Coins are important visible symbols of the nation and the original decimal designs well reflected British heritage. In 2008 though, 40 years after the first decimal coins entered circulation, it was time for rejuvenation.
The process of choosing the new designs to replace the familiar heraldic emblems on Britain's circulating coins began with a public competition. How people would respond to the call to change the familiar decimal designs was by no means clear. But the response was quite simply overwhelming. The comeptition generated more than 4,000 designs from over 500 people – the largest response to any public competition organised to change the British coinage.
Specially invited artists, Royal Mint engravers and artists from other European countries vied with people of all ages and sections of society. The brief allowed those taking part a free hand to prepare a coherent series of designs' and while they were encouraged to explore heraldic emblems and motifs, the door was left open for other ways in which to symbolise Britain.
Each and every one of the designs was examined by the Royal Mint Advisory Committee and it took over a year of deliberations and several meetings before a series emerged that seemed to best capture the mood of the time.
Matthew Dent had seen the competition advertised in his newspaper and threw himself wholeheartedly into the project exploring a number of options before finally developing his ideas for a heraldic set:
'I felt that the solution to the Royal Mint's brief lay in a united design – united in terms of theme, execution and coverage over the surface of the coins. I wondered about a theme of birds or plants, buildings or costal scenery but how to share four nations over six coins? The idea of a landscape appealed to me; perhaps this landscape could stretch off an edge of one coin and appear on the edge of another; an English landscape could merge with a Scottish one, this could blend with an Irish one, which could disappear into a Welsh one. Then I decided to look at heraldry. Perhaps the six coins could make up a shield by arranging the coins both horizontally (as with the landscape idea), but also vertically in a sort of jigsaw style. This piecing together of the elements of the Royal Arms to form one design had a satisfying symbolism – of uniting the four countries of Britain under a single Monarch.’
It may seem curious to some that, originally, there had been no intention to include the £1 coin when planning new designs for the UK coinage. In its 28-year history, the £1 coin has, in three series, represented the four constituent parts of the UK in sequence. Moreover, a second £1 coin bearing the Royal Arms on its reverse had been issued in 1988. In consequence, it had already featured a total of 14 reverses in its lifetime and seemed likely to feature many more in its future. For that reason, a new reverse for the £1 coin somehow seemed unnecessary. And yet, after thrilling the Royal Mint Advisory Committee and coming through many trials, the set of new reverses, as exciting and innovative as they were, seemed to lack a final, unassailable unity. There was much debate until, finally, as reported by the delighted artist, it was realised that the £1 coin, a coin that has such a distinguished history, was an essential part of the transformation.
The result is a set of coins firmly rooted in the heraldic traditions of the British coinage yet beautifully contemporary.