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 Britannia (fl. 1st–21st cent.), by Jan Roettier, 1667 [reverse] Britannia (fl. 1st–21st cent.), by Jan Roettier, 1667 [reverse]
Britannia (fl. 1st–21st cent.), allegory of a nation, emblem of empire, and patriotic icon, is by origin a child of Rome, representing an outpost of the Roman empire. Her earliest known appearances did not augur well for her future: rock reliefs at Aphrodisias in south-west Turkey, dating to the middle of the first century AD, illustrate the conquest of Britain with scenes of the emperor Claudius (r. AD 41–54) overpowering a distraught Britannia. Dressed as an Amazon, one breast bared, she is forced to the ground as Claudius grabs her hair and raises his arm to strike her. However, in the following century she was shown in a more positive light on coins of the emperor Hadrian (r. AD 117–138), as part of a series minted in Rome personifying the territories of the empire.

This was Britannia's first portrayal on currency, laying the foundation for a long tradition in the future. As with her sister provinces, she is named by the inscription on the coin. Seated on rocks which are perhaps indicative of Hadrian's projected wall, she leans her bare head on her hand and is armed with a spear and large shield with a spike in the centre. Some commentators have interpreted her bowed head as sorrow at her subjugation, but in Hadrian's view of empire his regions were not slaves but faithful satellites, and Britannia appears on the coins to be vigilant, armed, and secure on her rocky ground, characteristics which remain central to her being. She is also distinguished by native British features such as her tunic and breeches and the spiked shield, in contrast to the classical drapery of the other personifications. Some coins of Antoninus Pius (r. AD 138–161), Hadrian's successor, seem to show her downcast and dejected, acknowledgement perhaps of Rome's aggression in crushing native uprisings, but this is not typical—generally she maintains her watchful stance. One attractive coin design even anticipates Britannia's later role as ruler of an empire: she is seated on a globe above the sea, relaxing against her shield, resting her right foot on the globe and swinging her left above the waves. Later, one of the coins minted in London for the usurper Carausius (r. AD 287–293) provided a positive interpretation of his rebellion in Britain by depicting a standing Britannia welcoming him as emperor, with the inscription ‘Expectate Veni’ (‘Come O expected one’). In the eighteenth century the pedestal of an ancient statue with a Latin dedication to Britannia was apparently discovered in York. Unfortunately the statue itself had disappeared and with only the impression of the feet remaining, there is no record of how she was depicted. The base, too, is now lost; however, if genuine, this is the only epigraphic reference from Roman Britain to the person of Britannia.

These early sightings of Britannia have been associated with the Celtic deity Brigantia, seen in a stone relief from a Roman site in Dumfriesshire, but her lineage may be traced even further back to the Greek goddess Pallas Athene, warrior-queen, guardian, and giver of wise counsel, qualities subsequently ascribed to the Roman goddess Minerva. In later manifestations Britannia is frequently shown with Athene's warrior attributes—crested helmet, breastplate, spear, and shield, but she is also often bareheaded, holding an olive branch, a reminder of the belief that Athene gave the first olive tree to her city, a source of food and symbol of peace. Often Britannia is summoned to be the champion of heroes, protector of cities, and keeper of the nation's conscience, ever reflecting the polarity of Athene's nature: action and contemplation, strength and compassion. More rarely, she may reveal her wilder aspect, with gorgon's head, or hint at the archetypal female, mysterious source of fertility and nourishment.

Early modern renaissance

After her first appearance in the Roman world, Britannia did not re-emerge until the late sixteenth century. In the highly symbolic frontispiece of his General and Rare Memorials portraying the Perfect Art of Navigation (1577) John Dee included a small figure of Britannia kneeling by the shore beseeching Elizabeth I, seated in a ship, to protect her empire by strengthening her navy. Here Britannia is clearly in thrall to her glorious monarch, but later images may be seen as a legacy of the Elizabethan age, a period of renaissance inspiring classical ideals, national expansion, and naval triumph, exemplified by the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Elizabeth's long rule may also have encouraged representation of the nation by a female figure after her death. The union of the crowns (1603) by which James VI and I proclaimed himself king of Great Britain may have inspired new expressions of national imagery, among them the union flag which first appeared in 1606. Some early seventeenth-century manifestations of Britannia referred back to her Roman origins, but made it clear that she now assumed a position of authority. Thus in 1607 the title-page of William Camden's Britain, or, A chorographicall description of the most flourishing kingdomes, England, Scotland and Ireland showed a small figure of Britannia similar to that on Roman coins, bareheaded, with tunic and spiked shield, while beneath her figures of Ceres and Neptune point to her dominion over land and sea—earlier and later editions were adorned simply with emblems or heraldic devices. In 1612 Henry Peacham's book of emblems, Minerva Britannia, or, A garden of heroical devises, showed her standing on a shore repelling a Roman ship (emblem 208): the accompanying verse describes how once she was a Roman captive, ‘with haire dishevel'd and in mournfull wise’, but now Rome stands in awe of her.

