Behind the design: King Canute £5 coin

As someone who is fascinated by the Vikings and the Viking age, I was excited when it was announced that The Royal Mint would mark the 1000th anniversary of the coronation of King Canute in 2017. The millennial presents the perfect opportunity to tell the largely untold tale of a Viking warrior and conqueror who captured the English throne and paved the way for the nation of England we recognise today.

Perhaps equally as exciting as the news that the anniversary would be celebrated on coins is the choice of designer. Lee Jones is a name that will be familiar to coin collectors and readers of The Royal Mint blog. Lee is a Royal Mint engraver and a veteran coin designer with an impressive portfolio that includes coin designs for Dylan Thomas, D-Day, Winston Churchill and VE Day, among others. We caught up with Lee for the latest installment of our ‘behind the design’ blog series to find out more about his King Canute coin design.

What have you been up to lately Lee?

In July last year I was promoted to Strategic Team Leader within the engraving team so I have spent a lot of time working on that as a role and design really hasn’t been at the forefront of my duties. It has been kind of a trade off – the more responsibility you take on, the less engraving and designing you actually do. With that said, I have been working on a few designs for medals, although I can’t reveal any more information about that just yet.

Tell us how the King Canute coin came about…

The theme was put forward and came to the coin designers in the usual fashion, as a competition. I was running a bit cold on competition designs and you need to find a theme that really grabs your attention because you do a lot of this on your own time. When you get home from work you want something that is really going to spark your interest and push you on to midnight hours… and the King Canute coin design did. Having that interest helps because there is a lot of research and thinking required up front – you need to brew an idea, rather than try to construct one.

What was it about the theme/topic that grabbed your interest?

I suppose being a bloke, when you’re growing up, Vikings are “the thing”. You’re quite excited by these dynamic people who went raiding around the countryside and changed the face of the western world in effect. Even today, they’re still discovering just how much of an effect the Vikings had. I’m just really fascinated by the whole Viking Saga and the polytheistic views (many gods they look to). It was a unique view point of what people now call pagan (but that’s a bit of a rude word in a sense to people who don’t worship the one god). King Canute has also got that thing attached to him about the tide coming in and people think he was being arrogant thinking he could control the tide, but he wasn’t, he was actually saying you know I can’t stop the tide coming in and I’ll sit here and try and prove it to you. He also turned monotheistic – he became a christian – and what’s interesting about that is that it was as much a political move as well as a ideological thing. I’m sure he generally was wanting to be a Christian emotionally and spiritually but obviously he saw that it would hold great sway with the country and make many allies if he adopted Christianity – he was a really cunning guy. So the research grabbed me at the start and I kind of got hooked on the story of the person.

A sketch of the King Canute coin

Where did your research start? You had a personal interest, but where did your research go from there?

I started by looking at a couple of books that I already have and I soon put them down because they were driving the design direction and look too much. The difference between this and other designs is that some designs rely on you almost aping what has come before. With Canute you’ve got this 15th or 16th century (or even later) illustration in a manuscript of what he could have looked like, but that is really a cut and paste, a clipart version of a king that they use throughout the ages. Every king that you can think of would have looked the same in these manuscripts. It was all about the symbolism – a king must have a crown, a king must have his robe, a king must have his sword – rather than a personal appearance, it doesn’t necessarily reflect what he would look like. The closest thing to how he looked would come through coins. If you look at Cleopatra and Anthony for instance, they had coins made of them quite egotistically and people say gosh she was an ugly women if she looked a bit like that. So they did research and the truth is that it was the style of the time, to make them look almost ornate, but it did actually reflect what was written about her. There’s this foundation for saying that coins do reflect what the person looked like, especially as coins were around at the time where as manuscripts weren’t – they were done way after.

I also went over to The Royal Mint Museum to see what coins they had. Weirdly it is the first monarch that we portrayed on a coin as The Royal Mint. I could see that there were certain features that were quite strong on his coinage, the way they had constructed it and I built those into my design – for instance the nose and the eyes. I did have a definite idea for the eyes – that they would be without the pupils. It comes from classical Greek stuff, where they used to paint the detail on but we are so used to seeing it without the paint – because the paint has come off over the years – and it gives you a classical feel.

Then I start reading blogs, I go on Twitter – you get a lot of historians on Twitter – and if anybody has got something new to say these days, they’re saying it on Social Media. I also looked at the Jorvik centre to see what their attitude was – they’ve got the expertise on what is right and what is wrong.

The crown itself came from the manuscripts and to a degree the coins, but I didn’t want the design to be a pastiche of anything. It had to be; here’s the coin and here’s what we would understand the coin now, but it’s have to have the same message. It’s quite visceral and simplistic and represents the man and his achievements – so, for instance, the waves are in there.

Once you’ve done that research, how do you go about beginning your design?

I don’t like to concentrate too hard when I’m designing it, so usually I start designing with the TV on. The reason is, I’m not being flippant when I’m drawing, but I don’t want to get too tight. There’s a danger when you design that you get too tight, too involved and it just becomes a mess. Where as if you’ve got the TV on, you’re half thinking about it and just relaxing a bit more. So you’re hand will flow a bit more easily and loosely. As a result these simple lines flew out quite nicely. I think I did about three or four sketches and a clear picture was already kind of forming in my mind. I let ideas brew overnight. It’s like that thing; if you sleep on a problem, it’s not so hard the next day. I knew I had to clean it up so that’s where Illustrator came in. I scanned in the sketches to get the proportions. The next thing was to get a type face that was of the time. I looked at a bit of research and I pulled the typeface apart – so it is not quite any one typeface it is an amalgamation of one that I had found and one that I have fiddled with.

