Coin of the Week: Una and The Lion

In 1839, the gold Five Pounds depicted a remarkable interpretation of Una and the Lion by William Wyon on its reverse.

The story can be found in Edmund Spenser’s epic and multi-layered poem ‘The Faerie Queene’ first published in 1590.  Una, the personification of truth and virtue is protected from danger by a fearsome Lion who is captivated by her beautiful face.  Widely considered one of the most beautiful British coins ever issued, the Chief Engraver took the bold step of depicting Queen Victoria as the innocent Una guiding the great lion, which represents England. 

Wyon’s decision to depict the new Queen as the heroine of a famous Elizabethan poem was clearly intended to present Victoria as the new Virgin Queen, innocent yet brave and self-confident, and ushering in new Golden Age of prosperity.   The coin was immediately hailed as a masterwork but was never struck again.  

The following year, on 10th February 1840 Queen Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and, as a married woman, it was considered inappropriate to continue depicting her as an innocent virgin.  

In January this year an Una & the Lion coin sold at auction in the U.S for a whopping amount, find out how much here:
https://londonmintofficeblog.com/blog/the-british-coin-at-auction/

By Justin Robinson

About Justin Robinson 11 Articles
Justin Robinson is the resident Historian and Numismatic Ambassador for The London Mint Office. An honours graduate with over twenty-five years experience in research, Justin loves working in the numismatics industry where he gets to share his passion for history and to tell the stories that bring the past to life. "A coin without a story is just a piece of metal. But a coin with a story becomes history in your hands" says Justin.

3 Comments

  1. Dear Mr. Robinson,

    I realize I’m responding to an old post, which I hope you won’t mind. I’m an art historian, working on
    19th c. British sculpture and am at this moment writing a short catalogue entry on John Bell’s well-known Una and the Lion sculpture of 1847. I’m interested in the connection sometimes made between it and Wyon’s design for the 1839 five-sovereign piece, which is mentioned, for example, on the Royal Collection’s website discussing their Minton Parian version of the sculpture. I found your explanation of why the coin was never struck again both cogent and credible but am still confused about something, which will belie my unfamiliarity with the minting of coins. An article in the Illustrated London News of Nov. 7, 1846, p. 292 titled ‘The Five-Sovereign Piece’ states that it was ‘about to be struck, we hope, for public circulation. This new gold piece very nearly resembles a crown-piece in size and thickness.’ I haven’t been able to find anything further about an 1846 edition. Thus my question to you – was this just wishful thinking or was there a five-sovereign piece issued with Wyon’s design in 1846? I am most grateful for your help as I’m a bit out of my depth with coinage. Many thanks for considering my request.
    Christina Corsiglia

    • Dear Christina,

      Many thanks for your enquiry. My understanding is that Wyon’s depiction of ‘Una and the Lion’ was not struck officially after 1839 until very recently. In the twenty-first century the design has appeared on modern commemoratives issued by the Governments of Gibraltar and Saint Helena. Furthermore, in 2019 The Royal Mint reissued the design on gold and silver coins to celebrate the work of William Wyon.

      However, I regret that I cannot find any evidence that the five-sovereign piece was struck in 1846. It certainly wasn’t struck, as the writer of the Illustrated London News hoped, for public circulation. It is of course possible that wealthy collectors commissioned the Royal Mint privately to strike additional pieces after 1839, but if this happened the design would have retained the 1839 date in Roman numerals, thereby making it impossible to determine when it was struck. I haven’t been able to find any evidence that confirms that this took place, other than the intriguing mention on the museum website that “Una in fact continued to be struck on occasion long after the sets had been completed.” It is possible the Kevin Clancy, the Director of the Royal Mint Museum might be able to cast some more light on this.

      The Royal Mint Museum webpage refers to variations in the design, including metals, types of edge, ornamentation and lettering. This is to be expected, as part of the design process. Several variations of the design would have been made, engraved onto dies and struck to see how well the detail appeared on the struck piece. Early test strikes would have been made on cheaper metals (silver, copper, tin) until the quality had been perfected enough for them to strike on gold. These variations have been retained by the Museum in order to document the evolution of the coin. I would be very surprised if any of these test samples have ever found their way onto the open market.

      The five-sovereign piece was officially struck by The Royal Mint three times during the reign of Queen Victoria, in 1839, 1887 and 1893. However, for the last two years the design used on the reverse was Saint George and the Dragon by Benedetto Pistrucci. Only the 1887 and 1893 coins were issued into circulation. The 1839 piece featuring Una and the Lion was only made available to collectors, and because it never entered circulation it is often referred to by numismatists as a test, or pattern piece.

      I hope this helps.

      Best Regards,

      Justin Robinson.

  2. Dear Mr. Robinson – Apologies, I forgot to include in my earlier inquiry that elsewhere on the Royal Mint’s site (http://www.royalmintmuseum.org.uk/collection/collection-highlights/coins/the-una-and-the-lion-five-pound-piece/index.html) it’s stated that “These sets, dated 1839, were finally ready for distribution to collectors in 1843, but the Una in fact continued to be struck on occasion long after the sets had been completed.” So perhaps there was another issue of the coin in 1846? This statement is what led to my initial confusion…

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