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Philip & Mary shilling, 1554

Double portraits on the coinage

In recent times double portraits have been used on a handful of crown coins issued to celebrate royal occasions, namely the marriage of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, the Golden Wedding of the Queen and Prince Philip in 1997, the Diamond Wedding in 2007 and the marriage of Prince William and Miss Catherine Middleton in 2011. But it is necessary to go back several hundred years to find examples of this type of design on British coins intended for general circulation.

Philip & Mary shilling, 1554

Philip & Mary

The first English coins to bear a double portrait were issued during the reign of Mary I after her unpopular marriage to Philip of Spain. Although regal power remained vested in the queen, Philip’s effigy was included on issues of shillings and sixpences. The two portraits were shown facing each other after the style of the gold coins of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain produced half a century earlier. In keeping with the conventions of a male-dominated society, Philip was afforded the primary position to the left of the design despite his lesser constitutional status.

Coins of Mary’s reign continued to circulate until the Great Recoinage at the end of the 17th century. The apparent affection between the royal couple as depicted on the coinage moved the English poet, Samuel Butler (1612-80), to write the following epigram:

Still amorous, and fond, and billing
Like Philip and Mary on a shilling.

Such romantic sentiments were far removed from those Protestant contemporaries who suffered at the hands of the queen. Bishop Hooper was burned at the stake in Gloucester on 9 February 1555, and his widow would later describe the portraits on the coins as ‘the effigies of Ahab and Jezebel’.