The Royal Mint unveiled the new definitive series of circulation coinage to usher in the reign and new numismatic era of King Charles III. Michael Alexander and Coin Update catch up with Rebecca Morgan, Director of Commemorative Coins, and Dr. Kevin Clancy, Museum Director of the Royal Mint, and asked them why this project is so important to Britain’s history and identity.
As is tradition with the start of a new reign in the United Kingdom, preparations begin at the Royal Mint to re-design circulation coinage which depicts the new monarch. The coins undergo transformation on both the obverse with a new definitive effigy and the reverse. Often, the new monarch is consulted about a preference on topics and themes which in the instance of King Charles III, the theme of conservation came as no surprise. Launched at the end of October, the Royal Mint unveiled designs for all eight denominations currently in use in the United Kingdom. From one penny to two pounds, each reverse design depicts flora and fauna which are either thriving in their own natural habitat or are under threat.
The new definitive designs replace the last series introduced during the reign of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 2008 and which were designed by graphic artist Matthew Dent. Prior to this change, the reverse designs of Britain’ coinage had sustained the longest period where some of the designs remained for 40 years. Indigenous wildlife representing land, sea and air are featured and together with elements of floral representations of the four constituent kingdoms of Great Britain, they provide an excellent insight into the natural ecologic life and future of this island nation.
Michael Alexander: I think my readers would be interested to know when this project was begun and how did the Mint decide on the theme of flora and fauna? Was there a message the Mint wanted to convey? It seems that ecology and habitat is a primary focus . . .
Rebecca Morgan: Traditionally, with the start of a reign for a new monarch, there is a plan for a new definitive series of coinage. The work began after Christmas, the beginning of this year, though we had this in mind after the unfortunate passing of Her Late Majesty. The process was a bit different with this series since the monarch would “sign-off” at the end of the project but, in this case, His Majesty has been very involved in the coin designs from concept and theme, which you mention. The subject of conservation is very important to the King and also throughout his tenure as Prince of Wales, it’s also an important subject for Britain and its commitment to conservation.
MA: So far, we haven’t been told the name or names of the artists whose work will be included on the new definitive coins, can you share this information now?
RM: The designs unveiled here today were overseen by the Royal Mint’s chief engraver, Gordon Summers, but this project has involved a number of designers at the mint and is a group effort, thus there is no specific name assigned to any particular coin or design.
MA: Can you tell me how much input His Majesty had in the choice of the subject and, was there a process where he was sent preliminary designs for eventual approval? The interlocking C’s in the design could also represent the King’s appreciation for conservation…
RM: There have been many people involved in the concept and process of production, including the King, which has been a collaborative effort essentially to make sure we got this right and which also involved input from the Royal Mint Advisory Committee, who also played a key role. We were also careful to make sure the designs could be replicated on the small space of a coin. There were so many designs we could have chosen in terms of conservation but we had to limit this to eight subjects and this is where the Advisory Committee, and Royal Horticultural Society, and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds were very helpful. We engaged with a lot of stakeholders but we wanted to make sure that every coin has their own story to tell about Britain. My favourite design (on the £2 coin) includes the formation of all four floral representations of the United Kingdom. All of the designs are linked to the natural habitat of Britain with strong conservation stories which people will become aware of through the coins. They’re great conversation-starters. The three interlocked “Cs” for Charles III provide the perfect balance between tradition and the more modern theme we see today. The King personally approved every design unveiled here today and I can tell you he was extremely pleased with the outcome.
MA: With a change on the two-pound coin, Britannia is once again not represented on British coinage. Was there any consideration to include only the one penny to one pound and leave the £2 reverse design, which was only introduced in 2015?
RM: The important aspect of this project is that it is a set, and, not including all eight denominations, would have affected the “flow” of the series and theme. Britain is an ever-changing, ever-evolving country and the coinage ought to reflect this remarkable moment in history. It also means we don’t want to be “stuck in our ways” where we determine that one subject or depiction has to be included on the coinage. I think Kevin can explain more of the history in this regard. . .
Dr. Kevin Clancy: The selection of animals and trees can be tricky but we consciously wanted there to be representations of birds, mammals, insects, plants which needed to represent Britain as a whole and in some instances, more of an association with particular parts of Britain. It was a question of balance and, in terms of the depiction of Britannia, in this instance (Britannia) didn’t fit with the theme.
RM: Part of the excitement of coin collecting is finding examples from the last of one series to the first of a new series which many people will begin to find in their change soon.
MA: I’d like to focus on the obverse side of the new coins for a moment, the effigy of His Majesty was unveiled just three weeks after the death of Her Late Majesty. A lot of my readers asked me when Martin Jennings was commissioned to create this effigy, and were any personal sittings required?
RM: The Royal Mint always maintains an ever-revolving bank of portraits of members of the royal family, especially as they feature on coins so frequently, such as birthdays and anniversaries. As such, it isn’t unusual for us to have an up-to-date image or portrait. In the case of Martin Jennings, his effigy wasn’t sent to His Majesty for his approval until the end of September and during this time, the effigy underwent additional refinement, Martin’s work wasn’t specifically meant for use as the definitive effigy and no sittings were needed, the effigy was created from portraits and images on file.
MA: I’d now like to ask about the two smallest coin values. Was there any consideration by the Royal Mint to eliminate the one-penny and two-pence coins, as they are rarely used in cash transactions?
RM: There are two parts of your question I’d like to answer and the first is there was no consideration to eliminate the one-penny and two-pence coins from the new series. Second, this was mainly due to a research paper released by the Treasury a couple years ago which indicated that the majority of the public were not in favour of eliminating these two coins. I think they still play an important part in transactions and the public will begin to see these coins enter circulation within the next couple of months which is to satisfy demand.
