Februarys coin of the month is a beautifully conserved, chocolate-brown, NCS/NGC, 1858/6 AU-55 Great Britain halfpenny.
This month I am beginning a three-part series of articles examining the coins of three nations with seated, feminine national personifications. A British halfpenny from my collection is the first coin in this series because I believe the Seated Liberty coinage of the United States uses as its model the Seated Britannia coinage of Great Britain. Subsequently, the South American nation of Peru after their liberation from Spain in 1824 modeled their coinage after Lady Liberty of the United States.
The 1858/6 Great Britain halfpenny (KM#726) is a copper coin, 28 mm in diameter, and weighing 9.1-9.5 grams with a mintage of 2,473,000. The obverse features the young-head bust of Queen Victoria, the date, and a Latin inscription around the rim of the coin. The obverse inscription is translated, Victoria by the Grace of God. The reverse features Britannia in a right facing seated position holding Poseidons trident and a shield displaying the Union Flag. Underneath Britannia are a shamrock (three-leafed clover), a rose, and a thistle. These flowers represent the three kingdoms of the United Kingdom: Ireland, England, and Scotland respectively. The Latin inscription around the rim of the reverse is translated, Queen of the British Territories, Defender of the Faith.
Britannia is an ancient Latin term tracing back to the first-century BC used to describe a group of islands, including Albion or Great Britain. In AD 43, the Romans invaded Great Britain and established a province there they named Britannia. During the second-century AD, Britannia became personified as a goddess typically seen wearing a centurion helmet, and armed with a spear and shield (much like that of Minerva).
Britannia first appeared in a seated position on bronze coinage during the reign of Roman Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD). That first Britannia commemorates Hadrians visit to the province and the building of the Hadrian wall in AD 122. Originally, this coin signified that Britannia was bound and subjugated by her Roman occupiers. Over time, the seated position of Britannia would come to mean something altogether different.
Long after the withdrawal of the Romans from Great Britain in AD 410, the name Britannia referring to the British islands remained popular among the Britons. During the Renaissance period more than a thousand years later, Britannia came to be viewed as the national personification of Great Britain.
On British coinage, Britannia first appeared on the farthing in 1672 and the halfpenny later that year. On those first coins, Britannia appeared seated on a globe holding an olive branch with her right hand and a spear with her left. A shield bearing the Union Flag of England and Scotland leans against the globe. As such, Britannia became a symbol of British power and a strong rallying point among Britons. First appearing during the reign of Charles II, Britannia has graced the coinage of every British monarch since.
With the official unification of England and Scotland in 1707, and the subsequent adding of Ireland to the union in 1801 came an exponential rise in power and influence all around the world. Thus, the British Empire would become the largest empire the world has known. To reflect this rise in power and in particular naval superiority, Britannia wearing a centurion helmet donned a more militaristic look, arming herself with Poseidons trident and a shield. Other views of Britannia show her overlooking a British harbor with a lighthouse and a tall-masted British sailing ship on the horizon. At other times, Britannia appears with a lion by her side.
Britannia also represents Liberty and Democracy to the people of the United Kingdom much like Lady Liberty does for the United States, and Marianne does for France. Britannia even became a pop-culture icon in the 1990s known as Cool Britannia. Today Britannia makes an annual appearance on the Silver American Eagle equivalent two-pound Britannia.
In summary, while I did my best to research and describe Britannia in this post, I believe the people who know her best capture the essence of her significance to the United Kingdom. Therefore, the following paragraph is copied from a 2006 Standing Britannia certificate of authenticity: Philip Nathans original design of 1987 which shows the standing figure of Britannia, wearing a Grecian helmet, with her hair and gown flowing freely in the wind. In her right hand she grasps a trident, the symbol of naval supremacy, while her left hand grips the rim of her shield embellished with the flag of the United Kingdom. This warlike stance is moderated by the olive branch in her left hand, symbolizing her readiness to make peace rather than war.
As symbolic as Britannia is, so is the flag of the United Kingdom on her shield. The flag of the United Kingdom is overlaid with St. Patrick’s cross representing Ireland, St. George’s cross representing England, and St. Andrew’s cross representing Scotland. In 1922, Ireland became a free state. However, Northern Ireland seceded from Ireland and rejoined the United Kingdom.
Finally, as mentioned, this coin has been conserved by NCS. Originally blotted with large dark carbon spots you can still see light spots where conservation has enhanced the appearance of the coin. Because what remains doesnt distract from the overall appearance, the coin was crossed over to an NGC holder where I believe it is under-graded at AU-55. Personally, I think this coin should have at least been graded AU-58. However, I am glad to have it graded and in an NGC holder. So until next time, happy collecting