Long before Lady Liberty, Marianne, Germania, and other allegorical numismatic and cultural figures, there was Britannia — the oldest symbol of a nation personified as a strong female still used on coins today.
Her roots are in the Roman conquest of Britain and the use of deities that began in ancient Greece and Rome that first personified concepts like Liberty with a female goddess called Libertas in Rome and Eleutheria in Greece.
The Romans (for whom it was previously Albion, as Greek geographers called it) dubbed the British Isles Britannia (derived from the Latin “Britannicae”) well before Julius Caesar’s triumphant visit in 55 A.D. that was part of his effort to conquer Gaul. The first serious Roman attempts to invade the area were made by Claudius. After winning several battles, Claudius took the surname Britannicus, and several silver and gold coins honoring Claudius featured references to “E Britan” or “E Britannis”.
But it was later when Hadrian, who built his famous wall near the border between England and Scotland, that Roman influence increased in the area, which included the building of a shrine in York to Britannia depicted as a goddess. It was during this period (around 119 A.D.) that the first Roman coins were struck that featured a female figure who represented the personification of Britain and mentioned Britannia.
And this Britannia of Roman coinage was based on the Roman goddess of wisdom, Minerva — a warrior-goddess who guided soldiers in battle and sported a helmet, spear, and shield, as has Britannia, for more than 2,000 years.
Many of those motifs used to depict Britannia on Roman coins would later be used when the figure reappeared on British coins of the realm after disappearing for over 1,000 years when Rome fell in 395 A.D., starting in 1672 during the reign of Charles II. The idea may have been revived to inspire the British at a time when the country’s naval power was under threat by Spain.
On copper half pennies and farthings, Britannia was shown seated on a rock with an olive branch in her right hand and a spear in her left hand with a shield bearing the Union flag leaning against the rock.
In the centuries since then, Britannia has continued to appear without interruption on the coinage of the British monarchy and the United Kingdom, appearing to this day on circulating 50-pence and £2 coins.
The many different versions of her image over the centuries were clearly designed to convey that message that she is the stoic protector of the British nation and of the territorial integrity and security of Britain, but she also represents the British nation and people themselves and their history.
Over that extensive period, Britannia has appeared either standing or sitting, usually holding Neptune’s trident in one hand (which replaced the spear in 1797) and a shield with the Union Jack flag in the other and often wearing a Corinthian helmet in a nod to her Roman origins.
Other times she is shown with a lion by her side, such as on the legendary 1839 gold coin for Queen Victoria’s coronation known as Una and the Lion that was focused on Imperial Britain, for the first time depicting the British monarch in an allegorical manner (rooted in a poem from the 16th century).
Copper farthings issued from 1821 to 1826 under George IV shifted Britannia from facing left to facing right, added the Corinthian helmet and the lion at her side, and removed the olive branch — all of which served to emphasize Britain’s naval prowess.
Britannia continued to appear on circulating British coinage from the 17th century onward and in the superb design by George William De Saulles that graced the British Trade dollars issued from 1895 to 1935 to the tune of over 160 million coins that helped expand world trade, especially in Asia.
Later in the 20th century, she began to be reimagined on an annual basis and often in a much more modern way with the Britannia bullion coins. Beginning with the gold Britannia series in 1987 and then the silver Britannia series in 1987 that was issued in Mint State and Proof versions, she appeared in a different way on most, but not all, of each year’s coins. Some of those designs drew more from her traditional depictions and focused on her as a warrior or added waves because of Britain’s long naval history, while others featured modernized designs like profiles.
Then, in 2012, a design by Philip Nathan (who has created more Britannia designs than any other artist) that draws inspiration from how Britannia appeared on Trade dollars which emphasizes her maritime role (with the trident and sea waves) became the new standard-bearer for the silver and gold bullion series, while silver and gold Proof (and later platinum) coins issued since 2013 have annually featured an original representation of Britannia — yet each of them retains most of the traditional elements of the design.
New Designs in Proof Annually
The bullion coins (whose silver fineness was increased from .958 through 2011 to the world standard .999 fine in 2012, while the gold pieces were increased from 22 to 24 karat) are now aimed primarily at bullion buyers, though they are also collected by date, and the Proofs appeal especially to collectors who love a new design each year.
Many of the designs that have appeared on the Proof issues have been stunning as numismatic art and full of symbolism but always showing her as strong and prepared to defend Britain.
In 2014, for the first time, she was shown in a style that resembles Art Deco in which she appears very feminine and glamorous in a long, flowing gown but still wearing the helmet, holding the trident and with a lion at her feet and a globe behind her — a clever mixture of traditional elements with a modern twist in artist Jody Clark’s creation.
