The Royal Mint: Oliver Cromwell’s Depiction as a Roman Emperor | History Hit
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The Royal Mint: Oliver Cromwell’s Depiction as a Roman Emperor

With a history stretching over 1,100 years, The Royal Mint's history is entwined with the monarchs who have ruled England and Britain - and indeed Oliver Cromwell's governance during the Commonwealth era. Here we explore how Cromwell's portrait became a symbol of authority and change on English coinage post-Civil War.

Amy Irvine

24 Jun 2024
Main: Portrait of Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper. Inset: Coins from his reign
Image Credit: Main: Wikimedia / Public Domain. Inset: The Royal Mint

In the wake of the tumultuous English Civil War, the ascendancy of Oliver Cromwell marked a seismic shift in the country’s political landscape. Emerging from a period of conflict that saw the execution of King Charles I and the rise of Parliamentary authority, Cromwell swiftly rose to prominence as a key figure in shaping England’s destiny.

Cromwell’s astute leadership within the Parliamentarian forces not only secured victory but also paved the way for his governance during the Commonwealth era, with his image gracing English coins made by The Royal Mint – a testament to his stature and the imprint of his rule on the nation’s identity and currency.

Here we explore how Cromwell’s portrait became a symbol of authority and change on English coinage post-Civil War, and why these coins developed from a puritan to royalist style, reflecting the transformational era he heralded in English history.

The English Civil War

The English Civil War had erupted due to escalating tensions between King Charles I and Parliament over issues of power, taxation, and religion. Parliament’s desire for more authority clashed with the king’s absolute rule. The conflict polarised supporters into Royalists (Cavaliers) backing the king and Parliamentarians (Roundheads) supporting Parliament.

Battles ensued across England, with Oliver Cromwell emerging as a prominent figure in the Parliamentarian army. The war culminated in the king’s defeat, his execution in 1649, the establishment of the Commonwealth under Cromwell’s rule, and a period of political upheaval and experimentation.

Oliver Cromwell - the only commoner to have become Britain's head of state - has puzzled biographers for centuries. He was a complex character, courageous but at the same time devious and self-serving. But the Cromwell who comes through in his own speeches and writings does not give us the full picture.
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Changes to English currency

One of the biggest changes to English currency came when there wasn’t actually have a monarch to depict on its coins.

Up until Charles I’s reign, coins had all been very regal, but following his execution, England entered into a period called the interregnum where it didn’t have a monarch.

In 1649, the coinage of the Commonwealth under the rule of Parliament reflected Parliament’s deeply Puritan beliefs, and were also very heraldic. The wording appeared in English rather than Latin and the monarch’s portraiture was abandoned, resulting in a very heraldic coin, featuring the cross of St George on both sides.

Coins from Cromwell’s reign

Image Credit: The Royal Mint

Cromwell’s depiction as a Roman emperor

After Cromwell took direct control in the 1650s, this Commonwealth and Puritan style was abandoned, and towards the end of his time as Lord Protector there was a complete reversion to the more familiar, royalist style of coinage, including coins featuring a portrait of Oliver Cromwell. The portrait depicted Cromwell almost like a Roman emperor, wearing a wreath, robes, and featured Latin inscriptions once more. This reversion to the familiar iconography of royal rule, without referencing Cromwell as king, was part of making the country feel at ease with Cromwell’s rule.

Roman emperors ruled as kings, however they actively distanced themselves from the term ‘King’ in order to avoid comparisons to the earlier monarchy of Rome. Julius Caesar even rejected the title when offered it. Rome’s republic was founded on anti-monarchical views so the avoidance of the title of ‘King’ allowed an emperor to keep up a false narrative of non- autocratic rule, despite the emperor very much holding the power.

There are many similarities between Britain’s interregnum period and Rome’s transition from a monarchy to republic to empire including the anti-monarchical stance which caused the change. Therefore, it’s incredibly fitting for Cromwell to have depicted himself as a Roman emperor. England had killed Charles I, the last king, and therefore Cromwell had to be very careful not to portray himself as a king. 

Cromwell, depicted in the style of a Roman Emperor

Image Credit: The Royal Mint

Later coins under Cromwell’s rule

Cromwell’s coins were developed further throughout his reign to include royal iconography on the reverse of them, including a crown, which perfectly exemplifies his delicate balance of not being stylised as a king but still showing the authority of a true monarch.

Coinage after the Restoration

After the eventual restoration of the monarchy in 1660 under Charles II, the wearing of a wreath in this Roman emperor style became a general stylistic trend for monarchs over the next few centuries.

The first coins of Queen Victoria also follow this style, showing her bareheaded, but in the 1840s a hugely significant moment came where Victoria was shown on coins wearing a crown. This was the first time The Royal Mint had struck British coins showing a monarch wearing a crown since the start of the reign of Charles II.

For the rest of her reign Victoria tended to be shown as wearing various different crowns. 

However, the kings that followed Victoria’s reign, starting with Edward VII, all went back to being depicted uncrowned on British coins. They wore no royal regalia, not even a wreath like the kings before Victoria had done. Instead, coins depicted just a simple portrait of them.

This practice lasted until Queen Elizabeth II, who’s portrait followed a similar trajectory to Victoria’s – wearing a laurel wreath on coins at the start of her reign, with further coins later on all with her wearing a tiara or crown. 

The majority of Charles III’s new coins do not feature a crown, however some do, making him the first king to be shown crowned on British coins since Charles II. 

Amy Irvine