At the height of Roman Britain, the Empire included all of Britannia, the Latin name for Great Britain (first invaded by Julius Caesar in 55 BC). People living in the Roman province of Britannia were called Britanni. The Emperor Claudius paid a visit while Britain was being pacified and was honoured with the agnomen Britannicus as if he were the conqueror. But, the noteworthy thing is that the island of Great Britain has never been completely conquered, even in Roman days.
Britannia was personified under Hadrian and Antonius Pius and depicted as a beautiful young woman, wearing a Centurion’s helmet and wrapped in a white toga with her right breast exposed. She is usually shown seated on a rock, holding a spear, and with a spiked shield propped beside her.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Britannia lost most of its symbolic meaning until the rise of British influence and later, the British Empire. As British power and influence rose in the 1700s, Britannia became an increasingly more important symbol and a strong rallying point among Britons.
By the Victorian time, Britain renewed Britannia. Still depicted as a young woman with brown or golden hair, she kept her Corinthian helmet and her white robes, but now held Poseidon’s three-pronged trident and often stood in the ocean, representing British naval supremacy. She also usually held or stood beside a Greek hoplon shield, which sported the British Union Jack: also at her feet was often the British Lion, the national animal of England. Another change was that she was no longer bare breasted, due to the prudishness of Victorian Britain.
In the Renaissance tradition, Britannia came to be viewed as the embodiment of Britain, in imagery that was developed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Britannia first appeared on the farthing in 1672, followed by the halfpenny later the same year; the female model used, then and later, was Charles II’s mistress, the Duchess of Richmond, who appeared on the penny coin between 1797 and 1970, and on the 50 pence coin since 1969. When the Bank of England was granted a charter in 1694, the directors decided within days that the device for their official seal should represent “Britannia sitting looking on a Bank of Money”
With the disestablishment of the British Empire there have been moves to remove Britannia from the back of our 50 pence coin and portray an image more current to our society, and this led me to muse on the symbols of Christianity, and the current day tendency, through aggressive materialism and atheism, to reject the public wearing of a cross. I was wondering therefore how these old-age symbols could be changed in keeping with the present manic trend of being politically correct and reflecting the contemporary trends in church society. Instead of a fire we could have an iceberg, instead of a cross, a personified saint indicating another way to God.
The old adage “if it ain’t broke don’t mend it” comes to mind. Why must we change anything, just because world systems and values become undermined and corrupted? The image or representation of Christianity is a cross and a fire: the one indicating Calvary and the other Pentecost. The death of Christ speaks of forgiveness, supreme love, and eternal life and the upper room outpouring of the Holy Spirit testifies of quickening and gift impartation. In reality the church is now known by the fire rather than the cross, as the book of Acts has not closed, but the fire and the cross are unshakable to Christianity.
“Ah!” You say, “That’s a sign of age,” well, thank God for that. If youth and middle age means we throw everything away that speaks of value, and undermine foundations of greatness, then may I be the only dissenting voice. The reason Billy Graham, now over 90 is honoured world-wide, is because he has never changed his message. He refuses to be political, although he has advised most Presidents over the last forty years. He preaches the simple unadulterated gospel; good news to all, repentance from sin, acceptance of the cross as the only means of salvation. Who can doubt the supreme importance of the cross and the fire-intensity of his life?
Politicians may be able to remove Britannia from our coins and England from the map, but they can’t rub out the marks of Christ in an individual life. Theologians may try and subvert the church, but they cannot change one sinner to resemble Christ, but the Holy Spirit can. He puts his indelible stamp on the coinage of Christendom.