The beauty of this version made the 2014 coins very popular with collectors and pushed the secondary market values for all versions (each coin is annually issued in a wide range of sizes from 1/10th-ounce to a kilo or more) up substantially.
This year the Royal Mint took two unprecedented moves when it unveiled its new Britannia coins. First, it introduced two new designs, rather than one, that as always appear on a range of silver and gold coins, and it called the second one its new Premium Exclusive range issued one-ounce silver Mint State and two-ounce silver Proof as well as in a one-kilo Proof and in gold in two-ounce and one-kilo Proofs.
Premium Exclusive Series
In the biggest departure from how Britannia has been depicted for centuries, 2021’s Premium range for the first time shows her as a woman of color in a move that is reminiscent of the 2017 American Liberty $100 gold Proof coin issued by the U.S. Mint to mark its 225th anniversary that featured the first African-American Lady Liberty.
The Core range designs for 2021 celebrate Britain’s spirit of innovation with a rarely seen front-facing view of Britannia with her large lion by her side, while the Premium Exclusive, which is the first of a three year-series to celebrate Britain’s diversity, features a large right-facing profile of Britannia as a black woman wearing a Corinthian helmet with stylized sea waves in the lower background.
Both ranges were designed by Irish children’s book illustrator P.J. Lynch after his designs went through a two-year approval process in which the designs are submitted anonymously and reviewed by an Advisory Committee that ends with Queen Elizabeth giving her consent to the motif. Lynch said he “wanted her to look strong, resolute, and attractive, but I also felt that her features should reflect something of the diversity of the people of Britain in the 21st century” (March 18 Royal Mint press release).
Anne Glossop, Deputy Master of the Mint, told British Vogue magazine recently that this was “a huge step for us. Our work is at the core of representing society and the heritage of a nation, and we need to reflect that.”
Diversity and Tradition
Focusing on diversity may be a new approach for the coinage of Great Britain but it is worth recalling that the Britain of Roman times was also a nation of diverse peoples.
Lynch added that the woman on his premium coin is not based on a real person. Instead, he noted: “Her face evolved from my imagination. I didn’t think Britannia symbolised nobility or a great leader, but an embodiment of people and the whole of Britain. I thought about all the faces I see walking on the streets, and I wanted to reflect the diversity. I certainly didn’t want one particular woman, she’s very much an amalgam,” as quoted in a March 2021 Vogue piece.
Lynch also intentionally used plenty of negative space (an open field) to make the design look more modern and toned down the military aspects except for the Corinthian helmet, which remains a constant of the design.
Reactions to the new Britannia have been mixed from UK collectors with some people very pleased to see Britannia evolve more dramatically than before, and others arguing that adding diversity to the iconic motif clashes with its role as a symbol of tradition and stability. Nicholas Cullinan, a member of the mint’s advisory committee (the UK’s version of the CCAC) and chairman of the National Portrait Gallery said he was very impressed with the design and its embracing of the diversity of Britain.
Collectors purchased the entire 550-mintage of the two-ounce silver Proof on release day, March 18. The other Premium versions have all sold out too except for the most affordable option, the one-ounce Uncirculated coin with a mintage of 7,500 that is still available.
Finally, it is important to remember that while Britannia has remained — after the effigy of Queen Elizabeth — the most recognizable motif on UK coinage for almost 350 years, she has also been a powerful cultural symbol, especially in the post-1945 period — which is explored in the ground-breaking book on the topic, Britannia: Icon of the Coin (Royal Mint Museum, 2016) by Katherine Eustace, a former member of the Advisory Committee. For her, Britannia is an enduring and also endearing symbol of stability and continuity.
And the iconic symbol of Britannia also remains a fascinating window into the history, politics, art, and culture of Great Britain.
Louis Golino is an award-winning numismatic journalist and writer specializing primarily in modern U.S. and world coins. His work has appeared in Coin World, CoinWeek, The Greysheet and CPG Market Review, The Numismatist, Numismatic News, FUN Topics, The Clarion, and COINage, among other publications. His first coin-writing position was with Coin Update.
In 2015, his CoinWeek.com column, “The Coin Analyst,” received an award from the Numismatic Literary Guild for best website column. By 2017, he received an NLG award for best article in a non-numismatic publication with his “Liberty Centennial Designs,” which was published in Elemetal Direct. In October 2018, he received a literary award from the Pennsylvania Association of Numismatists (PAN) for his article, “Lady Liberty: America’s Enduring Numismatic Motif,” that appeared in The Clarion in 2017.