Fierce Britannia

Learn more about Britannia, symbol of the Bank
Published on 18 March 2022


Ellie Paton, Collections Officer

When you think of Britannia, you might think of the Bank of England. She has been a symbol of the Bank since 1694, and appears on some of the earliest banknotes in our collection.

Banknote with early version of Britannia, dated 19 December 1699. Museum Reference: I/005.

Seeing as March is Women’s History Month, we thought we’d take a deep dive into the (mythological) woman whose image has appeared on so many banknotes! Who, or what, is Britannia?

Britannia is a symbol of British strength. She is a personification of Britain that dates back to the Roman era. Typically, she is shown with a trident, shield and helmet.

(images from L to R) Greetings card, 1994. Museum Reference: 1994/253. Britannia statuette, c.1850. Museum Reference: A196. Ceramic tile with design of Britannia from a drawing by Charles Wheeler, 1932. Museum Reference: 1985/034/009.

Although she’s most recognisable as a symbol on all of our banknotes, she doesn’t only appear on money! The greeting card on the left was given for the Bank’s 300th Birthday in 1994. It was handmade by a past member of staff and is addressed to Governor at the time, Eddie George. The cross-stitched Britannia is so fantastic and instantly recognisable.

The statuette in the middle is carved from wood and features Britannia next to a lion and cornucopia, which represents strength, bravery and abundance.

The ceramic tile on the right was taken from a lunch room in the Threadneedle Street building during a refurbishment. It was part of a set of tiles that include images of lions, Pythagoras, bowls of fruit and Medusa (an odd combination, we know).

Preliminary design of the Britannia from the £5 series C banknote. Museum Reference: 1981/030/20

Whether on banknote designs or corporate branding, one thing is always certain - Britannia, as the Bank of England depicts her, always looks calm, serene and composed. But that wasn’t always the case! Let's take a look at a Britannia very unlike the calm, serene one that features on banknotes today…

Brass sestertius coin, 140-144 AD. Museum Reference: A405

This coin is a brass sestertius and was issued during the reign of Antoninus Pius (AD 138 -161). It is one of the earliest depictions of Britannia on coinage.

She is shown seated wearing a birrus britannicus, a type of cloak popular with the Celtic natives to help them deal with the grim weather. It was made from untreated sheep's wool, meaning it was waterproof and warm. These cloaks became so popular that they were considered one of the finest goods traded across the Empire.

The pile of rocks Britannia is perched on has been linked to the building of the Antonine Wall in 140 AD. This 37 mile (60km) long wall was a form of defence for the Roman Empire, and an early achievement from Antoninus' reign. Various archaeological digs have uncovered incredible objects that give insight into the life of the soldiers, civilians and children that lived and worked on the wall.

On the coin, Britannia is holding a spiked shield, a Roman military standard and a spear, which reflects the military background of Roman Britain. It serves as a reminder that Britain was the edge of the Roman Empire. She looks fierce and ready for battle, very different from the serene Britannia we know today!

This coin acted as a sneaky PR campaign for Antoninus. It was a celebration of the successful military campaign in southern Scotland early in Antoninus' reign, and the peace that came after. Britannia's depiction as fierce and threatening is intentional, and made Britain's defeat by the Romans all the more impressive.

If you're interested in seeing the coin in real life, check it out it in our Early Years gallery!