Most of us will be aware of the hugely significant nature of the length of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. Her Diamond Jubilee in 2012 inspired celebrations in streets across the UK and towns and cities all over the world, and with good reason; it was only the second time in our history that a British monarch had achieved a reign of 60 years.
The only previous such anniversary was enjoyed by The Queen’s great-great-Grandmother, Queen Victoria, who also went on to record the longest reign by any monarch in British history; 63 years, seven months and two days. Looking forwards, there is every chance that Queen Elizabeth II will surpass this record and, in September 2015, become Britain’s longest reigning monarch.
As we begin to look towards this historic date, we have uncovered some intriguing facts and figures about the royal effigies – from Victoria to Elizabeth – that have appeared on one of our most-loved and hardest-working coins, the penny.
A visual history in the hands of the people
For centuries the effigy of the reigning monarch has appeared on the coinage of the realm. In times when communication was far more limited than today, the royal portrait on coins was often the only way that many ordinary people would ever see the face of their king or queen.
In the 177 years since Queen Victoria’s reign began, 11 royal effigies by 11 artists have appeared on British pennies, but only 10 made it to circulation…
Queen Victoria (1837 – 1901)
The coin portraits of Victoria’s reign began with the beautifully flattering ‘Young Head’ portrait by William Wyon RA. It remained on copper pennies until 1860, when they were replaced by smaller, thinner and more durable bronze pennies.
A new portrait then followed – affectionately known as the ‘Bun Head’ – by Leonard Charles Wyon, son of William. Pennies bearing this portrait are often referred to as ‘Bun pennies’. Much of the copper and bronze coinage of the 1870s and 1880s was produced under sub-contract by Heaton & Son of Birmingham – known as the ‘Birmingham Mint’. They can be spotted by the ‘H’ mint mark that they bear.
Her third portrait – known as the ‘Old Head’ – by Thomas Brock RA, appeared on bronze pennies from 1895, when Victoria was 76 years old.
Edward VII (1901 – 1910)
Edward succeeded to the throne at the age of 59, having been heir apparent for longer than anyone else in British history. His coinage portrait, created by Royal Mint Engraver George William de Saulles, was elegant and fitting. Consequently, and no doubt also due to the king’s age at succession, no further definitive portraits were created. Of interest regarding the pennies of his reign is that a huge number of them were produced – £1,012,013 in fact – and that in 1908 the first regular withdrawals from circulation of worn pennies and halfpence began.
George V (1910 – 1936)
George V carved out a naval career until the death of his elder brother, Prince Albert, brought him to the throne. His coin portrait was created by Australian sculptor Sir Bertram Mackennal, a highly regarded artist and a favourite of the king.
It was during his reign that the most famous and sought-after penny made its appearance. Or rather, it hardly did at all! The 1933 penny has undoubtedly been one of the most hunted-down coins in people’s everyday change. That’s because only a tiny number of them were ever made – six is the known minimum, possibly rising to 10 or 12, but certainly no more. The Royal Mint Museum tells the fascinating story behind this elusive penny.
Edward VIII (1936)
As his Coronation approached, Edward VIII selected a flattering portrait by Humphrey Paget, facing to the left, which he considered to be his better profile. It faces in the same direction as that of his father, thus going against the long-standing tradition of succeeding monarchs facing in opposite directions on their coinage.
Due to Edward VIII’s abdication, coins bearing his portrait were never released into circulation, so the penny of his era is sometimes called ‘the absent penny’. Rare pattern pieces of his proposed coinage are held by The Royal Mint Museum.
George VI (1936 – 1952)
Unlike his elder brother, George did not bow to vanity when it came to his coinage portrait. Created by Humphrey Paget, it is simple, balanced, technically near-perfect and somehow reassuring. The king faces to the right and is uncrowned. He was 41 years old when it was created and no further portraits were created, the king sadly dying at 56 years of age.
Elizabeth II (1952 – present)
As the young Queen took her throne, at only 25 years of age, a new era of post-war hopefulness, combined with ongoing tradition, began. In 1953 Sculptor Mary Gillick portrayed Elizabeth as youthful and fresh, wearing a laurel wreath.
Three further definitive effigies have been created of Her Majesty during her long reign, by Arnold Machin RA -1968, Raphael Maklouf – 1985 and in 1998 the current portrait by Ian Rank-Broadley FRBS.
What tales these coins might tell – whose hands did they pass through, what may they have bought over the years? Your set includes a penny from the reigns of Queen Victoria, Edward VII, George V, George VI and Queen Elizabeth II, and the specially designed presentation pack tells the story behind the portraits that become part of the everyday. This set would make a wonderful introduction to collecting, sure to ignite the imagination. Priced at just £22.00 it is also a nostalgic gift for anyone interested in British history or the monarchy.