Britannia as the personification
of the country of Britain appeared on Roman
coins, and essentially the same depiction was used again from the reign of Charles II
, and is still in use.
Representations vary in detail, but what is common is a seated female figure, holding something up, and at her side an oval shield. In her modern incarnation on the fifty pence piece, she is holding up a sprig of something, perhaps an olive branch, in her left hand, and with her right hand held down she is steadying a trident, which rises from the ground to high behind her. She is wearing a Roman helmet with plumes. At her feet is a lion. Both Britannia and the lion are facing to the right. This is all emblematic of her command of war and peace, and her defence of the coasts. The device on the shield is, rather strangely to my mind, not a coat of arms, but the Union Jack. (You do not normally put flags on shields.)
She is in loose, long flowing robes, and has bare arms. The original model for this Britannia was Charles II's mistress Mrs Frances Stewart, afterwards Duchess of Richmond. On 25 February 1667 Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary seeing the new Britannia, and thinking it a very good representation of her:
At my goldsmith's did observed the King's new medall, where, in little, there is Mrs. Stewart's face as well done as ever I saw anything in my whole life, I think; and a pretty thing it is, that he should choose her face to represent Britannia by.
The first uses of Britannia on coins were in the reigns of Hadrian
(117-138) and Antoninus Pius
(138-161), commemorating their building of the great walls in the north of Britain. A sestertius
of Antoninus Pius shows her facing to the left, holding some kind of sprig in her right hand. The oval shield is blank, and her head is either uncovered or merely lightly garlanded (I can't tell). Other Roman emperors used her; of course in their day Britannia was submissive. The coins of modern Britain from Charles II show her as defender of the independence of the island.
An 1843 four pence piece1 shows her helmeted, and clasping the trident forward of her, with her other hand resting on the shield. The present design2 is by Christopher Ironside, and in this the trident head has moved behind her and she is holding forth the sprig. The lion is at her feet. Today only the 50p shows Britannia.
I'm not sure when the lion was added, but I think it was from an 1839 issue known as "Una and the Lion". In Spenser's The Faerie Queene Una is a pure maiden who is befriended by a faithful lion. There are modern collector's edition coins3 in gold and silver, never seen by the general public, featuring Una and the Lion, and in the current design of these Una/Britannia is standing and has more of a Greek helmet. She still has her trident and lion, and is holding up a Union Jack shield of a normal shield shape.
Chamberlain, 1960, The Teach Yourself Guide to Numismatics, English Universities Press.
The name "Britannia" has of course been used for many many other things in Britain. Although I don't want to list them all, among others not yet mentioned in previous writeups are:
The HMY Britannia, the Royal Yacht, built at John Brown's Shipyard in Clydebank in 1953, and retired in 1997. She is now moored at Edinburgh and owned by a trust. In her lifetime she carried the Queen and Royal Family on 968 official voyages, totalling over a million nautical miles of travel. She was 125 m long; and was the eighty-third (sic) and last royal yacht since Charles II commissioned the Mary in 1660. There will be no replacement.
In 1586 William Camden (1551-1623), later to be headmaster of Westminster School, published in Latin a monumental guidebook called Britannia, an antiquarian survey of the British Isles county by county. A much expanded edition appeared in 1607, and in 1610 an English translation by Philemon Holland (1552-1637) was published, with the subtitle A chorographicall description of the most flourishing Kingdomes of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and the Ilands adjoyning, out of the depth of Antiquitie.