Real woman inspires Britannia on Treaty of Breda 1667 gold medal

Medal highlights Morton & Eden auction in London
By , Coin World
Published : 07/09/16
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The Britannia that has come to symbolize the island of Great Britain and its people was modeled on an actual person.

The story of the physical inspiration for the personification is reflected in an example of the 1667 gold medal of Charles II marking the Treaty of Breda, which was sold by Morton & Eden on June 12.  

Cataloged as Eimer 241 by Christopher Eimer in British Commemorative Medals and Their Values, the medal is among nearly a dozen designed to commemorate the end of the Second Anglo-Dutch War, fought between England, the United Provinces of Netherlands and other combatants.  

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John Roettiers, then chief die cutter of the London Mint, designed the medal, which was also issued in silver and bronze. 

Its obverse shows the portrait of Charles II, his long hair topped by a laurel wreath, on its obverse. The inscription translates to: “Charles II, King by grace of God of Great Britain, France and Ireland.” 

On the reverse, Britannia proudly looks at the English fleet. The inscription translates to: “By favor of God.”

And the model for Britannia was?

The image of the monarch on the obverse contrasts with the beautiful female figure on the reverse. And for good reason — the person who inspired this now familiar Britannia design caught the attention of the king, but refused to become his mistress. 

The model was Frances Stuart, Duchess of Richmond and Lennox, and it was so well known that she was the inspiration for this design that famous diarist Samuel Pepys mentioned it in is his diary. 

In a Feb. 25, 1667, entry, Pepys wrote, “At my goldsmith’s did observe the King’s new medal, where in little there is Mrs. Stewart’s face as well done as ever I saw anything in my whole life, I think: and a pretty thing it is, that he should choose her face to represent Britannia by.”

Britannia appeared on coinage for what is now the United Kingdom as early as ancient times, but Roettiers’ image of Stuart is now iconic.  

More about the medal

The medal measures 56.5 millimeters in diameter, and is in About Extremely Fine condition, according to the auction house.

The medal realized £19,200 ($27,364 U.S.), including the 20 percent buyer’s fee.

For more details about the sale, visit the auction firm’s website

Where can Britannia be found on U.K. coins?

"Britannia has graced the coins of Roman Emperors and since featuring on copper coins in the seventeenth century has continuously appeared on every monarch’s coinage to the present day," the Royal Mint website explains.

In 1987, the Royal Mint's Britannia gold bullion coin hit the market, and silver bullion Britannia coins followed in the 1990s. Both series continue today. 

Today, in addition to the bullion coins that serve as precious metals invesments, the Royal Mint issues gold and silver Proof versions of the Britannia coins for collector purposes.

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