Britannia () is the national personification
as a helmeted female warrior holding a trident
and shield. An image first used in classical antiquity
, the Latin
''Britannia'' was the name variously applied to the British Isles
, Great Britain
, and the Roman province of Britain
during the Roman Empire
Typically depicted reclining or seated with spear and shield since appearing thus on Roman coins of the 2nd century AD, the classical national allegory was revived in the early modern period
On coins of the pound sterling
issued by Charles II of England, Scotland, and Ireland
, Britannia appears with her shield bearing the Union Flag
To symbolise the Royal Navy
's victories, Britannia's spear became the characteristic trident in 1797, and a helmet was added to the coinage in 1825.
By the 1st century BC, Britannia replaced Albion
as the prevalent Latin name for the island of Great Britain
. After the Roman conquest
in 43 AD, ''Britannia'' also came to refer to the Roman province
that encompassed the southern two-thirds of the island (see Roman Britain
). The remaining third of the island, known to the Romans as Caledonia
, lay north of the River Forth
in modern Scotland
. It was intermittently but not permanently occupied by the Roman army
The name is a Latinisation
of the native Brittonic
word for Great Britain, ''Pretanī'', which also produced the Greek
form ''Prettanike'' or ''Brettaniai''.
In the 2nd century, Roman Britannia came to be personified
as a goddess, armed with a spear and shield and wearing a Corinthian helmet
. When Roman Britain was divided into four provinces in 197 AD, two were called Britannia Superior
() in the south and Britannia Inferior
() to the north. The name ''Britannia'' long survived the end of Roman rule in Britain
in the 5th century and yielded the name for the island in most European and various other languages, including the English Britain
and the modern Welsh ''Prydain
''. In the 9th century the associated terms ''Bretwalda
'' and ''Brytenwealda'' were applied to some Anglo-Saxon kings to assert a wider hegemony in Britain and hyperbolic inscriptions on coins and titles in charters often included the equivalent title ''rex Britanniae''. However when England was unified the title used was ''rex Angulsaxonum'' ('king of the Anglo-Saxons').
After centuries of declining use, the Latin form was revived during the English Renaissance
as a rhetorical evocation of a British national identity. Especially following the Acts of Union
in 1707, which joined the Kingdoms of England
, the personification of the martial Britannia was used as an emblem of British maritime power and unity, most notably in the patriotic song "Rule, Britannia!
A British cultural icon
, she was featured on all modern British coinage series until the redesign in 2008, and still appears annually on the gold and silver "Britannia
" bullion coin series. In 2015 a new definitive £2 coin
was issued, with a new image of Britannia. She is also depicted in the Brit Awards
statuette, the British Phonographic Industry
's annual music awards.
Greek and Roman periods
The first writer to use a form of the name was the Greek
explorer and geographer Pytheas
in the 4th century BC. Pytheas referred to ''Prettanike'' or ''Brettaniai'', a group of islands off the coast of North-Western Europe. In the 1st century BC, Diodorus Siculus
referred to ''Pretannia'',
[Snyder, p. 12.]
a rendering of the indigenous name for the ''Pretani
'' people whom the Greeks believed to inhabit the British Isles
. Following the Greek usage, the Romans
referred to the ''Insulae Britannicae'' in the plural, consisting of ''Albion
'' (Great Britain), ''Hibernia
'' (Ireland), ''Thule
'' (possibly Iceland
) and many smaller islands. Over time, Albion specifically came to be known as ''Britannia'', and the name for the group was subsequently dropped.
Although the creation and unification of the province of Britannia is commonly attributed to the emperor Claudius
in 43 AD, Julius Caesar
had already established Roman authority over the Southern and Eastern Britain dynasties during his two expeditions to the island in 55 and 54 BC. Just as Caesar himself had been an ''obside'', hostage, in Bithynia as a youth, he also had taken the King's sons back to Rome as ''obsides'' and to be educated.
The Roman conquest
of the island began in AD 43, leading to the establishment of the Roman province
known in Latin as ''Britannia
''. The Romans never successfully conquered the whole island, building Hadrian's Wall
as a boundary with ''Caledonia
'', which covered roughly the territory of modern Scotland
, although the whole of the boundary marked by Hadrian's Wall lies within modern-day Northern England
. A southern part of what is now Scotland was occupied by the Romans for about 20 years in the mid-2nd century AD, keeping in place the Picts
to the north of the Antonine Wall
. People living in the Roman province of Britannia were called ''Britanni'', or Britons
. Ireland, inhabited by the Scoti
, was never invaded and was called Hibernia
, an island "six days' sail north of Britain, and ..
near the frozen sea", possibly Iceland
, was also never invaded by the Romans.
