Look at one of today’s £2 coins and you’ll see a figure that has graced many coins throughout the UK’s history. This is Britannia, the female personification of Britain, a symbol of national identity.
From the 2nd century, Britain’s history can be traced through its depictions of Britannia. Throughout the ages, the design has changed, but one element remains constant: the instantly recognisable figure of a strong, graceful woman at the coin's centre.
Britannia on Roman Coins
The story of Britannia on coins begins all the way back in the 2nd century, when much of Britain had been seized by the Roman Empire. Around 119 AD, under Hadrien’s rule, the strong female figure made her first appearance on Roman coins, alongside the name of Britannia. In this first depiction, she wore long robes, with a spear in one hand and a shield in the other.
It’s been said that Hadrien’s coins often pictured the woman as if she was being held captive, likely to reflect the Roman’s seizure of the island. But that all changed a few hundred years later. In the early 400’s, the Romans left Britain and Britannia wasn’t to be seen on coins again for hundreds of years.
Britannia’s 17th Century Re-emergence
It wasn’t until the 17th century that this female figure started making its way back into the cultural fabric of the country once again. Under the reign of the last Tudor queen, Elizabeth I, Britain’s maritime empire was growing. The old symbol of Britannia, looking bravely out among the waves, took precedence once more, this time as a symbol of strength rather than of a conquered nation.
In 1672, around 1200 years after the Romans left Britain, the first British Britannia coin was struck. King Charles II hoped that the icon would inspire the nation once more, at a time when its maritime strength was under threat.
First came the farthing, issued from August 1672. Around Christmas of the same year, the halfpenny followed. These were Britain’s first regal copper coins; with dies created by John Roettier, the milled coins were struck at the Royal Mint in London using machinery rather than hand-hammering as they would have been before.
The Face Behind the Figure
The figure that bedecked that very first Britannia farthing, the ancestor of the one that adorns our coinage to this day, had somewhat of a controversial model. She was, in fact, an effigy of Frances Teresa Stuart, who was Charles II’s wife’s, Catherine of Braganza, lady in waiting.
Frances Teresa was known as ‘La Belle Stuart’ and her beauty didn’t go unnoticed by the king. He was entirely infatuated with her and, though he clearly took inspiration from the Roman coins that had come before, he had her sit as the model for Britannia.
The king had an affair with the 23 year old Frances Teresa and she became his favourite mistress. He even contemplated divorcing Catherine to be with her. Instead, Frances Teresa eloped with the Duke of Richmond and Lennox and married him in 1667. Despite her marriage, however, she soon returned to the Court and to her position as the king’s mistress.
Britannia Through the Ages
Ever since Charles II’s farthing in 1672, Britannia has been a lasting symbol. Her figure has graced our coinage ever since, becoming ever more tied to the seas that surround our islands.
With her shield a symbol of protection and her gaze set on the future, Britannia’s been a source of strength throughout the years. She’s frequently reimagined by artists; each year, the Royal Mint releases a new Britannia coin, with each new iteration a nod to Britain’s trials and triumphs of the time.
An icon bourne in the Roman era, Britannia remains on our coins to this day. From a woman held captive by the Romans to today’s strong figure with an olive branch and trident in hand, she’s a point of national pride, a symbol of our shared identity, and a motif that unites us all.