at Dartmouth is called Britannia Royal Naval College.


In Britain today the figure of Britannia features on the normal issues of the 50 pence coin (although special commemorative issues of the 50p replace Britannia with other subjects). However, Britannia has been dropped from the new coinage issued from 2008 on, ending a tradition stretching back to the reign of Charles II.




The idea of representing a place or concept with a human figure goes right back to the coins issued by the Romans, who themselves had taken the idea from the Greeks. On Roman coins, each female figure was equipped with very specific attributes. Sometimes Britannia is confused with Roma, though in fact the two were quite different. Roma wore a helmet and held a Victory, while Britannia is bare-headed, holds a military standard and spear and is seated on rocks with a distinctive shield bearing  a sharp central point.


Britannia was a province of the Roman Empire from the year AD 43 until 410. Under several emperors coins were issued that depicted provinces of the Empire either as a general commemoration, or to publicise special events like wars. Many other female personifications were used to depict themes like Liberty, Virtue, Happiness, Good Fortune and so on. A modern example is the figure of Liberty depicted on many denominations of US Coinage.



Britannia first appeared on coins struck by Hadrian (117-38) in about the year 119. The coin was a copper as (diameter 25mm). You can see the figure of Britannia here, hunched up on a rock with her shield and spear. The word BRITANNIA appears under the figure and around it some imperial titles. The SC stands for Senatus Consulto meaning ‘[struck] by order of the Senate’. The coin probably commemorates warfare on the northern frontier that led to the construction of Hadrian’s Wall.





More Britannia coins were issued later in Hadrian’s reign as part of a general series of sestertii that depicted the provinces of the Empire (see next coin for what a sestertius was). Hadrian had spent much of his reign touring the Roman world, and some of these showed the personifications of provinces greeting him. This coin (left) is the incredibly rare ADVENTVI.AVG.BRITANNIAE (‘the coming of the emperor to Britain’) sestertius. The others in the series are very similar and often confused with Britannia because the Seaby Coins of England book only mentions the Britannia type, but the others are far commoner. I’ve seen several worn examples of the common province types (like Gaul) advertised on Ebay as ‘Britannia’ but they aren’t – there are only one or two genuine examples known.




The next Britannia issues appeared in 143, struck by Antoninus Pius (138-161). The coins undoubtedly refer to warfare, which is testified in historical sources and had led to the erection of a new frontier further north. This is a brass sestertius (diameter 31 mm and equal to 4 asses). The word BRITANNIA is under the figure on this coin but there were several different types – some have BRITANNIA around the figure.







Antoninus Pius also struck another series of Britannia coins in 154. This time the copper as was used. The coins were poorly struck and almost always only turn up in Britain. They commemorate more warfare and were probably struck as a special donative (gift) for soldiers involved in suppressing rebellions. You can read the word BRITANNIA quite clearly, starting at about 7 o’clock.







Apart from some coins of Commodus struck in 184, that was almost the last time Britannia appeared on Roman coins. The rebel emperor Carausius (286-93) conducted a vigorous propaganda campaign to legitimise his rule. On one special issue he showed Britannia greeting him as a kind of messianic saviour.







It would be more than 13 centuries before Britannia was revived on coins, copied from the old Roman coins. The new Britannia came under Charles II (1660-85). In 1665 a series of farthing-sized medals was issued bearing the legend Quatuor Maria Vindico (‘I claim the four seas’) and the seated figure of Britannia. These are sometimes described as ‘pattern farthings’ (i.e. experimental designs) but most surviving examples are silver. They may have been issued also as commemorative medals for the opening of the Second Dutch War – they are not as rare as sometimes claimed. The reason they never appeared as circulating coinage was probably because the legend was far too provocative, but it is quite plain from almost all extant examples that they had circulated. This silver example (diameter 24mm) has a silver content roughly equivalent to 1s 6d.


In 1667 a 56mm-wide medal was struck to commemorate the Second Dutch War, which was fought at sea between England and the Netherlands. It depicts the King on the obverse and on the reverse Frances Stewart (later Duchess as Richmond) as Britannia, celebrating recent successes in the Second Dutch War (1665-67). The legend Favente Deo, means ‘God being propitious’. The figure was based on the original coins struck by Hadrian and Antoninus Pius.


The medal’s triumphant tone was a little premature. Within months the Dutch had sailed up the river Medway near Rochester in June 1667 and humiliated Charles II by stealing seven ships, including his flagship the Royal Charles. The war ended in July with the Treaty of Breda. Despite the difference in dates, the medal is usually known as ‘the Breda Medal’.


Samuel Pepys saw the medal, which was designed by John Roettier, on 25 February 1667:


At my goldsmith’s did observe the King’s new Medall [sic], 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’.

Samuel Pepys, Diary 25 February 1667


Of course these medals were rare and did not circulate as coins. By 1672 the need for base metal small change had become overwhelming. It was decided that copper halfpennies and farthings would be struck. The copper blanks were sourced from Sweden and between 1672-5 large numbers of the new coins were struck (see Milled Coinage for details of denominations).