Claudius paid a visit while Britain was being conquered and was honoured with the agnomen
''Britannicus'' as if he were the conqueror; a frieze
discovered at Aphrodisias
in 1980 shows a bare breasted and helmeted female warrior labelled BRITANNIA
, writhing in agony under the heel of the emperor. She appeared on coins issued under Hadrian
, as a more regal-looking female figure.
Britannia was soon personified
as a goddess, looking fairly similar to the goddess Athena
- both are seated and replete with helmet, spear (trident) and shield. Early portraits of the goddess depict Britannia as a beautiful young woman, wearing a Corinthian helmet
, and wrapped in a white garment with her right breast exposed. She is usually shown seated on a rock, holding a trident, and with a spiked shield propped beside her. Sometimes she holds a standard
and leans on the shield. On another range of coinage, she is seated on a globe above waves: Britain at the edge of the (known) world. Similar coin types were also issued under Antoninus Pius
after 1971's Decimal Day
, showing Britannia with an olive branch
and British lion, designed by Christopher Ironside
, withdrawn in 2008]]
File:The_death_of_Admiral_Lord_Nelson_-_in_the_moment_of_victory!_by_James_Gillray_(cropped).jpg.html" style="text-decoration: none;"class="mw-redirect" title="Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson">File:The death of Admiral Lord Nelson - in the moment of victory! by James Gillray (cropped).jpg">thumb|Britannia mourning the death of Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson
at the victorious [[Battle of Trafalgar in a cartoon by [[James Gillray ]]
After the [[fall of the Western Roman Empire|Roman withdrawal]], the term "Britannia" remained in use in Britain and abroad. Latin was ubiquitous amongst native Brythonic
writers and the term continued in the Welsh tradition
that developed from it. Writing with variations on the term ''Britannia'' (or ''Prydein
'' in the native language) appeared in many Welsh works such as the ''Historia Britonum
'', ''Armes Prydein
'' and the 12th-century ''Historia Regum Britanniae
'', which gained unprecedented popularity throughout western Europe during the High Middle Ages
Following the migration of Brythonic
Celts, the term ''Britannia'' also came to refer to the Armorican peninsula
(at least from the 6th century). The modern English, French, Breton and Gallo names for the area, all derive from a literal use of ''Britannia'' meaning "land of the Britons". The two "Britannias" gave rise to the term ''Grande Bretagne'' (Great Britain) to distinguish the island of Britain from the continental peninsula.
Following the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain
, the term '"Briton" only referred to the native British
, Celtic-speaking inhabitants of the province; this remained the case until the modern era. The use of the term as an inhabitant of the island of Great Britain
or the UK
is relatively recent.
Renaissance and British Empire
It was during the reign of Elizabeth I
that "Britannia" again came to be used as a personification
of Britain. In his 1576 "General and rare memorials pertayning to the Perfect Arte of Navigation", John Dee
used a frontispiece
figure of Britannia kneeling by the shore beseeching Elizabeth I, to protect her empire by strengthening her navy.
With the death of Elizabeth in 1603 came the succession of her Scottish cousin, James VI, King of Scots, to the English throne. He became James I of England, and so brought under his personal rule the Kingdoms of England
(and the dominion of Wales), Ireland
. On 20 October 1604, James VI and I
proclaimed himself as "King of Great Brittaine, France and Ireland", a title that continued to be used by many of his successors. When James came to the English throne, some elaborate pageants were staged. One pageant performed on the streets of London in 1605 was described in Anthony Munday
's ''Triumphs of Reunited Britannia'':
On a mount triangular, as the island of Britain itself is described to be, we seat in the supreme place, under the shape of a fair and beautiful nymph, Britannia herself...
Britain's first road atlas was updated in a series of editions titled from the early 18th into the early 19th century using the title ''Britannia Depicta
During the reign of Charles II
, Britannia made her first appearance on English coins on a farthing
of 1672 (see ''Depiction on British coinage and postage stamps'' below). With the constitutional unification of England with Scotland in 1707 and then with Ireland in 1800, Britannia became an increasingly important symbol and a strong rallying point among Britons.