Despite James's personal union of the two kingdoms, regions of Britain retained distinct identities, and both then and in succeeding centuries Britannia served to depict England alone as well as the whole of Britain. In Britannia's Pastorals (1616) William Browne's Devon shepherd singing ‘What need I tune the swains of Thessaly? … Thus, dear Britannia, will I sing of thee’ may well be praising England, while the lord mayor's show of 1628 featured Britannia as ‘a Mother's Counsel’, supported by pillars to represent the united realms of York and Lancaster. The same distinction is explicit in the splendid figure adorning the title-page of Michael Drayton's Poly-Olbion in 1612, her robe formed of a topographical map of England reminiscent of that on which Elizabeth I stands in the Ditchley portrait: though some may see her as Britannia, Drayton's work is concerned only with England and Wales, and he names the figure Albion.

Ruler of the waves

Later in the seventeenth century John Roettier began a long tradition of medallic art featuring Britannia as the guardian of her kingdom. His medals celebrating naval victories and the treaty of Breda between England and the Netherlands in 1667 depicted Britannia seated at the foot of a rock, surveying her fleets at sea; in one she is crowned with laurel by two genii. This association drew on the myth that Neptune had surrendered his sovereignty of the sea to Britannia, who in succeeding centuries has since been regularly portrayed seated by the shore, admiring her navy, guiding sea-borne trade, and above all holding a trident, even when standing on dry land. She may even appear exuberantly riding the waves in a shell chariot drawn by sea horses, sometimes indeed with Neptune as her companion. Here again is a link with Athene, believed in Greek myth to have built the first ship. In 1672 Britannia received official status, being placed on the back of copper coins of Charles II. Designed by Roettier, the coins were clearly derived from Roman prototypes, showing Britannia seated on a globe, with spear and shield, but her profile resembles that on the medals, which was reputed, not least from a reference by Samuel Pepys, to be that of the king's alleged mistress, . Opinion has since been divided as to whether the similarity was intentional, though certainly the features and hairstyle of the Britannia bear comparison with Roettier's elegant bust of Stuart on a portrait medal. In 1694 the newly founded Bank of England chose Britannia for its seal and placed her on all its notes, sitting gazing on a ‘bank of mony’. Given this date, before the union of the Scottish and English parliaments in 1707, and the role of the bank in financing English concerns (the Bank of Scotland was founded in 1695), this is perhaps another instance of Britannia representing England rather than a wider Britain. However, from these beginnings Britannia became a constant feature on money, so consolidating her role in daily life as a symbol of authority.

In the eighteenth century Britannia combined her official role with less formal public appearances as she was swept up in the fervour of popular nationalism, rousingly articulated in Thomas Arne's setting of song ‘Rule Britannia’, published in 1740. In medals, prints, and broadsheets she was invoked as mentor to the sovereign and the British people, victorious wager of war, and patron of resulting peace and prosperity. On a glorious medal by Thomas Pingo jun. to mark George III's accession in 1760 she serenades king and country, playing a tambourine while her sons and daughters, the children of the land, dance round an oak tree. Throughout succeeding reigns, Britannia's allegiance to the throne continued on commemorative medals showing her attending royal coronations, marriages, births, and deaths. But her protection also extended to her subjects, their welfare and their duty: a print of 1756 entitled The acceptable fast, or, Britannia's maternal call to her children to deep humiliation, repentance and amendment in heart and life shows her with arms outstretched, extolling moral virtue to all classes of society.

