Queen Elizabeth II is Britain’s longest reigning monarch, and that means that she has adorned the obverse of our coinage since 1953 when the first coins were issued with her portrait. Her reign has seen five different portraits on our coinage and one of the biggest changes to our currency – decimalisation.
And as this month marks the 50th anniversary since the day that Britain officially went decimal, we’ve been taking a look back at British coins and how their stories have changed over time. And there’s one icon that stands out above the rest, one that has featured on coins for far longer than Queen Elizabeth II’s impressive 68 years. I am of course referring to Britannia.
Over 2000 years old!
It’s thought that Britannia first featured on coins in Britain when the Romans arrived under Julius Caesar, but the depiction is wildly different to that which we recognize today. The coins showed a figure, neither male nor female, as a warrior with an inscription along the lines of “DE BRITANNIS”.
It wasn’t until Hadrian arrived in the second century AD that the coins started to feature a female figure with the inscription “BRITANNIA”. These Roman coins are always difficult to find, and many remain buried away even today.
A 1400 year hiatus…
This female figure disappeared from coins, and culture, for over a thousand years, not reappearing until the Tudor period. And even then it wasn’t until Charles II that she finally made her reappearance onto coinage. It’s thought that the rise of Britain as a naval power was the inspiration to include Britannia on coinage again.
Britain’s largest penny
Under George III a one penny and two penny coin were introduced in an attempt to restore confidence in British currency. The intrinsic value of the metal plus an allowance for the cost of production was made equal to the nominal value of the coin. This made them very heavy and a lot larger than other coins in circulation – giving them the nickname ‘Cartwheels‘.
Importantly though, as Britannia had become more and more associated with the sea, these were the first coins to depict her holding a trident rather than a spear.
The Standing Britannia
Throughout history Britannia has been depicted on several denominations of coins, usually pennies or half pennies. Often she was shown seated with the sea in the background, and never before had she been issued on a Florin. After the long Victorian tradition of a crowned cruciform shield for the reverse, a new Britannia design was issued as King Edward VII took to the throne. A truly beautiful design, it shows Britannia with her trident, shield, and stood powerfully against the sea. Only issued during King Edward VII’s short reign, this coin has become incredibly popular for its iconic design and impressive story.
Of course the Britannia has featured and continues to feature on Britain’s coinage, with new depictions on annual releases and even special releases such as the 2019 commemorative 50p. It certainly looks like she’ll continue to have a long reign on our coinage.
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After 25 years the Royal Mint has abandoned Britannia Silver as a standard for UK coins.
First introduced under the 1696 Coinage Act to combat the melting down of sterling silver coins, the Royal Mint most recently revived the standard in 1987 for the introduction of the £2 Silver Britannia Coin. As a nod to its design, the Royal Mint opted to strike this coin to the Britannia standard – 958/1000 silver (95.8% pure).
Whilst this made the Silver Britannia Britain’s purest silver coin, it created a problem with its international popularity, as the rest of the world does not recognise this uniquely British silver standard.
For quarter of a century, the Mint continued to maintain the Britannia standard but this year they have finally abandoned it in favour of the more internationally accepted 999/1000 purity, bringing the silver Britannia in line with other 1 ounce silver coins, like the US Eagle, Chinese Panda and Canadian Maple Leaf.
For keen-eyed collector, you will notice the diameter and overall weight of the coin has fractionally reduced as less total metal is required from the new purer alloy to give the coin 1 full troy ounce of pure silver.
So what do you think? Is the loss of a long-held silver quality from the UK’s coinage a sad loss to tradition or should the Royal Mint move with the times and ensure that our nation’s coins remain amongst the most popular the world-over?