Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Britannia and liberty: a message of hope for the Chartists?

Commemorative medals or medallions were commonly issued throughout the 19th century to mark great radical causes and events.

The 1832 Reform Act in particular produced medallions in a wide variety of styles and designs, as did Gladstone’s Reform Act of 1889. However, there appear to be relatively few relating to Chartism.

I am no numismatist, but I was only previously aware of the two Feargus O’Connor medallions – one marking the launch of his Northern Union in 1838, and the other celebrating his release from gaol in 1841.

However, I recently came across this more generic example dated 1842, which is clearly intended to mark the defeat of Chartism in 1842, following rejection of the second great petition for the Charter and the arrest of numerous local and national Chartist leaders.

The question is, what message does it send? I bought this on eBay from a US dealer who described it as “Anti-Chartist”. But I’m not so sure.

On the obverse, under the heading “To-day”, Britannia lies prostrate on the floor. To one side, a mounted cavalry officer, sabre drawn, tramples a banner marked “The Charter”. To the other, a bishop with his crook and what appear to be two robed judges armed with swords, one of whom holds a scroll engraved “Law”, tread a banner marked “Liberty”. At the bottom of the coin are the words “Britannia oppressed 1842”.

On the reverse, under the heading “To-morrow”, Britannia is triumphant, standing sword in hand in front of a scroll marked “The Charter”, which in turn lies across a box or stand inscribed with “Justice”. She is assisted by an armed man who holds the defeated bishop at sword point, while the judges flee, apparently praying for deliverance. The inscription at the bottom reads “Britannia triumphant”.

I think these images, taken as a pair, can only be read as anti-Chartist if Britannia is associated with the forces of reaction and the state. Why else look forward to a day when she triumphs? But even then, the roles played by the cavalryman, bishop and judges simply don’t fit the narrative.

But Britannia was never a purely conservative figure. Rather, she was associated with liberty, and appealed symbolically to the radical cause (not least as a British counterpart to the revolutionary French Marianne).

On this reading, Britannia is the people – or, more abstractly, the people’s liberty – oppressed “to-day” by church and state, but certain to overcome her oppressors “to-morrow”.

In other words, the medallion is not anti-Chartist; rather, it offers a message of hope for the temporarily defeated Chartist movement in 1842 – victory will come.

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