The ‘heads’, or obverse, side of a coin has depicted the image of a monarch or ruler for thousands of years.

However, the nature of these images have changed over the centuries. From the Ancient Greeks to Queen Elizabeth II, in this blog we guide you through the differing historic heads of uk coinage.

Ancient Greece and Rome

An Ancient Greek coin depicting the portrait of Zeus.

The coins of ancient Greece set the design template for the circulating coins that we use today in the UK!

On one side, their coins show a portrait of the symbol of national sovereignty and on the other side, we see something that resembles the nation.

Coins of ancient Greece and Rome were provided for city states and depict images of iconic leaders and the gods that protected them.

Roman coins depict the faces of the leaders of the empire, including Emperor Honoria.

Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Period

Medieval coin featuring the portrait of Edward III

The AngloSaxon period in Britain spans approximately the six centuries from 410-1066AD.

In the ninth century The Royal Mint struck a silver penny of Alfred the Great at the time of the resettlement of London after its first occupation by the Vikings. 

The coin would have been struck by hand and the design showcases the rigid markings that would have come as a result of hand tools.

The Renaissance and the Tudors

Tudor coin featuring the portrait of King Henry VIII

The Sovereign is undoubtedly one of the most impressive coins struck by The Royal Mint.

In 1489, Henry VII ordered a new coin of gold. The coin surface was large, enabling the engraver to include decorative details. It allowed for more detailed portraits of monarchs.

The portrait on this coin is of the crowned King Henry VIII.

Charles II

Gold coin featuring the reversed portrait of Charles II

When Charles II was restored to the throne, he needed to assert his royal authority and to show a clear break from the rule of Oliver Cromwell.

It’s been suggested that the tradition of monarchs facing in the opposite direction to their predecessor on coins, dates back to Charles II when he wanted coins under his reign to be different from that of Cromwell.

Victoria

Queen Victoria Gothic Florin

Despite reigning for 64 years, there were few coinage portraits of Queen Victoria, with one being favoured for 50 years.

For 50 years the ‘Young Head’ effigy of Queen Victoria featured on UK coinage this classically styled portrait was reinterpreted several times, with each effigy designed to portray the queen as she aged.

Queen Elizabeth II

2020 dated 50p featuring the fifth portrait of HM Queen Elizabeth II

Five portraits of Her Majesty The Queen have been used on UK coins since her accession to the throne in 1952.

The Queen’s first portrait, by Mary Gillick, shows her wearing a wreath in the style of many British coins struck between the seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries. This portrait remained on UK coins up until decimalisation, when Arnold Machin’s new portrait of The Queen was used (pictured above).

The effigy selected for use from 1985 was prepared by the sculptor Raphael Maklouf, in which she is depicted wearing a necklace and earrings.

By her fourth portrait, designed by Ian Rank-Broadley, a greater degree of realism was used. It shows The Queen in her sixth decade, her crowned head filling the coin’s surface. 

The fifth and most recent portrait of The Queen is by Royal Mint designer Jody Clark. This is arguably the first UK coin to introduce elements of personality with a hint of a smile. Clark is the first Royal Mint employee in over 100 years to design a UK definitive coin portrait.


So now you know how the portraits on our coins have changed over the years, which portrait is your favourite? Comment below!


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Alexandrina Victoria was born on 24th May 1819. At just 18 years old she acceded to the throne and ruled Britain for 63 years, making her Britain’s longest reigning monarch at the time of her death in 1901.

Victoria oversaw the extensive growth and expansion of the British Empire under her rule, with dramatic changes in British culture, industry, and technology. These changes had a significant influence on the development and spread of British coinage.

Victorian currency was minted throughout the world in countries such as India and Australia, as well as Britain. Every coin and portrait tells a unique story – from the ‘Young Head’ which depicted a promising Queen, right through to the ‘Old Head’ which represented an ageing but graceful monarch.

In this blog, we’ll explore the defining coins of Queen Victoria’s reign, as well as taking a look at the modern commemorative coins we see today, issued to celebrate one of Britain’s most influential monarchs.