Britannia was chosen as the reverse type, based on the figure Roettier had created for the 1665 ‘pattern farthings’ and the 1667 medal. The coin shown is a halfpenny of 1673 (diameter 30 mm).





Although halfpennies and farthings were not issued continuously from 1672 on, Britannia remained the normal reverse type thereafter. Under James II (1685-8) and William and Mary (1689—94) tin halfpennies and farthings were issued – a very few were even struck under Charles II in 1684-5 but they are extremely rare. These tin coins were prone to appalling corrosion, probably because of the chemical effect of a copper plug in the middle of the coins.


Surviving examples of tin coins are mostly in wretched condition. Under William and Mary copper halfpennies and farthings were resumed but the source of the metal was different. Unlike Charles II’s copper halfpennies and farthings, which retain a deep red patina, the later copper coins usually became dark brown or even black.


This picture shows a copper halfpenny of William III, struck about 1699. During the eighteenth century halfpennies and farthings were issued in some abundance. Britannia appears on all of them.








George I (1714-27) halfpenny of 1717. This is the so-called ‘dump’ issue which was smaller and thicker than other issues.








George II (1727-60) halfpenny of 1743. Diameter 28 mm. George II issued halfpennies in abundance and they remain common today.








Britannia also continued to appear on medals of different types. This is the 1745 medal of Charles Edward Stuart, the ‘Young Pretender’, who that year led the 1745 rebellion in his attempt to recover the crown for his father, James III, the ‘Old Pretender’.  This medal was distributed amongst his supporters and shows Britannia anxiously awaiting the arrival of the young prince by sea beneath the legend Amor et Spes, ‘Love and Hope’.






Charles Edward Stuart and his army were smashed at Culloden by the Duke of Cumberland on 16 April 1746. As a sideswipe at the medal above, the following February this medal appeared, showing the Duke as Hercules ‘rescuing’ Britannia (identified by her shield) from the clutches of Discord and naming the battle and its date when the Duke ‘expelled the public enemies from England and defeated them at Culloden’.








During the reign of George III (1760-1820) Britannia was a continuous feature of the halfpennies and farthings struck from 1770-75. But the coins, which resemble those of George II, were being relentlessly forged – many surviving examples of this reign are contemporary counterfeits, often featuring different legends in an attempt to confound the law against copying coins of the realm.


In 1797 steam presses were introduced to make new coins. Britannia now appeared on twopenny pieces, the penny, halfpenny and farthing. Until this date the penny and twopence had only been struck in silver.  The new coins were issued at Matthew Boulton’s mint at Soho in Birmingham. Picture shows a ‘cartwheel’ twopence of 1797. Diameter is a ludicrous 41 mm, and 5 mm thick.











The new twopences and pennies were considered too heavy and were discontinued. A new design of halfpenny appeared in 1799 (illustrated – diameter 29.5 mm).









Another new design for Britannia followed in 1806. The penny was also produced in this style but the twopence never appeared again. The pictures shows a halfpenny of 1806, diameter 28 mm.









Under George IV (1820-30) Britannia appeared on pennies, halfpennies and farthings but she now faced right instead of left and would remain that way until 1967. She also acquired a helmet, recalling Roma and before that Athena.


This is a penny of Victoria (1837-1901), struck in 1858. Diameter 33.5 mm. The date appears on the obverse. This style was used under George IV (1820-30), William IV (1830-7) and Victoria until 1860. Thereafter pennies and halfpennies became smaller and the design was changed once again.






Penny of George VI (1936-52), struck in 1939. Diameter 33.5 mm. Although there are numerous minor variations this basic design remained in use from the 1860s to 1967, with a final proof version struck for sets dated 1970 to mark the end of the old currency system.








Britannia scarcely ever appeared on circulating silver coins. Under William IV (1830-7) and Victoria (1837-1901), Britannia was used on the 16mm-wide fourpenny silver groat (not to be confused with the Maundy fourpence). These coins were only struck between 1836 and 1855, and then again in 1888, apart from a few proof issues of 1855 and 1862. The design was the same as the pennies, halfpennies and farthings.



Britannia also appeared on the two shilling (florin) piece of Edward VII (1901-10). However, she was shown standing up rather than sitting beside her shield. Picture shows a florin of 1907, diameter 29 mm. The type wore very badly and good specimens are hard to find. The design was abandoned in 1911 when George V succeeded his father.





Britannia was permanently dropped from halfpennies and farthings in 1937. She remained on the pennies until 1967 and the special issue of 1970.


When Britain went over to decimal currency in 1971 Britannia was used for the 50 pence coin, equivalent to 10 shillings. These first appeared in 1969 and apart from a reduction in size the 50p has carried the design right up to 2008.


Britannia also appears on the silver bullion ‘Britannia’ £2 coins issued annually by the Royal Mint. There have been several different designs. The design for 2005 restores Britannia to a facing-left type very similar to the original coins struck by the Romans and under Charles II. Diameter 39.5 mm. Perhaps it is just as well since the present Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has approved the scandalous decision to remove Britannia from circulating coinage. Still, one should consider it a favour when a politician digs his own grave and thereby saves others from having to do it for him.











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