Coin Inscriptions

Written by Lizzie • Last updated 16 Oct 2018

In the Beginning

Inscriptions first appeared on Chinese and Roman coins around 400BC.

Inscriptions on British Coins

Among the earliest inscriptions on British coins are the Celtic staters from the mid 1st century BC. Various Celtic tribes produced coinage in a variety of metals including gold, silver, bronze and potin. The majority of staters bear symbols but Cunobelin 'King of the Britons' produced coins which also featured an abbreviation of his name CVNO. Cunobelin ruled most of South East England between 10BC - 40AD, he was known as the 'King of Britons' amongst his people and as 'Britannorum Rex' by the Romans. Shakespeare later used his character in his play, Cymbeline. 

Cunobelin, Celtic Gold Stater

Cunobelin, King of the Britons, 10BC - 42AD, Celtic Gold Stater
CUNO an abbreviation for Cunobelin

However, it was the Roman coins which flooded Britain after their invasion in 43AD that bear the Latin inscriptions that we are familiar with today. 

Roman Emperor Constantius II - Solidus Gold CoinConstantius II, Roman Gold Solidus
Flavius Julius Constantius perpetuus Augustus, Emperor 353–361 AD
FLIVLCONSTAN TIVS PER P AVG - Flavius Julius Constantius perpetuus Augustus
PER P AVG - Everlasting Emperor

What is an Inscription?

An inscription refers to any writing engraved on a coin. Whilst it is usually placed around the main design and follows the curve around the coin, it can also feature on the edge of the coin. It is usually used to denote the Emperor, Monarch or leader and will often feature a motto that symbolises the beliefs, ideals or standards that the country wishes to uphold. Abbreviations are used to shorten the text to place as much of the most information as possible onto the coin's surface. Victoria Old Head Sovereign

Victoria Old Head Sovereign
VICTORIA·DEI·GRA·BRITT·REGINA·FID·DEF·IND·IMP·
Victoria By the Grace of God, Queen, Defender of the Faith, Empress of India
 

For example, DEI GRATIA (by the Grace of God) is often abbreviated to DG, REGINA (Queen) is shortened to REG or even R and FIDEI DEFENSOR (defender of the faith) to FID DEF or FD.

 

2016 Elizabeth II Gold Proof Sovereign

2016 Elizabeth II Gold Proof Sovereign
ELIZABTH II·DEI·GRA·BRITT·REGINA·FID·DEF 
Elizabeth By the Grace of God, Queen, Defender of the Faith

Inscriptions are a useful tool for coin collectors to assist in establishing details and history of the coin.

Languages Used for Inscriptions

Inscriptions on British coins can be in Latin, French, English and Welsh. Languages which have been spoken through our history. Maybe it's time we saw some Gaelic mottos on our modern circulation coins to represent our Irish and Scottish heritage.

1849 Victoria Florin Silver Coin1848 Victoria 'Godless' Florin
The first decimal  coin - ONE TENTH OF A POUND
This silver coin caused a furore when  Dei Gratia" By the Grace of God was left off the obverse.
1642 Charles I Half Pound Silver Coin
The Famous "Declaration" on the 1642 Charles I Silver Declaration Half Pound

After the Roman's Latin influence, William the Conqueror brought the French language to Britain in 1066. Whilst Latin was the language of the academics and religion, the French language was associated with the noble classes, affluence and a sense of culture. Probably, the most famous French inscription on a British coin is the 1817 George III Sovereign which was introduced after a huge reform of British coinage. The sovereign bears the inscription HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE which translates to "Evil be to him who evil thinks thereof". This inscription is also the motto for The Order of the Garter, a most noble order which is associated with chivalrous acts and honour.

1817 George III Gold Sovereign - The First Modern Sovereign

1817 George III Sovereign - The First Modern Sovereign
Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense - Evil be to him who evil thinks thereof

200th Anniversary of the Modern Sovereign

2017 marks the 200th Anniversary of the Modern Sovereign. The 2017 gold proof sovereign has been issued with a modernised version of Benedetto Pistrucci's original St George and the Dragon engraving set inside a wide garter with the motto HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE.

Coin Error? Is the Inscription Upside Down?

We are often asked about inscriptions on pound and two pound coins. If a circulation coin with an edge inscription is an error if it is upside down? We would say that in 99.9% of cases, it is not. The edge inscription is rolled onto the coin before the obverse or reverse has been struck. As hundreds or thousands, if not millions, of coins are minted, invariably coin blanks can fall into the minting press either up or down. 

There are some famous errors on the edge inscription - the 2005 Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot two pound coin and the 2007 Abolition of Slavery two pound coin.

In 2005, the inscription around the edge of the two pound coin issued to commemorate the 400th Anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot was REMEMBER REMEMBER THE FIFTH OF NOVEMBER. However, a number of coins were struck with PEMEMBER PEMEMBER THE FIFTH OF NOVEMBER.

2005 400th Anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot Two Pound Coin
2005 400th Anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot Two Pound Coin
PEMEMBER PEMEMBER THE FIFTH OF NOVEMBER

In 2007, The Royal Mint struck a silver proof two pound coin to honour the 200th Anniversary of the Abolution of the Slave Trade. The correct inscription is AM I NOT A MAN, AND A BROTHER but a number of the coins were struck with the edge lettering UNITED INTO ONE KINGDOM. This quote is from the 2007 300th anniversary of the Act of Union Between England & Scotland two pound coin.

Our Top Five Coin Inscriptions

There are so many to choose from but these are the team's favourite inscriptions on coins:

  • STANDING ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS
  • HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE
  • PAX MISSA PER ORBEM
  • IN GOD WE TRUST
  • THE LAMPS ARE GOING OUT ALL OVER EUROPE

Let us know if we've missed your favourite out.