Una and The Lion: British Gold Coins Exhibit from the Thos. H. Law
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
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."
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
The 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.
The Una and the Lion 5-pound pattern coins were struck only in 1839.
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.
Shown here are one set of obverse and reverse dies engraved by William Wyon and used in striking the "Una and the Lion" coin in 1839. The coins were minted on steam-operated coins presses in the Tower Mint in London.
There are two obverse die variations of the 5-pound coin, based upon the spelling of DIRIGE. The three reverse varieties are dependent upon the pattern of the queen's hair ribbon (fillet).
Notice the obverse die has been damaged at the 6 o'clock position. This break in the die would have resulted in a raised area, or "cud" on the coin's rim. The damage has rendered the die unusable. None of the Una dies have ever been allowed outside of London before appearing in this exhibit.
Steel reverse die for "Una and the Lion" 5-pound piece of 1839 (Hocking 1139).
Edge Lettering Collar
The three-part "collar" used to hold the coin during striking contained lettering that imparted a message in relief on the coin's edge. Each segment contained a different part of the motto. The message was highly complimentary to the Queen: DECUS ET TUTAMEN ANNO REGNI TERTIO "An ornament and a safeguard in the third year of reign".
Four different edge types are known: "large letter," "small letter," "plain," and "milled." These were coupled with the two obverse dies, three reverse dies and the variety of metals used for planchets, resulting in many different varieties of pattern coins.
George VI, 1936-1952
Elizabeth II, 1952-present
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