Who was Britannia on the old penny coins?

penny

This story always tickles me. It seems that Britannia in her trident and helmet on the old penny coins was one of the mistresses of Charles II.

The so-called “Merry Monarch”, who ruled after the grim puritan interlude of Oliver Cromwell, had an insatiable libido. He famously carried on an affair with London street girl Nell Gwyn, who started life selling oranges outside the Drury Lane theatre. But it wasn’t Nell that we see as Britannia on the penny coins.

No, it was a lady of impeccable breeding. Frances Stuart, later the Duchess of Richmond, was a fabulous beauty according to that great diarist of London life, Samuel Pepys. She looked down on Nell but in the final analysis, they were up to the same game – using sex for influence at court. And both at the beck and call of the lascivious king.

One French visitor sniffily carped that it was hard to imagine less brains with more beauty than Frances Stuart. But for a women dismissed as dim but pretty, she actually made a large fortune out of manipulating the king’s affections. Here I am on Yesterday TV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs talking about Frances and her presence on our coins.

The horror of the Great Plague of London

London was hit by the Great Plague in 1665 but in fact it was one of a succession of pestilences that overtook the English capital. In the years 1563, 1593, 1603, 1625 and 1636, there were plagues with similarly devastating consequences.

The 1625 plague saw thousands of red crosses painted on the doors of the infected. These victims couldn’t leave and nobody was permitted to enter. This was quarantine seventeenth century style. And according to one pamphlet of the time – the plague crosses struck terror into the population:

Foure thousand Red-Crosses have frighted the Inhabitants in a very little time, but greater is their number who have beene frighted and fled out of the City at the setting up of those CrossesEngland’s Lord Have Mercy Upon Us – Thomas Dekker

The 1665 has come down to us very vividly for two key reasons. One was that the journalist and author Daniel Defoe wrote a powerful and gripping account of it a few years later. And the other is that the 1665 Great Plague was followed a year later in 1666 by the Great Fire – which destroyed a large part of London.

What amazed people at the time was that London’s population continued to grow rapidly despite the terrible plagues. This was due to a steady influx of people from the countryside into the city and also – as with Coronavirus – the ability of the wealthier to avoid the worst of the plague.

Basically, richer families continued to expand and reproduce while poorer families bore the main brunt of each wave of plague. Some saw this rather cruelly as a natural order of things.

The 1665 plague happened in the years following the end of the Cromwellian Protectorate and the Restoration of King Charles II. We’re often led to believe that these were years of jolly revelry and colour. But in fact more most Londoners this was a period of plague, fire, poverty and war.

I’ve been on UKTV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs documentary series talking about the scandals that have enveloped various kings in history.

This was the programme on Charles II and his less than gallant handling of the Great Plague in London. Basically, he fled the city as thousands of Londoners perished of the bubonic plague – a truly grim way to go!