Queen Elizabeth II (1952 - Date)
HM Queen Elizabeth II, our present Queen, is, at the time of writing, the third longest-serving British monarch in history, and the longest lived. Queen Elizabeth II has, throughout the course of her reign, seen some of the biggest changes in Britain's long history, and this is particularly true with regard to its coinage.
Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was born on April 21st 1926 to Albert, Duke of York and his wife Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. When she was born, she was third in line to the throne, but as the daughter of King George V's second son and niece of the Prince of Wales, she was not at this point seriously expected to succeed to the throne.
Elizabeth grew up under the care of her nanny, Marion Crawford (Crawfie) along with her younger sister Margaret (born in 1930), she was affectionately known as 'Lilibet' after the way she pronounced her own name when still an infant. Elizabeth's Grandfather George V and Queen Mary were very fond of their granddaughters, and the former, who was disappointed in the character of his eldest son, expressed the prophetic hope that she would one day succeed to the throne via her father. Following the abdication crisis of 1936, her father came to the throne as George VI, and Elizabeth became Heiress Presumptive* to the throne. Her six year old sister Margaret turned to Elizabeth and said 'poor you' in response to the news of the onerous responsibility she would one day have to shoulder.
In September 1939, Britain was plunged into war with Nazi Germany. Plans were made to evacuate the Royal Family to Canada following the fall of France the following year, but the Royal Family stayed, residing mostly at Windsor Castle, for the duration of the War. In 1940, aged 14 Elizabeth made her first public broadcast, speaking to other British children on BBC's Children's hour to reassure them of final victory and in praise of the Armed Forces efforts and of the endurance of the British population in the face of danger and hardship. In February 1945, Elizabeth joined the ATS and served as an officer mechanic and truck driver until the war ended. On VE day, Elizabeth secretly mingled with the crowd outside Buckingham Palace to share in the euphoria of the War's End.
Marriage to Prince Phillip
During the War, Princess Elizabeth corresponded regularly with Prince Phillip, a member of the Greek Royal Family who was a naturalised British subject. Prince Phillip was on active service throughout the War as an officer in the Royal Navy, and rarely saw Elizabeth during the War years, however, in 1946, a year after the war had ended, Prince Phillip proposed to Elizabeth and they were married the following year. In 1948, their first child, Prince Charles (now the Prince of Wales) was born. Prince Phillip was styled the Duke of Edinburgh, and maintained his active service career for some years following his marriage. The Royal couple spent much of their married life in Malta, where the Duke of Edinburgh was based. However, in 1951, with the King's health failing, Princess Elizabeth took on a more active role in performing Royal duties at home and around the world, accompanied by her husband.
It was on one of these overseas Royal tours, at the Treetops Hotel in Kenya, that Elizabeth was informed by her husband that George VI had died and that she was now Queen. When asked what regnal name she would reign under (her father's had been different to his real name) she replied 'Elizabeth of course'. This has been a source of minor controversy in Scotland ever since, as there had never been a previous Queen Elizabeth of Scotland, and thus her styling as 'Elizabeth II' north of the border, was and is viewed by some as anglo-centric arrogance.
Nevertheless, the coronation of Elizabeth II the following year was viewed with almost universal celebration, and was the first to be televised. The number of television sets in Britain are reported to have doubled in the lead up to the coronation in anticipation of the event. At the time of her coronation, the Queen was, in addition to the UK, Queen of 25 other realms. Over the following years however, many of them, including Pakistan, South Africa, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Kenya (where she had been pronounced Queen), Malta and many others became Republics.
Winds of Change
At the start of her Reign, the British Empire was already undergoing a period of transformation into what would come to be known as the Commonwealth of Nations. India and Pakistan had already become independent under the reign of George VI, and throughout the 1950s 60s and 70s, most of Britain's former colonies became independent, with most eventually opting to become republics, replacing the Queen as their head of state with a president. At home too, rapid changes in technology were transforming Britain socially, economically and technologically, as well as demographically. The austerity of the post war years was replaced by the boom years of the swinging 60s, and the material standard of living for the average British citizen grew higher despite the decline of Britain's Empire. Changing social values have made the Britain of today unrecognisable to that of the time of Elizabeth's accession. As the Queen herself stated in her address to the UN in 2010, her reign had witnessed great change, much of it for the better.
The Queen's Reign from a Numismatic Perspective
However, as far as we are concerned, one of the most important changes to take place during the Queen's reign took place when, in February 1971, Britain finally discarded its '£sd' system for a fully decimalised currency. Now, instead of 240 old pennies or 20 shillings making up a pound, the pound now consists of 100 'new' pennies to the pound. ½ p, 1p, 2p and 50p (the latter was introduced in 1969 as the 10/- piece) were struck as new denominations in preparation for decimalisation.
During the course of decimalisation, the production of half-crown, sixpence, old Penny and Halfpenny coins was discontinued (the farthing had already been demonetised in 1960), although the sixpence remained in use until 1980 due to public sentiment and their usefulness in vending machines. Predecimal coins with an exact new pence equivalent, such as the Shilling, Florin and Crown, were maintained as legal tender as the 5p, 10p and 25p respectively. Their decimal equivalents were for several years afterwards stuck to the same size and weight of their predecimal predecessors until as late as 1992 (in the case of the 10p piece). Sadly, although the shilling was and is equivalent to the 5p piece, the name did not survive the onset of decimalisation, even as a nickname for the new 5p piece, as it might have done by following the example of the US five cent 'nickel'.
Although decimalisation was perhaps the single most important numismatic event of Elizabeth II's reign, it was far from the only important one. For the first time since 1932, sovereigns were again struck in the name of the reigning monarch for use as bullion on the world market from 1957 through until 1982, when a persistent bear market for gold shut down production for non-proof gold issues until 2000, when the price of gold started to rise again after hitting an all-time low the previous year and when new EU tax rules were introduced abolishing VAT on investment gold, which made investing in gold a much more attractive proposition for British and EU residents.
Other developments include the introduction of the £1 coin in 1983, the £2 coin in 1998, amongst many other changes, too numerous to mention. During the course of her reign, four different portrait designs have featured on her British coinage, including the Gillick, Machin, Maklouf and Broadly portraits (1st, 2nd, 3rd 4th portraits respectively) Some of her independent commonwealth realms have used their own unique portrait designs on their own coins (such as the Blunt Portrait, used on Canadian coins since 2003), whilst others use the British portrait designs. The boom in the popularity of coin collecting has also led to a slew of commemorative issues far more various and numerous than those of any of her predecessors. In many cases, several different designs for the same coin appear in the same year to commemorate significant events and anniversaries, such as the current series of 50p pieces commemorating the lead up to the 2012 Olympics in London.
Preparations are already underway to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty in 2012 (coinciding with the Olympic Games that year). Collectors can expect to see a host of new issues commemorating this, not just in Britain but throughout the Commonwealth Realms, and may even include a new portrait type. The long Reign of Elizabeth II has seen many changes, and may see further changes still. The adoption of the Euro is still a long-term goal for many walking along the corridors of power in the present government, although their cause has been hampered by recent events on the continent related to the current financial crisis, this may yet still be an issue during the Queen's lifetime. Whatever the case may be, Britain has certainly seen some radical changes since 1952, both numismatically and otherwise, and this is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
Historical Notes on England's Kings and Queens - You may wish to visit our portrait gallery of English/British monarchs. Although it is not complete, we add new and better coins when we can. We are always keen to buy superior quality British coins to upgrade our photo gallery.