Cast your imagination back to the 19th century… Queen Victoria ruled 400 million people in an empire that covered almost a quarter of the world’s surface!
With a name and title famous across the globe, it may come as a surprise to you that Queen Victoria never actually stepped foot in many of the countries she ruled over.
India was held with such high regard in Victoria’s heart that it became known as the Jewel in the Empire’s crown. In 1876, India awarded her the title of ‘Empress of India’ in a gesture of appreciation.
Although having never stepped foot in the country and living 4,500 miles away, Victoria’s portrait was minted on to the currency of India (the rupee) from 1840, so people could recognise their empress!
The rupee is one of the oldest currencies in the world, so to feature a British monarch for the first time was an important moment in numismatic history.
The later portrait issued on rupees, similar to the Gothic Head effigy, can be considered one of the most beautiful coins of the empire.
A 22hr flight to Australia seems a long journey now but for Queen Victoria, a trip to this corner of the world would have taken her almost two months to get there!
So, there’s no surprises this was also a country that she never visited. However, the need for a British presence in the country was growing with the empire; as the empire grew, so did the need for coins. The Royal Mint opened branches in Australia and in 1855, a sovereign was minted outside of the UK for the first time – the Sydney sovereign.
It featured a portrait of Victoria that was based on the Young Head effigy, but with a sprig of banksia weaved through Victoria’s hair, giving the portrait a distinct Australian feel.
The Sydney sovereign became incredibly successful and a number of Royal Mint branches were opened throughout Australia as a result. To identify the Mint that sovereigns were produced in, mintmarks were added to the coins, with a small ‘P’ for Perth, and an ‘M’ for Melbourne.
The sovereign became legal tender in the majority of British colonies in the 1860s, and its importance in British trade, and worldwide circulation earned it the title “the King of Coins”. By the final years of the British Empire, the sovereign was minted in four continents across the globe.
India and Australia weren’t the only countries that saw Victoria’s portrait. Her image also reached as far as Hong Kong, Ceylon, East Africa and New Zealand. In 1870 the first Canadian dollar with Victoria’s portrait was issued, taking Victoria’s image to a new side of the world for people to see.
Despite never leaving Europe, Queen Victoria’s portrait and image stood strong on coins around the world. Whilst she never stepped foot in many of the countries that she ruled over, that didn’t stop people recognising her image around the world.
The coins that they used every day provided a link to the empire that they were a part of, despite the miles between them.
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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
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
The Anglo–Saxon 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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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
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.
Celebrate the 200th Anniversary of the birth of Queen Victoria
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