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BRITANNIA'S turbulent history


BRITANNIA penny. Image: The London Mint

BRITANNIA'S appearances and disappearances reflect tumultuous periods in Britain. She was the inspiration for a terrific song (you can hear it below). Rome's memory of the fierce British women who fought them, most famously Boudicca, may have inspired her creation.

The Romans were smug after their partial conquest -

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 (Oxford DNB).

But though she was defeated and assaulted, yet Britannia breathed defiance.

Swinging her foot above the waves

Under the Emperor Hadrian, of the famous wall, who ruled between AD 117–138, Romans put the female figure they called BRITANNIA on their coins.

. . .Some commentators have interpreted her bowed head as sorrow at her subjugation, but . . .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.

. . .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 (DNB).

Lost, she's found

With the fade-out of the Roman Empire, Britannia vanished, but not the real women who had inspired her. The image of Britannia endured because women were one of the primary glories - and overlooked reasons - for Britain's success on the stage of world affairs. There are many ways to distinguish between failed societies and successful ones. One sure way is to see what role women play: If half the people of a country are oppressed, the country will fail.

Summoned by the Virgin Queen Elizabeth I, Britannia made her re-appearance in the 16th century. Appropriately, given her seaside predilections, her image served as the frontispiece of a book about navigation. Other ideas contributed to her rejuvenation, though we can only allude to them. You'll remember that Wisdom is personified as a woman in Greek and Jewish legends (Britannia looks a bit like the Goddess Athena) and in sculpture the figure of Justice is a woman.

One hundred years later, when British kings were having some of their poorest innings and the Glorious Revolution was brewing, Britannia began to appear on copper halfpennies and farthings. Seated on a rock next to her shield, which depicted the Flag of St George and later the Union Flag, she held an olive branch and a sword or a spear and reassured her people. In subsequent years, reflecting Britain's maritime adventures, her spear was transformed into a trident, and she exuberantly rode the waves.

Almost destroyed, but never finished

In the eighteenth century, Britannia began making fervent public appearances on badges, medals, frescoes and festival statues. She was draped in mourning at Nelson's death, and competently presided over bank notes. Her connection with the British people was strong. In political cartoons she stood in for them - she was often depicted tied down and mutilated by corrupt politicians.

She made a comeback when Thomas Arne set James Thomson's lyrics for Rule Britannia to music. (The 12th of March marked the 300th anniversary of Arne's birth.) The song, which was part of the masque Alfred, and was published in 1740, was an instant success, and has been popular ever since. Having been threatened by invasion by the Vikings, the Spanish Armada and the French, and later by Napoleon and the Nazis, Brits have been understandably jubilant about their victories. The refrain in Rule Britannia's exhilarating music crystallizes two thousand years of British history -

Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves:
Britons never will be slaves!

We think it refers as well to all those Brits who fought (and fight today) for freedom at home.

Here is the gorgeous song -

Part and parcel of our times, the Royal Mint has removed Britannia from the 50p, and has announced new designs for British coinage from 2008 which do not include her. (What churls these minters be who strive to lord it o'er Britannia the free!)

When Britain first, at Heaven's command
Arose from out the azure main;
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:
'Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves:
Britons never will be slaves!'

Comments (1)


Wonderful anthem! Thank you for the history of the figure. Time to bring her back and station her on the coast, with her spear pointed at the bureaucratic hordes of the EU.

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