Saturday, February 22, 2014

National Icons: Britannia



Having already looked at John Bull, Uncle Sam and Columbia, let’s have a squizz at Britannia:

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Britannia is an ancient term for Roman Britain.  

It is also the female personification of the island

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The Greek explorer and geographer Pytheas named the group of islands off the coast of North-Western Europe “Brettania”.  The islands also had individual names including “Albion”. 

When the Romans became involved they retained the name, calling it “Insulae Britannicae”, which consisted of the islands of Albion (Great Britain), Hibernia (Ireland), Thule (Iceland) and others. 

Over a period of time Britannica became the name for Albion only. 

Julius Caesar invaded in 55BC, with the Roman Conquest beginning in 43AD and ending in 410AD. The Roman province established was known as Britanica. The locals were known as Britaani or Britons.

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From the 1st century AD Britannia became depicted as a goddess, the female symbol of Britain and was depicted on Roman coins. 

Early portraits show her as a beautiful young woman wearing the helmet of a Roman centurion, wrapped in a white garment with her right breast exposed. She is usually shown seated on a rock, holding a spear, 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. 

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Britannia first appeared on coins struck by Hadrian (117-38) in about the year 119. The coin was copper and was known as an "as" (plural "asses") (diameter 25mm). 

Roman coin with Britannia from the reign of Antoninus Pius AD 138-160 

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The name Britannica remained even after the Romans left. 

From the Renaissance, especially during the reign of Elizabeth 1, Britannia came to be viewed as the personification of Britain. This continued into the reign of James 1, who became the king of England, Scotland and Ireland. Under Charles 11 Britannia made her first appearance on English coins in 1672:


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By the time of Queen Victoria the image of Britannia had altered. Still depicted as a young woman with brown or golden hair, she kept her helmet and her white robes, but now held Poseidon’s trident. She often sat or stood before the ocean and tall-masted ships, representing British naval power. She also usually held or stood beside a Greek shield, which sported the British Union Flag. The British Lion was often at her feet, an animal found on the arms of England, Scotland and the Prince of Wales.



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Britannia has remained the female personification of Britain, just as Columbia is the personification of America and Marianne is the personification of France. In times of war the image of Britannia is especially utilised.

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Some pics and depictions:

Britannia from a 19th-century engraving, unknown source

In James Gillray’s Britannia between Scylla and Cherybidis (1793), Britannia is shown without the weapons which would invariably characterise her in the 19th century

1914 Russian poster depicting the Triple Entente – Britannia (right) and Marianne (left) in the company of Mother Russia. In this depiction, Britannia's association with the sea is provided by her holding an anchor, an attribute usually represented by Poseidon's Trident. Is anyone else surprised at how hot the personifications look for 1914?

Some wartime posters:



1939 poster



. . . and a modern day depiction for an advertisement.

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Human "statue - see item below

One final item:

The following article is from Britain's Daily Mail of 30 July 2013:

One in four British adults do not recognise Britannia, the face of the British people since Roman times. 
Research by The Royal Mint has found that the nation has lost touch with one of its most iconic figures and is campaigning to create greater awareness of who Britannia is and what she has stood for through the ages. 
The figure, who has been on Britain’s coins consistently since 1672 and is currently on the 50p piece, is mistaken for Boadicea by more than one in ten people (12 per cent), one in 20 (five per cent) mistake her for Queen Victoria in her early years and a similar proportion for the Roman goddess Athena (four per cent). 
Perhaps even more worrying, two per cent of British adults (about one million people) thought that the image of Britannia was in fact that of Joan of Arc, and one per cent mistook her for Queen Elizabeth I.Some respondents even think that she is a likeness of Margaret Thatcher. 
The Royal Mint has now created a campaign to revive the Britannia story. The organisation has recruited ‘human statues’ across UK cities to pose as the figure of Britannia as she appears on the Mint’s new commemorative Britannia gold coin. 

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