Who was Britannia on the old penny coins?

Britannia is a female personification of Britain. She wears flowing robes, carries a spear and shield and sits on a rock. For centuries she appeared on the British penny coin and then on other coins after a major change to the currency (decimalisation) in 1971.

The Romans created Britannia. She first appeared on coins under the Emperor Hadrian. One theory has her as a subdued ancient Briton sitting mournfully on her rock, resigned to being part of the Roman Empire.

After the end of Roman rule in England and Wales, Britannia disappeared. Until 1672. A gap of fourteen centuries. Then under king Charles II, up she popped on the penny coin. There were certain changes though. On her shield was the flag of the Union of Britain and Scotland.

But who was this 17th century Britannia modelled on?

DISCOVER: The strange green children of Wulpet

It seems that Britannia in her trident and helmet on the old penny coins was one of the mistresses of Charles II. The so-called “Merry Monarch”, who ruled after the grim puritan interlude of Oliver Cromwell, had an insatiable libido.

He famously carried on an affair with London street girl Nell Gwyn, who started life selling oranges outside the Drury Lane theatre. But it wasn’t Nell that we see as Britannia on the penny coins.

No, it was a lady of impeccable breeding. Frances Stuart, later the Duchess of Richmond, was a fabulous beauty according to that great diarist of London life, Samuel Pepys.

She looked down on Nell but in the final analysis, they were up to the same game – using sex for influence at court. And both at the beck and call of the lascivious king.

One French visitor sniffily carped that it was hard to imagine less brains with more beauty than Frances Stuart.

But for a women dismissed as dim but pretty, she actually made a large fortune out of manipulating the king’s affections. Here I am on Yesterday TV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs talking about Frances and her presence on our coins.

2 thoughts on “Who was Britannia on the old penny coins?

  1. When I was an apprentice Deck Officer in Union Castle Line,we cadets were scrubbing the timber deck when the Subject came up about pennies. One of the able seaman who was working with us, said to me, “have you ever seen a Honolulu Penny. The answer was no and he showed me an English Penny with Britannia on the reverse and the Trident Handle was not on her knee, but slightly closer to home and hence the name Honolulu.
    I have since that day looked at every Britannia penny or half penny and have collected and also at times lost a number of them in my travels.
    To date I have never ever heard the term Honolulu Penny used again and it surprises me that a change of the Trident situation has not ever, to my knowledge. been remarked on

    1. Well – you’re absolutely right. There was a Britannia with the trident posed rather indecently, or so people sometimes thought, between her legs. And that was changed in the late 1890s. Of course, post-decimalisation, we then get Britannia offering an olive branch for less imperial times. So she has subtly changed over the years. Fascinating. Did you know about this blog post: http://www.johnwinter.net/jw/2014/11/the-vulgar-penny/

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