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And some numismatic jokes

 Ever since coins were first invented they have been used as pocket billboards for propaganda in support of their issuing authority. Some of the Holy Roman Empire coins got huge just to provide space to list all the Hapsburg titles. The kings and queens of England and subsequently Great Britain used to list their dominions too; from 1337 to 1802 (The Treaty of Amiens) they claimed France among their realms.

 Let us cast a critical eye over our modern coinage.

 1. The Queen is called Elizabeth II. This is only true in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. She should properly be styled “Elizabeth I & II” to represent the correct position with regard to Scotland. “First” should come before “Second” to acknowledge that the line of descent comes through the Scottish Stuart monarchy. It would have been more tactful for her to have been styled plain Queen Elizabeth.

 2. Next we see “DEI GRA REG” which is short for “Dei Gratia Regina” (= Queen by the Grace of God). Mediaeval kings and queens liked to claim that they had their thrones by God's grace; in other words they did not owe their royal title to any other person. The more precarious their position, the more strongly they claimed divine right, and the more strongly did would-be usurpers angle for the kingship. Actually the Queen owes her throne to Act of Parliament. To offend the Scots even more, this was the Act of Settlement of 1701, which was passed by the English Parliament without even consulting the Scots. This was, however, confirmed by the Act of Union of 1707. As long as kings and queens have held their throne by law rather than by God, the only challenges to them have come from the Stuart Pretenders whose claim to divine right was shown to be an insufficient qualification. Let us get rid of “DEI GRA”.

 3. Then we see “F.D.” or “FID DEF”. This means “Fidei Defensor” or “Defender of the Faith”. This was a title that the Pope gave to Henry VIII for writing a book defending the Church of Rome against the criticisms of Martin Luther. Henry may have burnt the odd Lutheran or two as well. All the same, for nearly 500 years English and British monarchs have done little to earn the papal commendation, especially Henry VIII. Get rid of it.

 4. Rather unusually, our present coinage does not state what the Queen is actually queen of. Perhaps the full name of our country “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” is too much to fit on a coin, even in Latinised abbreviations. The eight letter acronym UKOGBANI might be thought to serve the purpose, but there is one good reason why it is never used. It is the Swahili for “elephant shit”.

 Joke No 1

 The pound coins that were issued between 1982 and 2015 bearing either UK or English symbols had the words DECUS ET TUTAMEN inscribed round the edge. These words mean “An Ornament and a Safeguard”. Why? Let us remember that the coins were first issued at a time of high inflation, when Mrs Thatcher's government appeared to be adopting a series of “simple” solutions to complex economic problems, and the value of the pound dropped to near parity with the US dollar. Pound notes had become small change, and the public treated them as such. Some people even screwed them into pellets the easier to pocket them. A paper banknote was only lasting six months, so the obvious thing to do was to replace it with a coin.

 The Latin inscription comes from Virgil's Aeneid. Aeneas, who led some of the defeated Trojans to Italy, had a companion called Fidus Achates (Faithful Achates). This character is presented as the butt of other people's coarse humour. While competing in a foot race in the games established to celebrate the foundation of Alba Longa, he slipped in a cowpat and fell flat on his face. Achates has a shield that is ridiculously over-decorated and is far too cumbersome to be used for its primary purpose. It is described, sarcastically, as decus et tutamen.* The classically educated civil servant who thought that one up probably didn't expect to get away with it, much less to have a thirty-three year laugh at the expense of Mrs Thatcher's government.

* These are the only two jokes in the whole of the Aeneid.


 Joke No 2

 Welsh pound coins had “Pleidiol wyf i'm Gwlad” inscribed round the circumference. This is, incidentally, the only time that the Welsh language has ever appeared on a coin. It means “I am supportive of my country”. It is a quotation from Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, the Welsh national anthem. This is an anti-English song, so one might suppose that the words were chosen by a civil servant called Jones. The full explanation requires a separate essay.

 Joke No 3

 Actually, there is no joke attached to the inscription around Scottish pound coins, as any Englishman might expect. It reads: “Nemo Me Impune Lacessit”, which is the motto of Scotland's highest order of chivalry, the Order of the Thistle (more pseudo-mediaeval flummery). It means “Nobody Injures Me Unscathed”, or “Nobody does the dirty on me and gets away with it”, or, more darkly, “Remember Bannockburn”.

 If you are feeling the need for a joke at this stage, think of the reply of Lord Melbourne (Prime Minister 1834, 1835-41), when he was canvassed on behalf of a Scotsman who thought he should be invested with the Thistle. “If I gave him it, he would only eat it”.

 [Readers might like to put their minds to thinking up a suitable inscription to put round Northern Ireland coins. But not in Belfast. I suggest “Retaliationem primus capias” (= “Get your retaliation in first”).]

 Joke No 4

 A sour one, this. The standard two pound coin (2018) has silly whirly things on the reverse that are supposed in some way to commemorate Sir Isaac Newton. Round the edge is the inscription “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants”. That was Newton's reply to another Fellow of the Royal Society who asked him how he had been able to see so far. The point is that Newton was a curmudgeonly sort of person who hated to give credit to anyone else. His chief rival at the time for scientific glory was Robert Hooke, who was...a dwarf.


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