British power, which depended on a liberal political system and the supremacy of the navy
, lent these attributes to the image of Britannia. By the time of Queen Victoria
, Britannia had been renewed. Still depicted as a young woman with brown or golden hair, she kept her Corinthian helmet
and her white robes, but now she held Neptune's trident
and often sat or stood before the ocean and tall-masted ships representing British naval power. She also usually held or stood beside a Greek hoplite
shield, which sported the British Union Flag
: also at her feet was often the British Lion, an animal found on the arms of England, Scotland and the Prince of Wales.
is shown symbolically passing his trident to Britannia in the 1847 fresco "Neptune Resigning to Britannia the Empire of the Sea" by William Dyce
, a painting Victoria commissioned for her Osborne House
on the Isle of Wight
New Zealanders adopted a similar personification of their country in Zealandia
, Britannia's daughter, who appeared on postage stamps at the turn of the 20th century and still features in the New Zealand Coat of Arms
Perhaps the best analogy is that Britannia is to the United Kingdom and the British Empire
is to France or perhaps what Columbia
is to the United States. Britannia became a very potent and more common figure in times of war, and represented British liberties and democracy.
During the 1990s the term ''Cool Britannia
'' (drawn from a humorous version by the Bonzo Dog Band
of the song "Rule Britannia
", with words by James Thomson 700–1748
which is often used as an unofficial national anthem
), was used to describe the contemporary United Kingdom. The phrase referred to the fashionable scenes of the era, with a new generation of pop groups and style magazines, successful young fashion designers, and a surge of new restaurants and hotels. Cool Britannia represented late-1990s Britain as a fashionable place to be.
Britannia is sometimes used in political cartoons to symbol the United Kingdom's relationship with other countries.
Depiction on British currency and postage stamps
Although the archetypical image of Britannia seated with a shield first appeared on Roman bronze coins of the 1st century AD struck under Hadrian
, Britannia's first appearance on British coinage was on the farthing
in 1672, though earlier pattern versions had appeared in 1665, followed by the halfpenny
later the same year. The figure of Britannia was said by Samuel Pepys
to have been modelled on Frances Teresa Stuart, the future Duchess of Richmond
who was famous at the time for refusing to become the mistress of Charles II, despite the King's strong infatuation with her. Britannia then appeared on the British halfpenny coin
throughout the rest of the 17th century and thereafter until 1936. The halfpennies issued during the reign of Queen Anne
have Britannia closely resembling the queen herself. When the Bank of England
was granted a charter in 1694, the directors decided within days that the device for their official seal should represent 'Brittannia sitting on looking on a Bank of Mony' (sic). Britannia also appeared on the penny coin between 1797 and 1970
, occasional issues such as the fourpence under William IV
between 1836 and 1837, and on the 50 pence
coin between 1969 and 2008. See "External Links" below for examples of all these coins and others.
In the spring of 2008, the Royal Mint
unveiled new coin designs
"reflecting a more modern twenty-first century Britain" which do not feature the image of Britannia. The government pointed out, however, that earlier-design 50p coins will remain in circulation for the foreseeable future. Also Britannia still appeared on the gold and silver "Britannia
" bullion coins issued annually by the Royal Mint.
A new definitive £2 coin was issued in 2015, with a new image of Britannia. In late 2015, a limited edition (100000 run) £50 coin was produced, bearing the image of Britannia on one side and Queen Elizabeth II
on the obverse.
In 2021, the Royal Mint issued a new range of commemorative coins featuring a redesigned Britannia as a woman of colour.
A figure of Britannia appeared on the "white fiver" (a five pound note printed in black and white) from 1855 for more than a century, until 1957.
From 1928 "Britannia Series A" ten shilling and one pound notes were printed with a seated Britannia bearing both a spear and an olive branch.
The 25 cents fractional paper currency of the Dominion of Canada (1870, 1900 and 1923 respectively) all depict Britannia.
Britannia also featured on the high value Great Britain definitive postage stamps issued during the reign of George V
(known as 'seahorses
') and is depicted on the £10 stamp first issued in 1993.
