If you are reading this in the UK, have a look at the change in your pocket. One side features a portrait of HM Queen Elizabeth II and the other continues the monarchical theme by displaying one of an array of heraldic badges, devices and national icons. Changing over the years, the choice of these designs tells us something of the importance of giving equal weight to the constituent countries (England and Scotland), principality (Wales) and province (Northern Ireland) of the United Kingdom.
Since 2008, the coins issued by the Royal Mint have featured the royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom, either whole (on the £1 coin) or in parts that make up an image of the whole when brought together. There are also special issues for both the £1 and £2 coin (the £2 coin will be featured in a forthcoming post).
The pre-2008 coins carried a much more interesting array of designs. The back of the pound coin had a number of designs, providing a feast of symbols to satisfy each of the component parts of the union. The 1983, 1993, 1998, 2003 and 2008 issues featured a slightly amended version of the royal coat of arms used today. But in the intervening years a more regional approach was taken.
In 1984 and 1989 the coin was minted with a thistle sprig in a coronet to represent Scotland. It was followed each time by a design featuring a leek in a coronet as a nod to Wales. Wales was in turn followed by Northern Ireland in 1986 and 1991, using a flax in a coronet to represent the province. This series ended in 1987 and 1992 with an oak tree in a coronet as a symbol of England.
In 1994, a lion rampant was chosen to represent Scotland. The series of heraldic beasts was continued by issues in 1995 and 2001 featuring a dragon passant for Wales and in 1997 and 2002 with three lions passant for England. Only Northern Ireland was not granted an animal and was instead commemorated with a Celtic cross encircled in a depiction of the Broighter collar resting on a bed of pimpernel.
A commemorative series started in 2004 depicted architectural icons from the home nations: the Fourth Railway Bridge for Scotland, the Menai Suspension Bridge for Wales, MacNeill’s Egyptian Arch at Newry for Northern Ireland and, to finish the series in 2007, the Newcastle/Gateshead Millennium Bridge.
In 2010 and 2011, the pound coin started to celebrate the capital cities of the home nations, with designs bearing the coat of arms of the City of London, Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff. A 2013 is planned, which will feature foliage designs for each country – an oak and rose for England, a leek and daffodil for Wales and two more as yet unknown designs to be released in 2014 for Scotland and Northern Ireland (but presumably incorporating thistle and flax respectively).
Why go to the bother of changing the design of the coins so often? The desire to give space to each of the constituent nations of the UK will play a part. So too is the desire of numismatists to have something to collect. For the government, it is a no brainer – the concept of seignorage (as described in a previous article, ‘Coining it in’, on the USA’s commemorative State Quarters series) ensures the Royal Mint and UK Treasury make a tidy profit from coin collectors.
During this period, the smaller denominations of UK coinage each had a single design. On the 50p, Britannia sits with the union flag emblazoned on her shield, a trident to emphasise links with the sea and a lion to proclaim prowess on land.
The 50p coin has also been used as a vehicle for commemorative designs, celebrating institutions as diverse as the European Economic Community and the National Health Service, Scouting and Girlguides and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. It has also commemorated anniversaries, such as the Victoria Cross, Samuel Johnsons’ ‘Dictionary of the English Language’ and the D-Day landings.
The 20p piece displays a crowned Tudor rose and the 10p coin a crowned British lion passant. The Englishness of the Tudor rose is offset by the 5p coin, featuring the thistle badge of Scotland, royally crowned.
The 2p coin displayed the badge of the Prince of Wales, three feathers with the motto ‘Ich Dien’, or ‘I serve’. Finishing off the lot was the penny, which had a crowned portcullis with chains, originally the badge of Henry VII but since adopted as the symbol of the Palace of Westminster and thus of English and then British Parliament.
Back to the £1 coin for another individual feature – the inscription on the edge of the pound coin. Over the years, there have been seven versions, five in Latin and two in Welsh:
- DECUS ET TUTAMEN (‘An ornament and a safeguard’ from Virgil’s Aeneid)
- NEMO ME IMPUNE LACESSIT (‘No one provokes me with impunity’. The Motto of the Order of the Thistle)
- PLEIDIOL WYF I’M GWLAD (‘True am I to my country’ from the Welsh National Anthem)
- PRO TANTO QUID RETRIBUAMUS (‘What shall we give in return for so much.’ The Motto of Belfast)
- DOMINE DIRIGE NOS (‘Lord direct us.’ The Motto of London)
- Y DDRAIG GOCH DDYRY CYCHWYN (‘The Red Dragon shall lead’ The Motto of Cardiff)
- NISI DOMINUS FRUSTRA (‘It is vain without the Lord’ The Motto of Edinburgh)