Since the introduction of decimal currency in 1966, approximately 15 billion Australian coins were struck with an image of Queen Elizabeth II.
Many of us fondly associate his image with Australian coins, and for most of us that’s all we’ve ever known (on one side of our money, at least).
Of all the changes awaiting us now that the Queen has passed away, one of the most remarkable, and for some the most shocking, will be that our new coins will soon feature a portrait of King Charles III.
What happens now?
Traditionally, the portrait of each British monarch on coins faces the opposite direction to that of their predecessor. George IV faced left, Elizabeth II faced right, and so we expect Charles III to face left.
The drawing of the portrait (or “effigy”) of Charles is yet to be determinedbut it will be supplied by the Royal Mint of the United Kingdom, and the new Australian coins will be in circulation from 2023.
Traditionally, the reigning monarch is also depicted on the smaller banknote, but the Reserve Bank of Australia has noted it will be some time before we see King Charles III on our $5 note. Until then, don’t worry, it will be business as usual. All Australian money bearing a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II remains legal tenderand is likely to circulate for many years to come.
Read more: 16 visits in 57 years: Reflecting on Queen Elizabeth II’s long relationship with Australia
Ideologically speaking, the next chapter of Australian currency is open. What message will the portrait and imagery of Charles III convey? Will it be one of unity, diversity, leadership, strength, openness or something else? How will the message be communicated?
Hopefully, we can look forward to a meaningful portrait of King Charles III circulating on our coinage, which captures something of our collective past traditions and future aspirations.
Six gradually aging portraits
In total, we have seen six aging portraits of Queen Elizabeth II on Australian coins.
Australians first saw Elizabeth on their coins in pre-decimal times: 1953, to be exact, the year of her coronation. At that time our money was based on pounds sterling, shillings and pence.
Thirteen years later, on February 14, 1966, Australians woke up to a new currency, the Australian dollar, with a decimal system.
Cue the collective sigh of relief and joyful cheers of primary school pupils who no longer had to endure the complex mathematical calculations of 12 pence to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound.
The visual element that remained unchanged during the transition from Australian pounds to Australian dollars in 1966 was the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, which continued to adorn the “heads” side of the coin.
In preparation for the 1966 currency change, the media of the time broadcast this educational songset to the tune of “Click go the Shears”:
Come the dollars and come the cents
To replace pounds and shillings and pence
Be ready, friends, when the pieces start to mix
The fourteenth day of February nineteen hundred and sixty-six.
Why do we have leaders’ faces on our coins anyway?
The invention of money goes back over 2,500 years. During the 7th and 6th centuries BCE, the city-states of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) began minting gold and silver coins and using them as a means of economic exchange.
But coins were not only important as monetary units. They had (and have) the ability to graphically communicate ideas and stories.
Initially, coinage design used symbols and representations of gods and goddesses. It was only two centuries later, around 445-395 BC. AD, that a human face (Tissaphernes, a Persian soldier and statesman) first appeared on a coin, and even then it was a humanized deity.
In the centuries that followed, rulers celebrated and reinforced their dominance through honorary portraits on coinage. Like a scholar noted“coins and statues made it possible to spread the image of the sovereign in the kingdom, making him omnipresent and his face familiar to his subjects”.
Julius Caesar was the first living Roman to depict a portrait of himself on a coin. Accompanied by the inscription “CAESAR DICT PERPETVO” (Caesar, dictator for life), the coin made a bold statement about the apparent length of his reign. Ironically, however, this play was one of the catalysts for assassination to cut short his life.
The Roman people had officially overthrown the monarchy of its founders in 509 BCE, but sometimes flirted with centralized power. Caesar’s royal act of putting his portrait on coinage, as well as other ways of concentrating his power, was seen as more than mere flirting. He was seen as a direct threat to 500 years of Roman tradition.
As we consider the implications of the passing of Queen Elizabeth II for our own country, its governance and the symbols that represent it, we must not overlook the importance of the symbols that define our culture. Or, at the very least, the images that accompany us in our daily routines, even the most banal in appearance.