But such virtue was not always practised, even by those in positions of power, and political satire often revealed Britannia beaten and abused, helpless against her enemies. In such cases she may have evoked the defeated majesty of the monarch or the vulnerability of citizens, becoming an emotive vehicle for political protest. Failure to address foreign threats provoked much anger: in Britannia: a Poem, written in 1727 and published two years later, James Thomson described her as the queen of nations, despairing as her feeble sons failed to keep the Spanish at bay, in contrast to earlier naval strength:
Bare was her throbbing bosom to the gale
That hoarse, and hollow, from the bleak surge blew.
A print of 1757 depicted her tied down and mutilated by the French army, while its title, A View of the Assassination of the Lady of John Bull, united her with another popular patriotic figure of the age. In 1776 a print entitled The Parricide attacked the radical John Wilkes, shown encouraging the rebellious colonies in America in the form of a Native American woman threatening Britannia with a tomahawk and knife. At home, the domestic violence of internal politics was no less frightful: a print parodying Poussin's Martyrdom of St Erasmus displays Britannia's half-naked body on a table, her mouth stretched in a grimace of horror as she is dismembered by the cut and thrust of corrupt politicians.

Typically, however, Britannia's breast remained sternly encased in armour as she urged her troops to victory. As early as 1682 the Royal Navy gave the name Britannia to a gunship; in 1707 Queen Anne granted the regiment of English line infantry ultimately known as the Royal Norfolk regiment a figure of Britannia for their badge, in recognition of their bravery at the battle of Almanza during the War of the Spanish Succession. Winning further glory during the Peninsular War, the regiment became known as ‘the Holy Boys’ reputedly from the Spaniards' rather surprising assumption that Britannia with her helmet, trident, and shield—and, admittedly, an olive branch—was the Virgin Mary. In 1716 the decorative artist James Thornhill's ceiling for the Great Hall in Blenheim Palace commemorated victory over the French with Britannia about to crown the duke of Marlborough with laurel, while admiring his battle plans. During the 1750s she appeared on a series of medals marking successful actions, such as that of James Wolfe in Quebec, and in the 1790s she celebrated Nelson's naval triumphs. A medal by Conrad Küchler for the victories of 1798 shows her seated among trophies of war, holding a small figure of victory in the tradition of classical iconography, while a drawing by Philip James de Loutherbourg places her next to George III, with the British lion fiercely defending his shores as the sun breaks through the clouds. It may be no coincidence that on his new ‘cartwheel’ copper coinage of 1797 Matthew Boulton depicted her ruling the seas, holding a trident rather than a spear, with waves around her and a ship in the distance. Just as she gloried in Nelson's conquests, so Britannia shared the nation's sorrow at his death at Trafalgar in 1805. Thus James Gillray drew Nelson leaning against a weeping Britannia without her helmet, while broadsides described her tears for a darling son, her hero now at rest. Indeed, the growing cult of popular hero-worship gave her a spiritual role as the embodiment of national consciousness and mourning. In 1852, on a medal for the death of the duke of Wellington, she is draped in mourning, leaning her head on her right hand and attended by her lion, symbol of bravery. In this role Britannia reached beyond official duty to convey the emotions of the people: for example, when Queen Caroline died in 1821, having been reviled by her husband and the government, the public's sympathy was expressed in commemorative pieces such as a glazed dish showing Britannia seated sadly by a sarcophagus with the legend ‘To the Memory of Caroline, the injured and persecuted Queen of Great Britain’.

Imperial icon

Above all, however, the nineteenth-century Britannia presided over a nation made richer by the rewards of trade and empire. Her capitalist function as protector of commerce is exemplified by her many appearances on the nation's money. On Bank of England notes her pile of coins had been transformed into a beehive, traditional emblem of industry, while on the notes issued by many hundreds of local banks serving towns across Britain she performed a variety of functions. Usually she is shown with plumed helmet, breastplate, and trident or spear, with a shield bearing the union flag; she was also sometimes accompanied by a lion lying watchfully at her feet. On other occasions she stood alone, next to a landmark of the town, or was the central figure in an elegant triumvirate with Scotia and Hibernia—a composition pointing up the ambiguity that on some occasions she represents only England. In lending her authority to these private banks, Britannia bestowed upon them desirable classical qualities of wisdom and prudence; she also echoed Athene's role as goddess of the city, thus assuming civic responsibilities as well as her national duties. But there is evidence too of a wider ambition, the expansion of overseas trade and colonization: banks based in coastal towns, and even some that were not, frequently depicted her surrounded by cargo with a background of ships at sea. In the colonies themselves, images of Britannia emphasized British imperial supremacy. On notes for Ceylon in the late 1840s she gestures towards an elephant, palm trees, and the sea symbolizing her territory, while for the Bank of Bengal she accepts the fruits of empire from a cornucopia offered up by a kneeling Indian woman. From 1840 similar imagery was adopted for colonial postage: though William Mulready's postal stationery boasting Britannia and her lion directing commerce to all the peoples of the empire was ridiculed and soon withdrawn, vignettes of Britannia with bales of sugar were adopted for stamps in Mauritius, Trinidad, and Barbados, with variations spreading to other colonies.