KC: I should mention or remind your readers that it isn’t the Royal Mint who decides on the coins which are in use, that’s a matter for the Treasury. As the “manufacturer” of the coins, we do respond to the demands of the public who collect coins from circulation. We can’t dictate the policy of what coins go out of circulation but we can do our bit to satisfy public demand.
MA: Dr. Kevin Clancy, as the curator of the Royal Mint’s museum, you’re the perfect person to explain to my readers why coins are still so important to any country and society and how they have evolved especially in the United Kingdom over just the last century. . .
KC: These new coins continue the tradition of marking the beginning of a new reign, by changing the aspects of the coins and stimulating interest in them. The way I think of the usage of currency is it isn’t something that happens linearly, it happens in parallel as to how something develops. In terms of coins, and three hundred years ago when the first Bank of England banknotes were introduced and coins didn’t stop circulating, they were used in parallel. The same thing can be said for cheques and credit cards which we’ve used for more than over 40 years — and banknotes didn’t stop circulating. Now we have mobile phone payments and the function of how we interact with a means of exchange is one of absorption rather than rejecting one of the other. Perhaps there are some countries which are more aligned with the use of coins than others and in a hierarchy, we in the UK might stand close to the top as in the past, we gave our coins nicknames such as tanners and bobs, which showed a national affection for them. Also, it isn’t political, but the fact that we retained sterling and didn’t adopt the euro, maybe it’s in the back of people’s minds that there is still that sense of tradition of UK currency more than in other countries.
MA: Well, speaking of what is and isn’t political, is there a balance between conveying messages which are appreciated by the wider public and perhaps an instance where coins become a tool for political hype or trend?
KC: I think coins are essentially story-tellers, on behalf of the nation and in collaboration with the monarch and other aspects of the state we try to tell the story of what Britain is. In the past, the language we used was heraldry and mythical beasts or some aspects of the natural world such as wrens on farthings but now, we’re telling another story on these coins which is refreshing, innovative, and different for the UK. I think that’s a really great message.
RB: Coins should be engaging, they are part of the fabric of life and I think they will be of interest to a younger audience because there is much more to them and something they can relate to more than just heraldry. The conservation message is much more prominent with young people who seem attracted to this theme. You also asked earlier about the connection to previous designs and since King Charles II had, as part of his cypher, two interlocked “Cs” and here we see three interlocked “Cs” for Charles III, which provides the perfect balance between tradition and the more modern theme we see here today.
MA: As we welcome a new reign and coin series, I’d like to talk about the last historic reign and ask how do you think the coin-collecting world will remember the era of Elizabethan coinage, what stands out the most where the Late Queen’s coinage was concerned here or in the Commonwealth?
KC: It was just after the war, Great Britain was head of an imperial state with the remnants of empire and the Late Queen’s reign tracks the dissolution of and retreat of empire, and this is recorded on the currency. The Queen’s portrait was carried on countless countries’ currencies around the world and there was a change from this with images of presidents, for instance, who headed new Commonwealth countries. There is also the story of decimalisation, cataclysmically this ancient monetary system which was around for a thousand years, just wasn’t there anymore. There is another narrative you’ve just described about coin usage with people not using them as much or with other forms of exchange. There is the story of art and design, how the Queen’s portrait evolved over 70 years and how the designs on the reverse side changed to reflect to how people design, paint, and draw. The countless commemorative coins just over the last 30 years and the underlying theme of what the Royal Mint has been doing in conjunction with the Treasury to tell a British story about popular culture and about our achievements as a nation. Those are the things that stand out to me. There is a big political story, a design story, the monetary system story, and over that long period of time, the nation is going to change. If you had just the evidence in coin, nothing else, no newspapers, you could tell that great story.
RM: Similarly, the coinage of Queen Victoria is also one of the most popular eras to collect with four different portraits. Her coins also tell the story of her long reign and, of course, much more heraldry on the reverse designs, much more than in modern times. As Kevin commented about the Late Queen’s coinage, you could lay them all out from beginning to end and be able to tell a pretty good narrative of Britain and the events of her reign.
MA: We will never see another of the like of Queen Elizabeth II again, certainly not in our lifetime, but now we all have the chance to participate in welcoming a new era. Rebecca Morgan, Director of Commemorative Coins, and Dr. Kevin Clancy, Museum Director of the Royal Mint, thank you so much for your time today.
One penny: Small in stature, the hazel dormouse is a fitting presence on the UK’s smallest denomination.
Two pence: The red squirrel’s distinctive colouring blends perfectly with the reddish hue of this copper-coloured coin.
Five pence: This coin displays an oak tree leaf, signifying its role as a rich habitat for biodiversity in British woodland areas.
10 pence: Found in a small part of Scotland, the capercaillie is the world’s largest grouse and features on the reverse of the larger of the two round-shaped silver-coloured coins currently in circulation.
20 pence: This unmistakable seabird, the puffin, features on the reverse of the new definitive seven-sided coin.
50 pence: A conservation species with high priority, the Atlantic salmon features on the larger of the two seven-sided cupro-nickel coins in circulation.
One pound: Representing the more than 250 species which exist in Britain, the bee features on the reverse side of this 12-sided bi-metallic coin.
Two pounds: This bi-metallic coin and its largest face value features flora that symbolises the four nations comprising the United Kingdom.
The new coins are currently under production and are expected to enter circulation by the beginning of 2024. The King Charles III coin series and previous coins struck during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II will circulate alongside each other without distinction. Each coin includes a crown privy mark on the obverse just to the right of the King’s effigy denoting the year of his coronation and is exclusive to this 2023-dated set. They are available from the Royal Mint here.