01 October 2022
The change in our coinage following the passing of the Queen has grabbed the public's attention, and the coins of King Charles III have been highly anticipated. Much has been made of the tradition of the new monarch facing the opposite way to their predecessor, so how, when and why did this custom begin?
Do you have a good side?
One that you turn towards the camera when posing for a photo?
Edward VIII certainly thought he had, adamant that the left side, showing the parting in his hair, was the right choice for his coinage, even if it went against the custom of alternating the direction coin portraits faced.
Of course, it wasn't the only break with tradition the king made during his brief time on the throne and besides the coins never saw the light of day.
Whilst they may not have said it to his face (whichever way it was turned) the folk at The Royal Mint were not happy with the idea of breaking the long-held tradition. Indeed, when George VI coins were produced just months later, the king is seen facing left, as if his elder brother had followed the custom and looked towards the right on his coins.
Since then the tradition has been duly followed, reflecting perhaps the pragmatic, dutiful approach of our late Queen.
King Charles facing left on coins
In recent weeks we have seen King Charles III do the same.
So where did this tradition begin and is there really any significance in which way a coin portrait faces?
Most accounts suggest that the idea of facing a different way to a predecessor came about when Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660.
Charles II and Oliver Cromwell coins
Keen to assert his authority, the story goes, the king chose to face the opposite way to Oliver Cromwell, who had been seen facing left on the few circulating coins issued between 1656 and 1658 for us throughout the so-called 'Commonwealth of England'.
Those with a knowledge of Charles II coins will know this story doesn't quite hold up to scrutiny. The gold and silver coins of the period did feature the King facing right, but the copper halfpence and copper farthing featured a left-facing bust.
Perhaps the gold and silver coins were felt to be more important for such messaging, but there is little written evidence of the theory, and some suggest Charles II would not have concerned himself with Cromwell's rarely seen coinage.
Browse through a catalogue of British coins and you'll see that our monarchs have actually faced different ways for centuries with no apparent consideration for what came before.
- Henry VIII looked to his right
- Edward VI looks straight out of the sixpence
- Queen Mary shows off her left side; and Charles I too
- Lord Protector of England Oliver Cromwell followed this trend (he was never quite as revolutionary as he claimed) and was also seen facing left.
The reasons Charles II chose a right-facing profile may never really be known, but through our coin history we can see that the tradition has been consistently followed from this time onwards (aside from Edward VIII).
Perhaps subsequent monarchs felt pride in the story of Charles turning his back on Cromwell, whether it was true or not.
And there's nothing like a bit of quirky tradition to keep observers around the world intrigued by the Royals and their rituals.
Coins from outside the UK
Of course, the significance of portraits are not just the concern of coins from these shores. Many currencies have featured portraits facing different ways.
The Lincoln Cent, issued in 1907 to mark the centenary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, features a right-facing portrait, in contrast to the many left-facing presidents that are found on most US coins. According to the US Mint the change in direction wasn't down to tradition or politics but was purely an artistic decision.
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Lincoln's portrait was based on a bronze relief plaque on which he is facing right, and the coin simply replicated the image.
Whether it is due to tradition, artistic licence, the whims of the subject, or more practical reasons (could the switch in profile directions simply be a way for us to differentiate between new coins?) the quirk of coin design continues to fascinate.
Coins looking forward or backwards?
And the idea of symbolism adds another footnote.
A monarch looking to the right could be seen to be facing the future rather than looking left to reflect on the past; a notion that seems fitting as King Charles III takes on the unique role after the long and eventful reign of his mother.