Widely considered one of the world’s most beautiful coins, Una and the Lion is a fitting choice for the first coin in our series celebrating the greatest engravers to have worked on British coinage. Medallic in appearance, it was designed by William Wyon RA during what was a golden age for The Royal Mint. As an engraver, he strove to elevate numismatic art, an aspiration evidenced by this design; an extraordinary piece of work even for an artist as talented and prolific as Wyon.
The faerie queene
The reverse design is inspired by the poem ‘The Faerie Queene’ by Edmund Spenser, widely considered one of the greatest poets in the English language. The first part of this epic work was published in 1590 and was followed by two more books. The poem follows the adventures of several knights as a literary device to examine different virtues.
Along the way we meet Una, the beautiful daughter of a king and queen imprisoned by a ferocious dragon. Una sets out to free them, but comes across a lion on her journey. However, the encounter doesn’t go as expected. Una’s beauty, truth and innocence charm this ferocious beast. Instead of devouring her, the lion becomes her champion. The allegorical subtext is a means to praise Elizabeth I. Victorian artists often harked back to the perceived romanticism of this era as a form of escapism.
A new reign
In its original form – a gold Five-Sovereign piece – Una and the Lion was designed to commemorate the start of Queen Victoria’s reign. But this was no ordinary coin struck for circulation. Instead it seems likely it was intended for collector sets dated 1839, which were delayed until 1843. Estimates suggest that between 300 and 500 were produced.
The coin design casts Queen Victoria in Una’s role, while the lion at her side is a representation of the British people. This was a bold decision on Wyon’s part as it was the first time a British monarch had been depicted as a fictional character on a coin. The artistic appeal stems from the striking contrast between the graceful figure clutching an orb and sceptre and the coiled power of the lion. The detailing is astonishing when you consider that Wyon worked entirely by hand on the tiny roundel of a coin.
“Dirige deus tresses meos”
The Latin inscription ‘DIRIGE DEUS GRESSUS MEOS’ usually found on the reverse translates to ‘May God direct my steps’. This same inscription was used on the 2012 £5 crown commemorating Her Majesty The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
“Prepare my steps with your word”
The words are a variant on Psalm 119 verse 133 – ‘Prepare my steps with your word, and do not allow any iniquity to rule over me’.