Dissident Congress website

BRITANNIA: The Icon of the British Nation

By Andrew Webster

THERE IS a symbol of British nationhood which is both familiar and mysterious. An image familiar enough to appear on the face of every fifty pence coin, yet the mysterious enough to be dug out of the ground engraved on Roman coins, produced over 1800 years ago.

The same image is celebrated in the anthem sung every year by British patriots at the 'Last Night of the Proms'. Their ancestors composed this anthem back in the 1740's, when the symbol was revived by an earlier generation of radical nationalists. It features in the graphic satires of those who lived before the Wars of Napoleon and in the cartoons of journalists in the 1990's. The symbol is that of Britannia, the Queen of the Isle.

Britannia - often seen as the oppressive badge of the British Empire - is, in fact, a national icon of great antiquity. Her history stretches back to the days when Britain was itself, part of an empire, a province of Rome. The Romans called 'the land of the Britons' 'Britannia', and they depicted the province as a beautiful, woman, classically draped, seated with her feet resting on rocks and armed with a sceptre and round shield.

Britannia later appeared on the coins of Emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161 AD), in a form recognisably similar to that of the modern fifty pence piece. The coins celebrated this Emperor's attempt to annex what is now southern Scotland by constructing the turf wall named after him: The Antonine Wall. The wall brought most of mainland Britain under imperial rule. This was Britannia's first age of glory, but both Britannia and the island unity which she had come to symbolise did not survive the fall of Rome.

For over a thousand years Britannia was forgotten; a neglected relic of a more civilized bygone age. The British unity enforced by the Roman legions was not restored until the Stuart monarchy of the 1600's. At the same time; in a striking coincidence, the image of Britannia was revived by native scholars.

In 1603, when Stuart King James I inherited the crown of England as well as that of Scotland, he decided to reintegrate the island of Britain. Supporters who saw British nationalism as the way forward tried to legitimize this union. They developed British icons, including the Union Jack. Some of them, after delving into classical scholarship, rediscovered the figure of Britannia. She first emerged as a decorative emblem in a book called 'Britain' by William Camden, published in 1610, with exactly the same appearance as on the later Roman sestertii.

However, the new Britannia symbolized something more than simply the restoration of Britain's physical integrity. Roman Britain had been 'the' vassal of a foreign empire. Britain in the aftermath of the Armada, was extremely proud of her national independence and many people were highly xenophobic. An early seventeenth-century poem by Henry Peacham illustrated Britannia's new quality of national pride and defiance of foreign aggression:

"Usurping Rome, stands now in awe of 'thee
And trembles more, to heare thy Soveraine's name,
Than thou her drummes when valiant Caesar came."

By 1702, history had come full circle, as Britannia appeared once more on the nations coinage. Farthings and half-pennies showed her seated with an olive branch in her left hand and a spear in her right representing Britain's readiness to succeed in either peace or war. Under Queen Victoria; the spear had become a trident - symbol of Britain's naval supremacy - while a lighthouse was depicted in the background. Britannia's shield was usually emblazoned with the cross of St. George and saltire of St Andrew, and sometimes she was shown defended by a heraldic lion or British bulldog.

The height of Britannia's popularity can probably be located in the 1740s and 50s. This was a period of vibrant, populist nationalism which had a lasting impact on Britain's history. 1745 witnessed the birth of the rousing patriotic songs 'Rule Britannia' and 'God Save the King', the latter making Britain the first country in the world with a national anthem.

Britannia also lent herself to a wave of satirical prints and cartoons which appeared at this time. These particular forms of political persuasion - music and graphic satire - were highly accessible to ordinary people. They became the vehicles of nationalist revolution which dominated British folk culture and which began seriously to challenge the more cosmopolitan high culture of the aristocracy.

Symbols like Britannia strongly appealed to people at a basic emotional level. The 'Queen of the Isle' represented certain primordial virtues and aspirations which nationalism builds upon; unconditional loyalty, natural dignity, self-discipline, maternal love, simplicity and self-sacrifice; Whereas a multicultural society has no need for values held in common (a factor crucial to its policy of 'divide and rule'), a national society seeks agreement on fundamental ethical principles. Britannia was the embodiment of these principles.

Unfortunately, even in the eighteenth century, there were many who did not conform to the nation's idealized view of itself. In government, corruption was widespread and some politicians clearly acted against the national interest. Britain's defeat by her own colonists in the American War of Independence was made more bitter when prominent public figures openly supported the Americans. The prints circulated during this crisis period show another Britannia - weeping, fainting, defeated, martyred. She is no longer the symbol of imperial might - first that of Rome and then of Britain's own empire. She has become the symbol of a desolate and oppressed nation.

One print of 1776 entitled The Parricide - A sketch of Modern Patriotism shows British politicians - including the radical MP John Wilkes - delivering a helpless Britannia to the knives and axes of savage Red Indians. This is a powerful indictment of racial and national betrayal. Later prints from the Napoleonic era show Britannia tied down on a beach and dismembered by invading Frenchmen. Perhaps, in today's climate at national decline, we can identify more with the martyred and abused Britannia than with the more common image of her imperial greatness. But it is worth noting that even in Britannia's darkest moments there was always the hint of revival and rebirth. A print of 1757 showed her being laid to rest with the legend: 'She is not dead but sleepeth'.

Britannia, delicate and feminine, is a very different from her rival, the hearty, rustic, red-faced squire: John Bull. John Bull displays the real and natural character of the people of rural England. But Britannia personifies the highest hopes and dreams of the people of the whole of Britain. It is a paradox that a strong nation should portray itself as a young and vulnerable woman. Yet this fact, together with the history of Britannia, shows us an interesting feature of the British psyche. Deep in our culture there is a recognition that there is strength in weakness and weakness in strength. Our experience proves that defeat and victory are never final in the life of a people. After all, how else could the symbol bestowed on us long ago by a foreign empire become the icon of a proud and independent nation.