Una and The Lion British Gold Coins Exhibit

From the  Thos. H. Law Collection

A half millennium of British gold coinage glittered in this spectacular exhibit at the American Numismatic Association Money Museum from February 8 to April 26, 2002.

The display features Thos. A. Law's 2001 Howland Wood Memorial Award for Best-in-Show Exhibit entitled "104 Rare English Gold Coins, 1344-1839." It filled the lower galleries of the Money Museum and showcaseed selected material never before allowed outside the Royal Mint. Also included are nearly 700 years of English coronation medals, and artifacts from the early days of Colorado Springs, once known as "Little London."

One of the many features of this brilliant exhibit is a £5 piece known as "Una and the Lion" - considered one of the most beautiful English coins ever made. Issued early in Queen Victoria's 64-year reign, the 1839 gold piece depicts the 20-year-old monarch on the reverse as "Una" (Truth) - one of the principal characters in Edmund Spenser's 16th-century allegorical poem The Faerie Queene - accompanied by a lion that guards her virtue.

On the obverse of the gold coin is the 'Young Head' portrait of Queen Victoria, with her hair caught in a graceful bow. This engraving of the young queen appeared on coins of the British Empire for nearly 30 years.

As part of this exhibit, the original dies used to strike the 1839 £5 gold piece were on display. This marked the first time the dies have been allowed outside the British Royal Mint.

The British gold coronation medals on exhibit, struck from the 1300s to the present, were from the collection of token and medal specialist David E. Schenkman.

From the time of the Stuart kings in 1603 to the crowning of Queen Victoria in 1837, specially struck medals were scattered randomly to the onlooking crowd during the coronation ceremony as an expression of largess, however, the crowds became more aggressive, and the cost of this generosity grew. Not wishing to have the splendor and gravity of his coronation ruined in 1901, King Edward VII established the current tradition of presenting medals only to those who assisted in the ceremony.

Material from the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum in the exhibit highlighted the city's early days. Founded in 1871, the town attracted a great many British visitors and investors from the thousands of English tenant farmers and younger sons of large landowners who sought their fortunes in the American West. In the 1870s and '80s, a Colorado Springs advertising campaign in British newspapers promoted the new community as "Little London." The moniker remains today.


Una and the Lion

The 5-pound gold coin colloquially known as "Una and the Lion" is considered to be one of the most beautiful English coins ever minted. Shown on the obverse is the so-called "Young Head" of Queen Victoria. The reverse likewise pictures the young queen, this time leading the British lion forward into the arena of world events.

"Una" was the first official pattern and first proof coin minted in Victoria's long reign (1838-1901), and it received nothing but praise when it was first introduced. The design was described as being "most attractive" and "stately," with the standard of workmanship and strike "beyond improvement." The coin was included in the official Royal Mint proof sets for 1839, though it technically is considered a "pattern." The shield-shaped carrying case included 14 other proof coins of varying denominations.

Despite the praise for the coin's beauty, the design was considered to be "too medallic" for regular-issue coinage and the relief too high for business purposes. Patterns were struck in gold, silver, white metal, tin, copper, pewter and aluminum; the coin was not accepted and never circulated. Several major varieties are known, based upon differences in edge lettering, the design of the hair ribbons, and a misspelling on the reverse. There also is a silver pattern crown of the same design. Most specimens remain in the proof set case in which they were originally issued, along with the other 14 proof coins of 1839.

Denomination: 5-pounds, though no denomination is noted on the coin
Metal: 23kt gold, patterns struck in several other metals
Weight: 38.7 to 39.3 grams
Diameter: 37mm
Mintage: 400 pattern proofs
Value: The coin rarely comes up for sale, but usually sells for at least $50,000 when it does appear.

VICTORIA D.G. BRITANNIARUM REGINA F:D:

The coin's obverse shows Victoria as "a lovely young girl, her hair bound across the top with two fillets, or headbands, and caught into a graceful bow at the back." Known as the "Young Head" design, the same portrait was to grace British and Empire coins for the next three decades.

Engraver Wyon said he was trying to capture Victoria's "spontaneous youthful charm and at the same time create an excellent likeness." Most critics agree he was successful:
    "The graceful arrangement, character and expression of the whole bust; its breadth and softness; the perfect youth, yet sweetly defined womanhood, of the feature; and the exquisite delicacy of the line connecting the cheek and neck; and the surpassing beauty of the lower part of the face and lip, strike us as a combination of excellences where all the truth of nature is displayed in all the perfection of art."

VICTORIA
The 20-year-old Queen was described as "young, chaste and beautiful" when she posed for Wyon's classic design.

D.G. "Dei Gratia" (By the Grace of God)
This royal title dates back to the 8th century and has been used consistently by all monarchs since Henry II in 1172. It implied the king was set apart by God (rex et sacerdos) and ruled by Divine Right. This principle clashed with that of Parliamentary Supremacy during the English Civil War, 1643-49.

F:D: "Fidei Defensor" (Defender of the Faith)
This controversial title was conferred on Henry VIII by Pope Leo X as a reward for a book Henry wrote condemning the heresies of Martin Luther. Later popes and kings variously confirmed, withdrew or ignored the title; Parliament both passed and repealed laws demanding its use on the nation's coinage. Since 1953, the title is mandated for the coins of England. Canada, Australia and other nations in the British Commonwealth may use the title if they so choose.
Interestingly, the "Fidei Defensor" title rarely was used on coronation medals, occurring only on those of Edward VI, George IV and Victoria.

W. WYON, R.A.
Wyon's name appears on the truncated bust. The initials R.A. stand for Royal Academician, indicating Wyon had been elected a member of the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts in London.

DIRIGE DEUS GRESSUS MEOS

LogoThe reverse of the coin shows Wyon's engraving of Queen Victoria, at this date a young woman of 20. She is depicted as Una, or "Truth," so-called because truth is one. Una was the principal character in Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene, written between 1590 and 1611. The lion she is leading also played a part in Spencer's work, and is generally thought to represent the British lion. Other interpretations suggest the Lion is standing by the Queen, indicating the British people's acceptance of their new leader.

"DIRIGE DEUS GRESSUS MEOS" (May God Guide My Footsteps)
The Latin motto might have been Queen Victoria's personal prayer, although others have considered the legend to be a cry for help rather than a pious wish. The word DIRIGE is misspelled on one variety as DIRIGIT.

"MDCCCXXXIX" (1839)
The Una and the Lion 5-pound pattern coins were struck only in 1839.

Latin Legends
The wording on both the obverse and reverse is in Latin, as is Queen Victoria's coronation medal. The coin's engraver, William Wyon, preferred English legends as demonstrated by his engraving of the coronation medal for William IV. But Wyon's artistic rival and jealous boss at the Royal Mint, the irascible Italian artist Bendetto Pistrucci, had engraved Victoria's coronation medal in Latin and wanted a Latin motto on her coin as well. Thus, despite his enthusiasm for placing English wording on English coinage, Wyon had no choice but to use the detested neoclassical Latin on the Una coinage, the last English coin to bear a Latin motto.