Britannia

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For the province of the Roman Empire, see Roman Britain.
For other uses, see Britannia (disambiguation).
The National Armada memorial in Plymouth depicting Britannia

Britannia is an ancient term for Roman Britain and also a female personification of the island. The name is Latin, and derives from the Greek form Prettanike or Brettaniai, which originally designated a collection of islands with individual names, including Albion or Great Britain; however, by the 1st century BC Britannia came to be used for Great Britain specifically. In AD 43 the Roman Empire began its conquest of the island, establishing a province they called Britannia, which came to encompass the parts of the island south of Caledonia (roughly Scotland). The native Celtic inhabitants of the province are known as the Britons. In the 2nd century, Roman Britannia came to be personified as a goddess, armed with a trident and shield and wearing a Corinthian helmet.

The Latin name Britannia long survived the Roman withdrawal from 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. 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 and Scotland, the personification of the martial Britannia was used as an emblem of British imperial power and unity. She was featured on all modern British coinage series until the redesign in 2008.

Roman period[edit]

Main articles: Roman Britain and Britain (name)

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,[1] a rendering of the indigenous name for the Pretani people whom the Greeks believed to inhabit the British Isles.[2][3] 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.[1] That island was first invaded by Julius Caesar in 55 BC, and the Roman conquest of the island began in AD 43, leading to the establishment of the Roman province known 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 in fact 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. Thule, an island "six days' sail north of Britain, and [...] near the frozen sea", possibly Iceland, was also never invaded by the Romans.

An As coin from the reign of Antoninus Pius struck in 154 AD showing Britannia on the reverse

The Emperor 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.[4] She appeared on coins issued under Hadrian, as a more regal-looking female figure.[5] Britannia was soon personified as a goddess, looking fairly similar to the goddess Minerva. Early portraits of the goddess depict Britannia as a beautiful young woman, wearing the helmet of a centurion, and 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. Similar coin types were also issued under Antoninus Pius.

British revival[edit]

Britannia from a 19th-century engraving, unknown source
In James Gillray's Britannia between Scylla and Charybdis (1793), Britannia is shown without the weapons which would invariably characterise her in the 19th century

Medieval use[edit]

'Britannia' remained the Latin name for Great Britain. After the fall of the western Roman Empire, variations on the term appear in the titles of the 9th-century Historia Britonum (History of the Britons) and the 12th-century Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), which became tremendously popular during the High Middle Ages. The term Britannia also came (from at least the late 6th century[6]) to refer to the Armorican peninsula in France, because of the large-scale migration to the area by Celtic-speaking Britons. The modern French name for the area, Bretagne ("Brittany" in English) is a variant of Britannia. The term Grande Bretagne (Great Britannia, or Great Britain) has served to distinguish the island of Britain from the continental peninsula.

British Empire[edit]

In the Medieval period it had still been common to refer only to the Brythonic Celtic inhabitants of Britain as the "Britons", as opposed to the "English". However, increasingly the English were included within the category of the Britons. This gained new symbolic meaning with the rise of British influence, and later the British Empire, which at its height ruled over a third of the world's population and landmass.

In the Renaissance tradition, Britannia came to be viewed as the personification of Britain, in imagery that was developed during the reign of Elizabeth I. 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 and Scotland. 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.[7] 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...

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.

A later Gillray cartoon, on the 1803 Peace of Amiens, features a fat and non-martial Britannia kissing "Citizen François"
Britannia Triumphant, poster celebrating the Battle of Trafalgar.

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 Poseidon's three-pronged 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.

Neptune 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[8] and still features in the New Zealand Coat of Arms.[9]

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.

Perhaps the best analogy is that Britannia is to the United Kingdom and the British Empire what Marianne 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.

Modern associations[edit]

During the 1990s the term Cool Britannia (drawn from a humorous version by the Bonzo Dog Band of the song "Rule Britannia",[citation needed] with words by James Thomson [1700–1748], 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.

