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.