Later images show that the influence of empire was just as strongly felt within Britain. In Britannia and her Boys by G. Durand, printed in The Graphic in 1885, Britannia stands aloft in her chariot, her long hair streaming as she brandishes the union flag above the ‘boys’, who surround her—soldiers drawn from every corner of her lands, Sikh turbans marching with Scottish tartans. A year later, a map of the world by the writer on imperial defence J. C. R. Colomb showed her seated on a globe supported by Atlas, gazing down on the peoples and creatures of her empire. By the turn of the century popular sentiment was infused with passion for empire: she appeared on postcards in regal pose, next to patriotic verses, and, in a rare moment of sensuality, adorned a programme of the Empire Theatre in a clinging gown, her hair tumbling loose from her helmet. Inside theatres, the contralto thrilled audiences by dressing as Britannia for her performances of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, a practice later adopted by others at the last night of the Proms. At the Devonshire House ball to celebrate Victoria's diamond jubilee in 1897 Edith Amelia, Lady Wolverhampton, attended as Britannia, another splendid indication that Britannia had so successfully represented her people that they now personified her.

Twentieth century and beyond

The First World War aroused Britannia's martial character, evident in her defiant stance on treasury 10s. notes and her helmeted head on national savings stamps. But it awakened sorrow, too, for E. Carter Preston's design for the 800,000 memorial plaques given to the next of kin of all who died in the First World War carried the most poignant and personal image of Britannia in mourning. Her lion beside her, she walks with head bowed, her face sombre, holding out a wreath to honour the fallen. In contrast, during the Second World War, Russell Flint's Britannia for a war savings card was a haughty creature, hand on thigh as she stamped contemptuously on a crumpled Nazi flag. An imperial and naval theme lingered on high-value postage stamps depicting Britannia surging through the waves in a chariot drawn by sea horses, a powerful design reintroduced in 1990 to commemorate the introduction of the Penny Black postage in 1840. A new £10 stamp in 1993 reverted to the stern profile of a classical seated figure, but brought her up to date with a bust size conforming to the national average of 36B.

In 1951 the Festival of Britain had as its symbol a helmeted profile of Britannia surmounting the points of a compass to represent Britain's contribution to civilization, but with the waning of empire and the weakening of British commercial supremacy Britannia's role in national life diminished in the second half of the twentieth century. She reappears with every burst of popular patriotism: thus a medal commemorating Britain's first referendum on joining the European Union showed a bareheaded figure sitting on a little globe above a map of Europe—as with the empire, so may Europe be viewed comfortably from a superior vantage point; and during the Falklands War in 1982 Britannia as bringer of victory was invoked on medals and commemorative plate.

Politics too may generate contemporary versions of earlier imagery, such as the newspaper cartoons and souvenirs marking the Conservatives' three consecutive terms with images of Margaret Thatcher as Britannia in a smart blue suit and high heels. In daily life at the start of the twenty-first century Britannia lived on in the name of institutions and businesses, from the once royal yacht to, appropriately, an archaeological journal, a building society, and even a removal firm, which depicts her seated in classical style on the side of its vans. However, at a time when formality is out of fashion, her chivalrous dignity does not sit easily with the youth culture known as ‘cool Britannia’, but which by its very nature limits her appearance to traditional contexts, such as currency. On coins she has changed little, though on modern Bank of England notes she has moved through different fashions, from the serene sculptured head of the late 1950s to the demure child Britannia, modelled on the daughter of the artist, Reynolds Stone. Most recent issues have reverted to the mid-nineteenth-century incarnation by Daniel Maclise, a peaceable seated figure, bareheaded and holding an olive branch. Sometimes she takes the form of a reflective foil security feature, now offering practical as well as symbolic guardianship of the nation's wealth—even allegories, it seems, must work.

Over two millennia Britannia has matured from allegory of a province to spirit of a nation, variously characterized as subdued or martial, triumphant or compassionate, contemporary or timelessly dignified. Yet as globalization spreads and debate continues on the nature of ‘Britishness’, or whether such an identity even exists, it remains to be seen what part Britannia may play in her country's future.

Virginia Hewitt


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J. Roettier, gold medal (reverse), 1667, BM, George III, Eng. med. 87 [see illus.]