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.
If you’re interested:
Secure your very own Silver Standing Britannia Florin. At over 100 years old and with a unique design, they’re in high demand with collectors. Click here to order yours now with a deposit of JUST £13!
A symbol of royal power for nearly 1,000 years, the Tower of London remains one of Britain’s most iconic attractions.
But did you know that for over 500 years The Tower of London housed The Royal Mint?
It’s safe to say that during The Royal Mint’s time in The Tower, making coins was hot, noisy and dangerous affair. So much so that tampering with coins was considered treason, and the threat of gruesome punishment alone was enough to deter most, if not all, forgers and thieves.
For me, there’s no coin stories as fascinating as the ones that originate from The Royal Mint’s time a at The Tower. Here’s a selection of my very favourite ones…
Health and Safety was not a concern
In stark comparison to the society we live in today, the health and safety of Mint workers was not a top priority during the Mint’s time in The Tower.
Mechanisation in the 1600’s was welcome relief for Mint workers, as up until this point, all coins were made by hand. As a result, it wasn’t unusual for workers to be injured, and the loss of fingers and eyes was not uncommon.
When it came to striking the coins, split second timing and staying alert could mean the difference between making a coin and losing a finger! That’s because in order to strike a coin, one worker would place a handmade piece of metal between two engraved stamps – called dies – and a second worker would then strike it with a hammer. This procedure would stamp the coin design on to the metal, but if both parties were not on the ball sometimes a finger would be removed in the process.
Even then, it actually wasn’t until screw-operated presses were introduced in the 1700’s that life for Mint workers became relatively safe.
Dirty, deadly money
Working in the Mint was dirty and dangerous work. Huge furnaces were used to melt down precious metal, and the air was full of deadly chemicals and poisonous gases. This made the coin making process a real hazard.
In the 1560’s a group of unfortunate German workers learned this the hard way. Several of them were suspected to have been poisoned by clouds of noxious gas, and they fell incredibly ill. Seasoned workers at the Mint advised them of the cure – to drink milk from a human skull! Despite the so called ‘cure’, several men died.
The mysterious case of Sleeping Beauty
Several decades prior to this, in the 1540’s, William Foxley was another victim of the Mint’s lax health and safety. Though how exactly, still no one to this day knows for sure! Foxley was a potter at the Mint, and one day he fell asleep over his pots and no one could wake him up.
It’s unclear what exactly caused Foxley’s coma, and allegedly King Henry VIII himself swung by The Tower to check out the mysterious sleeping beauty. For the majority of the British population, the only way they knew what their monarch looked like was thanks to the obverse of the coin. So Foxley will have been disappointed to have slept through his audience with the King.
This case perplexed physicians for 14 days, after which Foxley woke up and was the picture of perfect health. Remarkably he lived for another 40 years.
Tampering with coins was considered treason
Treason was not taken lightly. In fact any tampering with coins, such as shaving silver from the edge of a coin to steal it, was classed as treason and the severe punishments that awaited thieves and forgers was nearly enough in most instances to put them off.
During medieval times, the sentence for a first-time convicted counterfeiter was to remove their right hand. Any second offences were punishable by castration. It’s unknown exactly what followed this particularly gruesome punishment for a third or even a fourth offence.
But if you think this is severe, in later years and right up until the 1700’s male forgers suffered a traitor’s death – that is to be hung, drawn and quartered. Meanwhile, female forgers were either burned at the stake or transported on one of the infamous convict ships to their designated place of exile.
If you’re interested…
The Royal Mint has just released a BRAND NEW UK £5 coin to celebrate its longstanding and fascinating history with The Tower of London.
The coin is available in a range of specifications, including Brilliant Uncirculated and extremely limited edition Silver Proof and Silver Proof Piedfort. Given the historical significance of this commemorative, it is expected to be highly sought-after by serious collectors now and in years to come. That said, we do not expect to be able to offer it for long.
One of the questions I get asked most, by my friends and others in the coin business, is: what is the best (and most affordable) way to build an enviable collection of historic coins?
There are so many fascinating coins in British history, it’s a question that is hard to answer. Where do you start!?
Which is why I’ve decided to put together an Expert Guide to building a collection of historic coins, by answering some of the questions I hear most often from collectors…
How far back can I go?
One of the questions collectors face when they first start collecting historic coins is: how far back can I go? Is a Victorian coin affordable, and did every monarch release coins?
As a general rule, coins tend to get more expensive the further back in time you go. Which is why owning a coin from our current monarch is the best place to start. You can then work your way back through other famous monarchs.
Most collectors can aim to collect coins from each monarch back to the 17th century. After the tumultuous leadership of Oliver Cromwell, Charles II reclaimed the throne and began a period of standardised coin issue. For most collectors it’s possible to collect coins back to this fascinating period in history without breaking the bank!
Which are the important monarchs?
A great coin collection should contain coins issued by famous monarchs, monarchs that changed the history of our nation and ones that revolutionised our coinage.
An obvious monarch is Queen Victoria – the monarch who built the largest Empire the world has ever seen and who oversaw some of the greatest changes our nation has ever experienced. And every collection should contain an important issue by our current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, the longest reigning monarch in our nation’s history! And you can’t leave out George III, not only did he oversea a complete overhaul of our currency but he’s also our longest reigning King.
Those are just a few of the key monarchs, but once you start collecting you’ll find that each monarch has a fascinating story and a number of really interesting coin issues.
Base metal, Silver or Gold?
Gold has historically been seen as the pinnacle for collectors. But this famous metal comes with its difficulties. Gold coins were issued in much smaller numbers, and not every monarch released a standardised gold coin. Which means that to own a Gold coin from some monarchs is extremely difficult – for example George VI only issued a Sovereign for one year of his reign.
Base metal and Silver coins tend to be much more achievable for most collectors. Base metal coins (pennies, farthings and the like) tend to be less expensive, however because of their lower value the quality of coins can vary widely. Silver coins were issued by most monarchs, and because of their slightly higher value tend to be found in better grades.
How should I store my coins?
The wear and tear of an old coin is part of the appeal of collecting historic coins, but it’s important to protect your coins from any outside interference that could potentially discolour, wear or generally affect the condition of your coin.
I would recommend always storing your coins in capsules, and if possible in a tamperproof capsule that will guarantee the condition of your coin for generations to come. And as you build your collection, there’s nothing better than having a box with trays to keep your collection together for you to store and present.
How much will it cost me?
For most collectors building a historic coin collection, one of the most confusing elements can be price. The prices for historic coins can vary widely – you might find an old Victorian penny at a car boot for less than £10 and then see what looks like the same coin selling for hundreds on an online auction site.
I’d always recommend purchasing carefully, preferably by making sure you either have an expert opinion or by ordering from a reputable retailer. By making sure you’re getting your coins from the right place, building a collection of Silver coins back to the 17th century is actually more affordable than many collectors realise – in fact most coins should cost between £100 and £500.
Lastly… have fun!
The most important part of collecting coins is having those coins in your hand and feeling the history your coin has carried with it over generations. So have some fun and get collecting!
If you would like to learn more about building your own historic coin collection, with some expert guidance, just fill out the form below. One of our team will be in contact with you soon: