When people hear ‘Britannia’, they may think of the patriotic anthem Rule Britannia or even the Cool Britannia movement of the 1990s. But how many will picture the Roman goddess, despite the fact that anyone who has spent a 50 pence piece will almost certainly have seen an image of her?
Who is Britannia?
Britannia, the female personification of the British Isles, has been a popular figure since the 1st century, when she was first depicted as a goddess.
She was a firm fixture on coins from this point onwards, appearing on the pennies issued under every monarch from 1797 onwards, until decimalisation, when she was chosen to appear on the 50p coin until 2008.
Over the years, the image of Britannia has altered subtly, with her maritime links being emphasised by switching her spear to a trident.
While most Brits will have had a coin featuring Britannia in their purse/wallet at some point, her image has also been used in numerous other ways. She is the symbol of the Bank of England, and a number of other companies have also adopted her as part of their company identity, including Britannia Building Society and Britannia Airways, while her link to the sea has also made Britannia a popular name for boats over the years.
A symbol of British unity
The symbol of Britannia has been used for thousands of years, but what is behind her endurance?
The answer could lie in the fact that she is seen as a symbol of British unity, liberty and strength, meaning she resurfaces during particularly challenging times. Like Columbia in the US and Marianne in France, Britannia becomes more prominent in times of war or when national pride is booming.
Her appearance in the 17th century came not long after James I brought together England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland under one rule, and more recently the Cool Britannia movement heralded a time of renewed optimism under New Labour, with British groups such as the Spice Girls and Oasis dominating popular culture.
An iconic female figure
Britannia has also found herself thrust into the spotlight when female monarchs sit on Britain’s throne, featuring prominently in drama and literature during the reign of Elizabeth I and being used as a symbol of the British Empire under Queen Victoria.
Under Queen Anne, the image of Britannia even resembled the Queen herself, while under the current Queen, Britannia was chosen to feature on the first gold Britannia coins in 1987 and, ten years later, on the first silver bullion Britannia coins.
National pride is at something of a fever pitch at the moment, following on from the Royal wedding and the Jubilee celebrations and ahead of the Royal baby being born this summer. But is Britannia still as important a symbol as she has been historically?
In 2008, the decision was made not to include her on the newly-issued 50ps, although some of the older ones remain in circulation, meaning Britannia is not featured on any new coin for the first time in 336 years.
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Purchase a Britannia coin!
You can buy the Britannia coins from the Royal Mint website. Coins are available in Proof and Brilliant Uncirculated finishes, in both base and precious metal.