A computer generated model of the King Canute coin

Tell us a little bit more around your decision for the typeface

Well, it needed to look like what was on the original coins, with these almost triangulation features and also reflect what people would imagine it to look like. We have to have an interface between what people think it should look like and what is reality. So I started to manipulate the typeface with that in mind. When you type something, people see it as simple letters that fall one after each other, where as as an artists/designer, they are individual design elements that you have to make work. They’re things that have to sit together and work. You almost have to forget that they are letters and forget what they spell. So I had to make them sit happily within the design. The structure of the text is to reflect a manuscript in some way as well – you’re reading down as though you’re reading a document as opposed to a coin. 

What came next in the process?

The RMAC (Royal Mint Advisory Committee) came back with a couple of ideas for alterations, but when I made the changes they went back to what I initially submitted. So it was a pretty painless process. We then cut the design into a plastic mold which was then sprayed with a matte spray to make it look like a plaster, this is then submitted to the RMAC so that they can have a good look and get a feel for the design. So they were happy with that and made no changes there.

The competitions are done about a year in advance so the time-frame for creating the design wouldn’t have taken more than a week on this one because it kind of just made its own way, it was alive straight away. The model didn’t take me that long as it’s a package i’m fluent with and again you’ve got the ideas in your head, and then it was submitted to the RMAC. There’s usually about two to three months between submission of the design and then seeing a revision, and then we sit trials so I was present at the trial which was quite nice to see – nobody knew i’d designed it so you’re sitting at the trial and you’re hoping that people are quite honest about what they see and it was all good feedback so I was chuffed there. And now it’s on sale on the website, which kind of freaks you out because it’s live and it’s out there, you have done it and you’ve done all you can then so hopefully people like it!

Did you speak to any experts as part of your research?

I didn’t speak to any experts up front, it’s always quite difficult doing that because of the secrecy of what we’re doing, you don’t want to give away too much, but we had the design verified later on in the process.

A computer generated model of the King Canute coin

Talk us through the different elements of the coin

Well, I’ve got his little goatee in there and his strong brow and nose – it was written down actually about him having this strong nose. The shaved back head, I did a bit of research and it came back that Vikings would shave the backs of their heads, so they’d have a bit on the front and then all the back was shaved so I made sure that was in it, and it was a conscious decision not to go with the manuscript which had a pretty angle-less face and with the hair curling up – it just didn’t make any sense to represent a Viking man in that way.

The text “King Canute” is an open face treatment, so originally that type-face would have been a block but I’ve lightened it up to make it feel like it’s been hand-done, so that’s got negative areas within the letters to lighten it up. The crown is quite basic, almost fleur de lis shape, I fasted quite a lot to give it that chiseled hand, cut-hand sunk referencing the old ways in which they would have made the initial coin. And the waves, these are in the background as I didn’t want to feature too heavily on the old myth but they had to be there as they’re such a big part of what people know about King Canute.

What was the most challenging aspect of the design?

It was Cnut/Canute because I did two versions because I aware of the mixed feelings towards both spellings. That was the most challenging part, ensuring that the design worked with both spellings and thinking that “how are people going to receive this” – are the experts going to question the phonetic spelling? Will the general public relate with the more traditional spelling? You want it appeal to everyone – and the idea of educating people is to start on common ground so spelling it phonetically gets more people on board.

king canute coin
The King Canute £5 Coin, celebrating the 1000th Anniversary of the Coronation of the Viking Conqueror and English King

Tell us something we don’t already know about the design? Any quirks?

I think I’ve captured it all… It’s quite interesting to find out what people say about how they look physically. I wish the Romans were there as they always had these guys writing stuff down, keeping diaries slating each other and always did it about physical appearance as well – but they didn’t have that for Canute, it was just slim pickings.

How has it been received? Has any feedback stood out for you?

At coin trials people are brutally honest and in this instance everybody came across really positive. The coin trial happens outside of the RMAC, and the trial is to determine whether it’s a worthy coin, whether it works, strikes, etc. and people will comment on whether or not they like it and everybody was really positive. On another occasion I also met a member of the RMAC at a committee meeting and he was gushing over the design, and that blew my mind. And my wife likes it – and if my wife likes it then that trumps what anyone else thinks!

king canute 5 pound coin
The 1000th Coronation of King Canute 2017 UK £5 BU

The King Canute £5 coin is available in all finishes; Silver Proof, Silver Proof Piedfort, Gold Proof and Brilliant Uncirculated and can also be found in the 2017 Annual Sets. Have you added the King Canute £5 coin to your collection? Let us know in the comments below or on our Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Related Posts

  • Who was King Canute?Who was King Canute? If you cast your eyes across The Royal Mint's 1,100 years of history and catalog of commemorations, you'll find stories of kings and queens, whose battles and conquests shaped Britain's […]
  • Behind the design: Dylan Thomas 100Behind the design: Dylan Thomas 100 Talented Royal Mint Engraver, Lee Jones, is the artist behind the coin that honours literary giant Dylan Thomas and celebrates the 100th anniversary of his birth. Lee's design has elicited […]