A close-up image of a silver fifty pence piece. The coin's obverse side is on display, it is heptagonal, and it depicts the bust of King Charles III, in profile, facing from right to left.

The Royal Mint recently released the first coins depicting King Charles III . Cameron Maclean, PhD Candidate at the University of Glasgow and Numismatic Volunteer at The Hunterian, explores the long-held traditions that these new coins will follow.

The first coins of King Charles III follow coinage conventions established in the British Isles centuries ago. This post will illustrate the history behind these traditions by using objects from The Hunterian’s numismatic collection.

Left or right?

Charles III is depicted facing left on his new coins, whereas Elizabeth II (r.1952-2022) faced right on her coins. This continues the long-established tradition that a monarch faces in the opposite direction from their predecessor on their coinage.

A close-up image of three bronze-coloured coins. The obverse side of each coin is on display. The coin on the left depicts the bust of King Charles I in profile, facing from right to left. The coin in the centre of the image depicts the bust of Oliver Cromwell in profile, facing from right to left. The coin on the right depicts the bust of Charles II in profile, facing from left to right.
From left to right: Charles I, England, milled shilling, 1638-1639, Hunter Collection; Oliver Cromwell, England, halfcrown, 1658, Hunter Collection; Charles II, England, halfcrown, 1677, Hunter Collection.

This has its origins during the reign of Charles II (r.1649-1651/1660-1685). His English silver and gold coins minted from 1662 onwards depict him facing right (above right). We don’t know for certain why this was the case. Many suppose Charles II wished to face in the opposite direction from Oliver Cromwell (r.1653-1658), who faced left on his coins (above centre).

Another possible explanation is that it was done as a mark of respect for Charles I (r.1625-1649). He was Charles II’s father who was beheaded in 1649. Charles I, barring exceptions such as on some of his Scottish coins, faced left on most of the coins struck during his reign (above left).

New monarchs, new directions

The tradition of successive monarchs facing alternate directions on their coins has mostly been maintained from 1662 to the present.

This can be seen in the photo below, which includes an English or British halfcrown of each monarch from Charles II to Elizabeth II (excluding Edward VIII).

There are some exceptions to this. The English copper and tin coinages of Charles II and James VII/II (r.1685-1688/1689) show both monarchs facing in the opposite direction as on their English gold and silver coins.

A close-up image of a series of fifteen dark silver-coloured coins, displayed in three rows of five. The obverse side of each coin is on display. On each coin, the face of a different British monarch is depicted.
From left to right, top to bottom: Charles II, England, halfcrown, 1677, Hunter Collection; James VII/II, England, halfcrown, 1687, Hunter Collection; William II/III and Mary II, England, halfcrown, 1689, Hunter Collection; William II/III, England, proof halfcrown, 1697, Hunter Collection; Anne, Great Britain, halfcrown, 1707, Hunter Collection; George I, Great Britain, proof pattern halfcrown, 1715, Hunter Collection; George II, Great Britain, proof halfcrown, 1746, Hunter Collection; George III, United Kingdom, halfcrown, 1816, Coats Collection; George IV, United Kingdom, halfcrown, 1825, Coats Collection; William IV, United Kingdom, halfcrown, 1834, Coats Collection; Victoria, United Kingdom, proof halfcrown, 1839, Coats Collection; Edward VII, United Kingdom, matt proof halfcrown, 1902, Cuthbert Collection; George V, United Kingdom, halfcrown, 1919, Cuthbert Collection; George VI, United Kingdom, halfcrown, 1939, Cuthbert Collection; Elizabeth II, United Kingdom, proof of record halfcrown, 1963, presented by the Royal Mint.

The most well-known exception is the coinage of Edward VIII (r.1936). Edward VIII defied tradition by insisting that he face left on his coins. This was the same direction as George V (r.1910-1936). Edward preferred his facial features on that side. However, he abdicated before any of his coins entered circulation.

A small number of patterns (prototype coins that are struck to evaluate a proposed design) were produced. Most of these patterns are held by the Royal Mint Museum, while the Royal Collection also holds a set. The Hunterian’s numismatic collection does not contain a coin of Edward VIII. Accordingly, an Edward VIII halfcrown is absent from the above photo.

When George VI (r.1936-1952) succeeded Edward VIII, he maintained the tradition by facing left on his coins. This was based upon the fabrication that if Edward VIII had ruled long enough to issue coins, then they would have abided by tradition and depicted him facing right.

Charles III: Origins of inscriptions

The inscription, known as the ‘legend’ in numismatic terminology, on Charles III’s coins reads: ‘CHARLES III · D · G · REX · F · D ·’.

