I touched on our national eccentricities yesterday, and one aspect of this is the design on our coinage. The old style, pre-decimal coins had interesting, if somewhat staid, designs – a wren of the farthing, the Golden Hind on the half-penny, a thrift plant on the three-penny piece, and so on. The tails side of the penny had Britannia.
|Pre-Decimal Britannia Penny|
Britannia was the old Roman name for the province, and from the second century a female personification of Britannia began to appear on Roman coins. The place name was eventually shortened to Britain, often Great Britain, (not because it is so wonderful – Greater, or Great, Britain was used to distinguish it from Lesser Britain, or Brittany, now northern France but once ruled by the Kings of Britain). The ‘modern’ figure of Britannia was modelled on Frances Teresa Stuart (later, Duchess of Richmond and Lennox), a great Restoration beauty who famously refused to become the mistress of Charles II, (although there are rumours she eventually bore him a daughter), who sat as a model, reported by Samuel Pepys, that he,
“… did observe the King's new medall, where, in little, there is Mrs. Steward's face as well done as ever I saw any-thing in my whole life, I think: and a pretty thing it is, that he should choose her face to represent Britannia by.”
Pepys Diary February 25th 1667.
|Frances Teresa Stuart by Sir Peter Lely|
In Victorian times, Britannia came to represent the British Empire, her trident signifying her naval power, her shield and helmet signifying the protection of the Pax Britannica, and her accompanying lion the strength of the Empire. Britannia was used on the decimal fifty pence piece, at first with the words ‘New Pence’ and from 1982 ‘Fifty Pence’, and by then carrying an olive branch of peace.
|Fifty Pence Britannia coin|
The Britannia figure was eventually withdrawn in 2008, although the Bank of England has said that there are no plans to withdraw existing coins from circulation.
|50th Anniversary of Normandy Landings 1994|
The fifty pence piece has featured a wide variety of different designs on the reverse – in 1994 an ‘invasion’ design was made, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day.
|250 years of Johnson's Dictionary 2005|
In 2005, to celebrate 250 years, a design (by Tom Phillips) based on Dr Johnson’s Dictionary was issued, probably the first coin to use Anglo-Saxon script for over a thousand years. There have been umpteen other designs too, and a look at the Royal Mint website is worth doing. I was not surprised then, but a bit puzzled, when I found this one in my change the other day. It’s obviously a fifty pence piece, but why five dolphins?
Actually, it’s a 50p from Gibraltar, probably brought home by a holidaymaker and spent in error (I think I might just keep it). I have mentioned Charles Darwin on the ten-pound note previously, but in 2009, he turned up again on the £2 coin. I can’t see that happening in America, somehow.
The current coins are actually a jig-saw – get a full set and you can make a shield with them – is that eccentric enough for you?