Britannia first appeared on coins back in the Roman era. In the second century AD, Emperor Hadrian introduced a number of coins that depicted a female figure who personified Britain and featured the label ‘BRITANNIA’. When the Romans left Britain in the early 400s, Britannia vanished from coins and wasn’t to appear again for several centuries. In fact, it wasn’t until Elizabeth I’s reign in the 1600s that Britannia started to play a part in national life once more, featuring in contemporary drama and literature symbolising the Tudor queen’s growing maritime empire.
In 1636, the legal scholar John Selden argued that Britannia proved Britain’s claim to the seas around her. He said that Britannia had been shown on Roman coins seated amidst the waves, portraying our naval strength. Perhaps that was why Charles II chose to reintroduce Britannia onto our coins in 1672 – Britain’s maritime strength was under threat and the king hoped that Britannia would inspire the nation.
Since her reappearance in 1672, Britannia has never been absent from the nation’s coins and over the years she became more and more associated with the sea. On the famous cartwheel pennies and two pences of 1797 she was shown seated on rocks in the sea, with a ship in the background and her spear replaced by a trident. Britannia continued to reign supreme on the coins of every monarch and when the United Kingdom switched to decimal coinage in 1971, Britannia was chosen to appear on the first decimal 50p coin. Her lasting presence on our coins also made her the perfect choice when The Royal Mint was choosing a subject to appear on coins for the international bullion markets. As an appealing and distinctive figure that was also instantly recognisable as British, she first appeared on gold bullion coins in 1987 and on silver bullion coins in 1997.
Britannia continues to be reinterpreted by different artists to this day, with different aspects of her nature and symbolism emphasised to reflect the times. She also remains a feature of the coins we use every day and her image graces the current definitive £2 coin.