This is an abbreviated form of ‘Charles III Dei Gratia Rex Fidei Defensor’. The Latin portion translates to: ‘by the Grace of God, King, Defender of the Faith’. Both ‘Dei Gratia’ and ‘Fidei Defensor’ have appeared in the legends of coins issued in the British Isles for centuries.

Coins of Alexander III’s (r.1249-1286) Second Coinage, struck from c.1280 to 1286, are the earliest Scottish coins to refer to the monarch as ruling ‘by the Grace of God’.

The above penny’s legend reads: ‘ALEXANDER DEI GRA REX SCOTORUM’ (‘Alexander, by the Grace of God, King of Scots’). ‘Dei Gratia’ continued to appear on Scottish coinage up until the last coins of the Kingdom of Scotland were struck at the Edinburgh mint in 1706.

‘Dei Gratia’ begins to regularly appear on English coins during the reign of Edward III (r.1327-1377). This gold noble titles the king as: ‘EDWARD · DEI · GRA · REX · ANGL · & · FRANC · D · HYB’ (‘Edward, by the Grace of God, King of England and France, Lord of Ireland’). There are earlier sporadic usages on English coins such as the short-lived and extremely rare silver groat of Edward I (r.1272-1307).

‘Defender of the Faith’

The title of ‘Defender of the Faith’ was initially bestowed upon Henry VIII (r.1509-1547) by the Pope in 1521 for his efforts in countering the Protestant Reformation. He was stripped of the title after founding the Church of England, but it was restored to him by the English Parliament in 1543.

Its second incarnation referred to Henry VIII’s role as head of the Church of England, rather than being in recognition of his defence of the Catholic Church.

It can be seen on the gold Supremacy Medal above, one of only five in existence. It was made in 1545 to celebrate Henry VIII’s position as the supreme head of the Church of England.

Its legend reads: ‘HENRICUS · OCTA · ANGLIÆ · FRANCI · ET · HIB · REX · FIDEI · DEFENSOR · ET · IN · TERR · ECCLE · ANGLI · ET · HIBE · SUB · CHRIST · CAPUT · SUPREMUM ·’ (‘Henry the Eighth, King of England, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, and under Christ the Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England and Ireland’). The other side of the medal repeats this legend in Hebrew and Greek.

The title of ‘Defender of the Faith’ was inherited by Henry VIII’s successors. However, it would be almost two centuries before it appeared on circulating coins. There are some English pattern coins of Charles I which list it amongst his titles. However, none of these designs were adopted for circulation.

The title’s first occurrence on a circulating coin is on the 1714 dated guinea of George I (r.1714-1727). This guinea’s extensive legend, spread across both sides, reads: ‘GEORGIUS · D · G · MAG · BR · FR · ET · HIB · REX · F · D · · BRUN · ET LUN · DUX S · R · I · A · TH ET · PR · EL ·’ (‘George, by the Grace of God, King of Great Britain, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, Duke of Brunswick and Luneburg, Arch-Treasurer and Prince Elector of the Holy Roman Empire’).

Going against convention

Most British coins have proclaimed that the monarch rules ‘by the Grace of God’ and titles them as ‘Defender of the Faith’ from the reign of George I to the present day. A notable exception is the ‘Godless’ florin of Queen Victoria (r.1837-1901). It was so-called because it omits both of these features from the legend.

The above example, an 1848 dated proof pattern striking, simply refers to the monarch as ‘VICTORIA REGINA’ (‘Queen Victoria’). This coin was only struck for circulation in 1849. The controversy over its legend ensured that Victoria’s subsequent florins reincorporated ‘Dei Gratia’ and ‘Fidei Defensor’ back into their designs.

Several aspects of Charles III’s coins have gone against tradition. They are the first circulating coins in British history to name the monarch in English. All of his predecessors utilised Latin. For example, both Charles I and Charles II were named as ‘CAROLUS’ on their coins.

Additionally, the speed at which Charles III’s coins have been released is without 20th century precedent. Charles III’s coins were first released for sale to the public on 3 October 2022. This was less than a month after the death of Elizabeth II. It’s expected they will enter circulation in December 2022.

Previous custom has been to issue a new monarch’s first coins in their coronation year. In the 20th century, this was always the year following the death of the previous monarch.

If you want to find out more about The Hunterian’s numismatics collection, why not explore our online catalogue?

And there are more brilliant blogs by Cameron and others stretching right across our collection for you to enjoy – covering coins, medals and much more!