Lawrence Chard reveals the Roman origins of coins featuring Britannia in the first part of a major new coin guide
In the first part of a comprehensive guide to coins featuring Britannia, Lawrence Chard, Director and Expert Numismatist at Chard’s, describes the origins of the allegorical figure and how the symbol returned to coins 1,000 years later
Britain was known to the Romans as Britain or Britannia well before the brief visit by Julius Caesar in 55 BC. They regarded it as the “end of the world”. Julius Caesar made a second visit to Britain the next year. Neither of these visits, both of which were restricted to Kent, had any great or lasting effect on the inhabitants.
Caligula had an even briefer visit to Britain in 41 AD, which has been described as a “mock invasion”, and “too ridiculous” to be regarded as an invasion.
In 43 AD, Claudius began a serious attempt to invade, sending his general Aulus Plautius. Once a number of battles had been won, Claudius himself visited for a period of sixteen days, for which he became recognised as the triumphant conqueror of Britain. Several triumphal arches are believed to have been erected honouring this achievement, including one on the Palatine hill. He was also honoured by being given the surname Britannicus, which also passed to his sons.
The First Britannia Coin
The arch mentioned above is portrayed on a number of gold and silver coins of Claudius. It features an equestrian statue atop the arch, undoubtedly representing Claudius, between two trophies, a trophy being a pile of captured shields, spears, armour and other spoils of war.
On the architrave of the arch is inscribed “DE BRITAN”, “DE BRITANN”, “DE BRITANNI”, or “DE BRITANNIS”, depending on the space available.
There is a gold aureus of this type which was issued in 46 to 47 AD, and a similar silver denarius issued in 49 to 50 AD. A silver didrachm (2 drachma piece) issued in 46 to 48 AD shows Claudius in a quadriga (four horse-powered chariot) with the inscription “DE BRITANNIS” below.
Tiberius Claudius Britannicus was a son of Claudius, and inherited his father’s surname, which had been awarded to him as the conqueror of Britain. Apart from his surname, no coins of Britannicus bear any reference to Britain or Britannia.
Personification of Britannia
There were no further mentions of Britain on Roman coins until the time of Hadrian, who is of course famous in Britain for his wall, much of which still stands today. It was originally built to keep the aggressive Scots out of England, but its effectiveness diminished with time.
Hadrian visited Britain in 121 AD, greatly increased the Roman influence in Britain, and strengthened Roman garrisons and fortifications here. He failed, as did following Roman emperors, to subdue the Scots. Under Hadrian, a shrine was erected in York, to Britannia as a Goddess.
There were many coin types, also medals, issued under Hadrian which incorporated the mention of Britain. In particular, several coin types introduced a female figure, the personification of Britain, and labelled
“BRITANNIA”. She is usually shown seated on a rock, holding a spear, and with a spiked shield propped beside her. Sometimes she is shown holding a standard, and leaning on the shield. On other coins, she is shown seated on a globe above waves, presumably signifying the Roman idea of Britain as being at the edge of the known world.
Similar coin types were also issued by Antoninus Pius (138- 61 AD) who carried out some repair work to Hadrian’s wall, and by Commodus (177-192 AD). Geta (209-212) issued coins mentioning victory over Britain featuring Victory as their reverse type, and also Victory and Britannia standing facing each other, Britannia with her hands tied in defeat. Carausius (287-293), issued an antoninianus with the legend GENIO BRITANNI around the figure of Genius.
Although today’s figure of Britannia is undoubtedly female, on some of the Roman coins, a male figure is shown. On other Roman coins, it is uncertain whether the figure is male or female.
The Romans depart
The figure of Britannia did not appear on any future Roman coin issues, although Roman coins were produced in Britain from the reign of Carausius. It was in 410 AD that the Emperor Honorius advised the British to arrange for their own defence, and Roman influence in Britain declined. Britannia was not seen again on coins for well over 1,000 years.
Britannia re-emerges for Charles II in 1672
On copper halfpennies and farthings of Charles II, Britannia made her re-appearance; she is shown seated on a rock, facing left, with an olive branch in her right hand, a spear in her left hand, and a shield leaning against the rock. The shield bears a Union flag. The design and attributes of this portrayal of Britannia are almost certainly inspired by the earlier Britannias on Roman coins. They were struck with a plain edge.
There has also been some speculation that the likeness of Britannia on these coins was intended to be Frances Teresa Stewart (or Stuart), a mistress of Charles II and later the Duchess of Richmond, but it may be that Samuel Pepys was mistaken, being either the victim of a convincing rumour or purely through wishful thinking.
First regal copper coins
There were some copper farthings issued under Charles I and James I, these were mostly a lightweight “token” coinage made under private licence or patent. There was also a very rare issue of a good quality farthing for Cromwell.