The defining coins of Queen Victoria’s Reign

1838 Sovereign

1838 Sovereign

The first Sovereign of Queen Victoria’s rule was issued in 1838 with the popular Young Head portrait by William Wyon. The portrait had a particularly youthful look, one that was favoured by Victoria and contributed to the coin’s popularity throughout her reign. To this day, it is the longest a portrait has featured on our circulating coinage, having been issued on bronze coins up until 1895. The Young Head effigy is considered the most favoured portrait of Victoria’s coinage, undergoing only minor changes throughout its lifespan.

Godless Florin

1849 ‘Godless’ Florin

As part of the move towards decimalisation, a coin valued at 1/10th of a pound, the Florin, was introduced in 1849. It featured the Gothic Head portrait by William Wyon which would actually go on to be regarded as one of the most beautiful representations of the Victorian age. However, this coin failed to include the term ‘Dei Gratia’, which earned it the nickname of the Godless Florin. It was swiftly withdrawn from circulation after three years.  

Gothic Florin

Gothic Florin

The Gothic Florin was introduced as a replacement to the Godless Florin and contained a very similar design, but this coin included the term ‘Dei Gratia’. This particular portrait represents the revival of Gothic culture across Victorian life and draws its name from the distinct gothic font used for the inscription around the edge, and the intricate detail on the crown that Victoria wears, which is considered a numismatic masterpiece. As the second Florin to promote decimalisation, the Gothic Florin again failed to gain popularity but was minted for longer than its predecessor.

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1855 Sydney Sovereign

1855 Sydney Sovereign

As part of British imperial expansion, the Royal Mint opened a branch in Sydney and the first Sovereign was minted there in 1855. It had the word ‘Australia’ printed on the reverse and bore a small ‘S’ mintmark to distinguish it as having been minted in Australia.  This portrait was only ever seen on Australian coins, produced exclusively at the Sydney Mint for just 14 years. It depicted a younger queen with a sprig of banksia (an Australia plant) weaved into her hair, which gave it a distinct Australian feel.

Double Florin

Double Florin

The Double Florin, in another move towards decimalisation, was valued at 1/5th of a pound and pictured the Jubilee Head. The coin was only 2mm smaller than the Crown but valued at a Shilling less, making it difficult to distinguish between the two. Issued between 1887 and 1890, it is one of the shortest circulating coins in British history. The coin was famously nicknamed the ‘Barmaid’s Ruin’, as tavern maids mistook the coin for a Crown, causing the tavern to lose money and the maid to lose their job!

1901 Sovereign

1901 Sovereign

The final Sovereign of Queen Victoria’s rule depicted the Old Head portrait by Thomas Brock, showing an elegant Queen in her mourning attire. Victoria’s veil had become integral to her image since the death of her husband in 1861, right up until her final years. This is one of the most famous images of Victoria and features on the final sovereign of her reign, issued in 1901 at the end of the Victorian era and the start of a new century.

Modern commemorative coins

Almost 150 years after the birth of Queen Victoria and 120 years after the initial move towards decimalisation, the first decimal coins entered circulation in Britain. The 5p and 10p coins were released in 1968, followed by the 50p coin in 1969.

From the modern coinage we see today, two commemorative £5 coins have been issued in Queen Victoria’s honour.

Death of Queen Victoria 100th anniversary

2001 Queen Victoria £5

The death of Queen Victoria in January 1901 marked the end of an era which has left its mark on the modern world. Her reign was remarkable for the extraordinary progress in industry, technology, arts and sciences and the expansion of the British Empire. This coin was issued to mark 100 years since her death and the end of the Victorian era. The reverse by Mary Milner-Dickens reproduces the profile of Victoria by William Wyon against the background of the Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851.