In the song Waiting for the Worms Pink Floyd makes reference to Britannia in the lyric "Would you like to see Britannia rule again? My friend."

Depiction on British currency and postage stamps[edit]

Coinage[edit]

Britannia depicted on a half penny of 1936

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,[5] 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.[10] 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.[11] See "External Links" below for examples of all these coins and others.

A stamp featuring Britannia (with Irish Free State overstamp)

In the spring of 2008, the Royal Mint unveiled new coin designs "reflecting a more modern twenty-first century Britain"[12] which nowhere featured the image of Britannia. This decision courted some controversy, with tabloid press campaigns, in particular that of the Daily Mail, launched to "save Britannia". The government has pointed out, however, that earlier-design 50p coins will remain in circulation for the foreseeable future.[13]

Banknotes[edit]

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.[14]

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.[15]

The 25 cents fractional paper currency of the Dominion of Canada (1870, 1900 and 1923 respectively) all depict Britannia. The notes are no longer produced and usually not used as currency anymore, although they are still legal tender.

Postage stamps[edit]

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[edit]

The Britannia watermark has been widely used in papermaking, usually showing her seated. An example can be found at papermoulds.typepad.com

Namesakes[edit]

The name "Britannia", symbolising Britain and British patriotism, has been adopted for various purposes such as:

See also[edit]

  • Columbia, the female personification of the United States
  • Italia Turrita, the equivalent personification for Italy
  • Mother Svea, the equivalent personification for Sweden
  • Hibernia (personification) is the younger sister of Britannia
  • Marianne, a personification of France
  • William Camden, author of Britannia, author of topographical and historical survey of all of Great Britain and Ireland, first published in 1586.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Snyder, p. 12.
  2. ^ Allen, p. 174.
  3. ^ Davies, p. 47.
  4. ^ Roman Britain By Timothy W. Potter and Catherine Johns, University of California Press, 1992 p.40
  5. ^ a b "Britannia on British Coins". Chard. Retrieved 25 June 2006. 
  6. ^ Fleuriot, Léon (1980). Les Origines de la Bretagne: l'émigration [The origins of Brittany: emigration] (in French). Paris: Payot. pp. 52–53. ISBN 2228127108. 
  7. ^ Proclamation styling James I King of Great Britain on 20 October 1604
  8. ^ 1901 Penny Universal, Stamps NZ. Retrieved 25 January 2010.
  9. ^ National Coat of Arms of New Zealand, Heraldry of the World. Retrieved 25 January 2010.
  10. ^ "3 – The Halfpenny". Coins of the UK. Tony Clayton. 
  11. ^ Morris, Steven (28 January 2008). "Brown blamed as Britannia gets the boot". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 28 January 2008. 
  12. ^ "2008 Emblems of Britain Silver Proof Collection". The Royal Mint. Archived from the original on 14 October 2008. 
  13. ^ "Royal Mint unveils coin designs". BBC News. 2 April 2008. 
  14. ^ "£5 note, Bank of England". British Museum. Retrieved 24 January 2013. 
  15. ^ Sharples, BS (17 June 2009). "A Short History of English Banknotes". Retrieved 24 January 2013. 
  16. ^ Wrecksite: SS Britannia (+1941)
  17. ^ Daily Mail 14 April 2011: "A thousand rather popular pubs..."

Notes[edit]

  • Allen, Stephen (2007). Lords of Battle: The World of the Celtic Warrior. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 1-84176-948-7. 
  • Collingwood, Robin George (1998). Roman Britain and the English Settlements. Biblo & Tannen Publishers. ISBN 0-8196-1160-3. 
  • Davies, Norman (2000). The Isles a History. Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-69283-7. 
  • Hewitt, Virginia. "Britannia (fl. 1st–21st cent.)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edition 2007, accessed 28 Aug 2011
  • Snyder, Christopher (2003). The Britons. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-22260-X. 
  • 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)

External links[edit]

Media related to Britannia at Wikimedia Commons