Ignoring these previously mentioned coins, those of Charles II were the first regal copper coins issued in Britain, and were made from blanks produced in Sweden, and struck at the Royal Mint in London. The British did not have the metallurgical experience of working with copper from its ingot state for a further century. These Charles II copper coins were milled, struck using machinery, under the guidance of Peter Blondeau, newly appointed engineer to the Mint. The dies were prepared by John Roettier. From August 1672, farthings were issued from an office in Fenchurch Street, London, known as “The Farthing Office”. Halfpennies were not issued until after Christmas of that year, due to a shortage of milling machinery and the difficulty of obtaining the necessary quantity of blanks from Sweden.
This first copper issue lasted only until 1675 for the halfpennies, and until 1679 for the farthings. Production of these low value copper coins was expensive, costing about four pence per pound weight. They were therefore struck at 40 per pound weight which allowed the Crown a profit of fourpence. After the price of copper rose, the coin’s weights were reduced to 44 per pound weight, still giving the Crown a profit of three and a half pence, or 16%. Because it was profitable to coin copper halfpence and farthings, this encouraged forgery which created obvious problems.
To counteract the forgery, in 1684, the production of farthings was changed from copper to tin with a copper centre plug. This was done to alleviate the critical state of the Cornish tin mining industry, but also to recoup the King’s losses, as Duke of Cornwall, because the price of tin had fallen from one shilling per pound in 1676 to less than eightpence.
The tin coinage gave the Crown an even greater profit margin, of up to
about 40%, and as a result there was even more concern about the potential for forgery. In addition to the copper plug as a security feature, the tin coins were produced with a lettered edge, which was applied before striking.
The edge inscription on the tin farthings reads ‘NUMMORUM FAMULUS 1684’ which translates from Latin as ‘The servant of the coinage’, meaning that it serves to protect the coinage, presumably from attempted forgery. It is interesting that the date is included in the edge inscription. We believe this was the first British coin to bear the date on the edge.
Facing the wrong way
The head on all the coins of Charles II faces to the right apart from the base metal coins, which have the portrait facing in the opposite direction, to the left. This is unusual because normally all the coins struck for any monarch have his portrait facing in the same direction. Before anybody asks, we do not know the reason for Charles II facing the wrong way on his base metal coins.
In the reign of James II, his portrait faces left on all coins, except for the base metal issues on which the portrait faces right. On coins of William and Mary, coins of all denominations and metals have portraits facing to the right.
The base metal coins issued for Charles II were, as we have already stated, the first regular issues of regal base metal coinage. The direction anomaly occurs because the designers of these coins, for whatever reason, chose to show the king’s head facing in the opposite direction from that on the precious metals. We can only guess that it may have been to prevent forgery through silver or gold plating the base metal coins to pass them off as silver or gold. We are aware that electroplating had not been discovered, but it was possible by other methods to plate base metals.
The anomaly persisted into the reign of James II because all coins had their portrait polarity reversed. It was only with the issues of William and Mary that the anomaly was corrected.
It is likely that Cromwell chose to face the same direction as his predecessor as a political statement, we do not know. Jumping briefly ahead about three centuries, it is often stated that Edward VIII chose to retain his portrait facing left as that of his father because he vainly believed his left profile to be his better side. No British coins bearing his head were issued for circulation, but the few rare pattern coins do show him facing left.
George VI’s coins also show him facing left, and this retains the tradition of alternating directions, as those of Edward VIII should have shown his portrait facing right.
James II tin coins
In 1685, production of tin farthings, still with a copper centre plug, continued for James II, with the addition of copper halfpennies. The reverse designs were identical to the previous ones of Charles II. The obverse design of the halfpennies showed a draped bust of James II, that on the farthings had a cuirassed bust, except for the last year, 1687, when a draped version was introduced, similar to the halfpenny.
William and Mary
Under William and Mary, production of tin farthings continued with the same reverse designs, and both bust types, draped and cuirassed. At first, the halfpennies, as previously, carried the date on their edge only. The farthings now carried the date both on the edge and in the exergue (the space below the ground line of the main design), and from 1691, this was adopted for the halfpennies also.
After 1692, the production of tin halfpennies and farthings stopped, apparently because of public resentment. Tin coins easily corroded, probably because of impurities, and their low intrinsic value meant that they could be easily counterfeited, and in 1694, copper farthings and halfpennies were once again produced.
With the resumption of copper and the cessation of tin coinage, the edges reverted to plain instead of inscribed, because the probability of forgery was now decreased.
In the next issue: our examination of Britannia coins continues with a look at the famous Queen Anne farthing, the coins of the first three Georges, and Britannia on private trade tokens.