Birth of Queen Victoria 200th anniversary

2019 Queen Victoria £5

Under Queen Victoria’s reign, The British Empire became a superpower during an era of peace and prosperity. Designed by John Bergdahl, the reverse of this coin, issued to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Queen Victoria, features a portrait of Queen Victoria with the dates 1819 – 2019 alongside a steam train, large sailing ship, telephone, and penny farthing. Each element appears in a mechanical circle to represent the incredible inventions of the Victorian period.

Of all the monarchs, Victoria’s reign seems to have captured the imagination of the public more than any other. The coins issued throughout her reign and into the modern age reflect her extraordinary life and rule.


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2019 marks the 170th anniversary of the Florin – a coin with a fascinating history, first issued during the reign of Queen Victoria in 1849.

Whilst you certainly wouldn’t recognise it as a 10p nowadays, it was actually Britain’s very first decimalised coin, with a value one tenth of a pound.

This experiment in decimalisation didn’t take off for almost another 120 years when the 5p and 10p coins were issued, however the Florin remained in circulation until 1970 when a final edition was issued for collectors.

The Godless Florin

For hundreds of years, right up until the present day, Britain’s coinage has been diligently pious, featuring a range of different Latin inscriptions, but almost all coins feature the full text, or an abbreviation of, ‘Dei Gratia, Fidei Defensor’ – ‘by the Grace of God, Defender of the Faith’.

All coins that is, except the original Florins issued in 1849…

The 1849 ‘Godless Florin’

The introduction of these Florins was met with immediate outcry from the strongly religious Victorians of the time and the coin gained the nickname ‘the Godless florin’.

It was even suggested that an outbreak of cholera that year was the act of a vengeful God, visiting death upon the British population as revenge for leaving Him off the new coin!

Queen Victoria herself even complained and coin was replaced, meaning that to this day, the 1849 Florin is one of the most infamous coin designs in British numismatic history.

The Gothic Silver Florin

In 1851, a new Florin was introduced, known as the ‘Gothic Florin’.

The coin earned its name from the distinctive Gothic-style inscription on the obverse side, surrounding the shields of the United Kingdom.

Queen Victoria Gothic Silver Florin

The inscription featured a combination of upper and lower-case letters and Roman Numerals to signify the date, which are both very unusual features for a British coin.

Another irregularity with the Florin was the crowned portrait of Queen Victoria, which would have been highly unusual to the public at the time, as this new denomination was the first coin to feature a crowned monarch for over 200 years.

The ‘Barmaid’s Ruin’ Florin

A second attempt to introduce decimal currency occurred in 1887 when the double Florin was issued, valued at 1/5 of a pound.

This coincided with the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, yet despite the joyful occasion, for many the coin was an unwanted addition to British currency and it did not receive a warm welcome from the public.

The ‘Barmaid’s Ruin’ Florin

The real reason for its introduction is disputed, nevertheless it became Britain’s second ‘decimal’ coin, just 2mm smaller in diameter than the familiar Crown, yet worth a shilling less.

The unintended consequence was that the coin was often passed off as a Crown, with naïve barmaids apparently being the most susceptible to the deception.

It’s even been suggested that more than a few barmaids lost their livelihood on the grounds that they were losing the tavern owners money, hence the nickname ‘Barmaid’s Ruin’.

Creating the Gothic Head

The ‘Gothic Head’ featured on the Florin was first produced in 1847 by Royal Mint chief engraver, William Wyon, following the success of his ‘Young Head’ portrait.

Young Victoria ‘Young Head’ portrait by William Wyon

Young Queen Victoria can be seen wearing an ornate crown, with a loose braid in her hair – the first time since the coins of Charles II that a monarch had been shown wearing a crown on British coinage.

Inspired by the revival of Gothic style throughout Victorian Britain, the new design also featured gothic style text used for the inscription .

The Gothic style influenced every aspect of Victorian life, from architecture, literature, clothing and coinage.

Even today, the gothic style can still be seen in British architecture, such as the Natural History Museum and the many Victorian churches that still stand today.

Natural History Museum London

Do you have any Florins in your collection and what do you think about their gothic designs?


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