By Gerald Tebben
The “Godless” 1848 florin was struck with a portrait of Queen Victoria on the obverse, but without the usual acronyms designating the monarch as “Defender of the Faith” and ruling “by the grace of God.” (Photo: Heritage Auctions)
As cholera swept England in 1849, attention fell on the country’s new coin. A godless coin. A coin that failed to give God his due.
Deaths mounted as the coin spread in circulation, giving pause to the cautious and a reason for the pestilence to those who sought mortal causes for God’s actions.
The obverse of the florin (which was also denominated as 2 shillings or a tenth of a pound) showed the queen’s bust and the legend “Victoria Regina 1848.” Missing were ancient notations showing that the queen ruled by the grace of God and was defender of the faith.
For centuries, the initials “DG” or the spelled-out phrase “Dei gratia” appeared in the legends of most British coins. It meant that the monarch ruled by the grace of God. In the late 1500s, the abbreviation “FD” for the Latin Fidei Defensor—or Defender of the Faith—started appearing on coins, too. The title Defender of the Faith was conferred upon Henry VIII by Pope Leo X in 1521, and after the reformation it came to mean that the ruler had supreme authority over the Church of England.
“The outbreak of cholera that year was even attributed to an outraged deity,” wrote C.C. Chamberlain and Fred Reinfeld in their 1960 “Coin Dictionary and Guide.”
Mint master Richard Lalor Sheil, a Catholic in a Protestant land, was held responsible for the pestilence. The florin was viewed as the first coin in a decimal monetary system, one that would replace the ancient cumbersome system of 12 pennies to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound. Following decades of debate, Parliament authorized the coin in 1847. Sheil ordered patterns in 1848 and submitted them to the privy council.
In his memoirs, he recorded, “It was suggested by the Master of the Mint that in an artistic point of view the obverse should be made as simple as possible, and Mr. [William] Won, the chief engraver to the Mint, made a design accordingly, in which no other words than Victoria Regina appeared.”
“The Mechanic’s Magazine” of London recalled in July 1859, “Now arose the uproar, the Master of the Mint, poor Mr. Sheil, … was a Roman Catholic, and several zealous Protestants, therefore, began to cry out—Conspiracy! Conspiracy! For had not the clever little lawyer eliminated that part of the inscription from the new coin which makes Her Majesty reign ‘by the Grace of God’? The hue and cry raised against Mr. Sheil and his ‘Godless’ florin—a wonder it was not named the ‘Devil’s ducat’—added to the real disadvantage of the coin being too dumpy to be musical when thrown on a counter, led to the withdrawal, or rather to the discontinuance of the coining of the experimental piece.”
The Godless florin was a one-year type. In 1851, when coinage of the new denomination resumed, DG and FD were back, where they remain to this day.
Gerald Tebben, a longtime numismatist, is editor of the Central States Numismatic Society’s Centinel and a contributing writer to Coin World.
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