Britannia watermark in paper
The Britannia watermark
has been widely used in papermaking, usually showing her seated. An example can be found apapermoulds.typepad.com
Britannia is depicted in the Brit Award
statuette, the British Phonographic Industry
's annual music awards.
The statuette of Britannia is regularly redesigned by some of the best known British designers, stylists and artists, including Dame Vivienne Westwood
, Damien Hirst
, Tracey Emin
, Sir Peter Blake
and the late Dame Zaha Hadid
The name "Britannia", symbolising Britain and British patriotism, has been adopted for a variety of purposes, including:
* Britannia silver
, a high-grade alloy
of silver introduced in Britain in 1697.
* Britannia coin
s, a series of British gold bullion
coins issued since 1987, which have nominal values of 100, 50, 25, and 10 pounds
* HMS ''Britannia''
, any of eight vessels of the Royal Navy
* HMY ''Britannia''
, King George V's famed racing yacht, scuttled in 1936. K1 ''Britannia''
is a 1994 replica (refit in 2012).
* Britannia Royal Naval College
, the Royal Navy's officer training college.
* The former Royal Yacht ''Britannia''
, the Royal Family's personal yacht, now retired in Leith
, Edinburgh Scotland.
* RMS ''Britannia''
, the first steam ocean liner
owned by Samuel Cunard
* SS ''Britannia''
, a 1925 British liner, sunk by the German auxiliary cruiser ''Thor''
in 1941 with the loss of 122 crew and 127 passengers.Wrecksite: SS Britannia (+1941)
* MV ''Britannia'', the flagship of the P&O Cruises fleet, which came into service in 2015.
* Bristol Type 175 Britannia, a 1952 British turbo-prop airliner.
* Bristol Type 603S3 Britannia, a 1983 British luxury car.
* Pugnaces Britanniae, war dog of Britain.
* The patriotic song "Rule, Britannia!", set to music in 1740.
* Company names such as Britannia Building Society, Britannia Airways and Britannia Industries.
* The ''Britannia'' Class, an alternative name for the BR Standard Class 7 series of steam locomotives produced between 1951 and 1954, the first of the BR "standard" classes. Preserved Class 7 locomotive No. 70000, built in 1951, was also named ''Britannia''.
* The Britannia Building Society traded for over a century before deciding to merge with The Co-operative Bank in 2009 and now trades as ''Britannia''.
* Britannia is a community south of the town of Bacup, in Lancashire, UK, and "home" of the Britannia Coconut Dancers.
* Britannia Sea Scouts is a sea scouting group connected to Sea Scouts New Zealand located in Evans Bay, in the Wellington zone of New Zealand. Britannia was started in 1927.
* Hibernia (personification), a personification of Ireland
* Kathleen Ni Houlihan, a personification of Ireland
* Prydain, Welsh name for Great Britain in both ancient and modern times.
* William Camden, author of ''Britannia'', author of topographical and historical survey of all of Great Britain and Ireland, first published in 1586.
* Britannia Superior
* Britannia Inferior
* Hewitt, Virginia. "Britannia (fl. 1st–21st cent.)", ''Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,'
online edition 2007, accessed 28 Aug 2011
* M. Dresser (ed.), 'Britannia', Patriotism: the making and unmaking of British national identity, vol. 3
* R. Samuel, National fictions (1989), pp. 26–49
* Britannia depicta: quality, value and security, National Postal Museum (1993)
* H. Mattingly, Nerva to Hadrian, reprint (1976), vol. 3 of Coins of the Roman empire in the British Museum
* J. M. C. Toynbee, The Hadrianic school: a chapter in the history of Greek art (1974)
* M. Henig, 'Britannia', ''Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae'', 3/1 (1983), pp. 167–69
* K. T. Erim, 'A new relief showing Claudius and Britannia from Aphrodisias', Britannia, 13 (1982), pp. 277–81
* H. Peacham, Minerva Britannia, or, A garden of heroical devises (1612)
* J. Thomson, Britannia: a poem (1729)
* R. Strong, Gloriana, the portraits of Queen Elizabeth I (1987)
* H. A. Atherton, Political prints in the age of Hogarth. A study of the ideographic representation of politics (1974)
Britannia on British coins and medals
– Guy de la Bédoyère
Category:Fictional British people
Category:National symbols of the United Kingdom
Category:Terminology of the British Isles