John Sturgis

How a royal disagreement over a penny revealed Edward VIII’s vanity

How a royal disagreement over a penny revealed Edward VIII's vanity
The Edward VIII penny (On auction with Baldwin's via Showpiece)
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A rare penny piece goes on sale this month for 20 million times its face value – quite the mark up.

But it’s the backstory to the coin’s creation that is arguably the most interesting aspect of the sale – because of the insight it gives into the frosty relationship between George VI and Edward, whose sudden abdication put his brother on the throne.

The story begins in 1936 with a dispute over the small matter of a hairstyle. While plunging the government towards a constitutional crisis through his relationship with the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, the notoriously vain Edward was also concerned about how he might look as loose change.

And his concerns became clear in a number of discussions that autumn with the Royal Mint around the artwork for the new penny piece that would bear his profile.

Tradition dictated that each new monarch’s image on coins should face the opposite way to their predecessor. His father, George V, who had died that January, had looked to the left so this convention meant that his son, the new king Edward VIII, should have looked right.

But Edward always parted his hair on the other side, his left, and the famous fop insisted it would look terrible unless he broke with tradition and featured his best side.

The Mint’s managers were so concerned they even tried to broker a compromise, suggesting he might have a mirror image of his profile employed, showing his ‘good’ left side but transposed to the right so as to still comply with convention. But Edward refused to yield.

Richard Gladdle, a numismatist for A H Baldwin and Sons, the coin and medals dealer on The Strand, explains: 'The sticking point on which Edward would not be moved was his hair, specifically his parting. Contrary to long-standing tradition that the monarch’s head changes the way it faces each reign, he insisted on facing left, the same direction as had his father, George V. The reason for this is that he preferred that side view because it showed his parting – rather than the right facing view which just showed just a bob of hair. Edward was adamant despite the Royal Mint being in apoplexy about the break in Royal tradition. But he was the King and ultimately his wish prevailed.'

Or at least he was the King – until 11 December when he abruptly abdicated.

This not only caused shockwaves around the world, propelling his ill-equipped and scarcely willing younger brother George to the throne in his place, it also stopped the by now advanced plans for the new coin in their tracks.

The Royal Mint had scheduled the issue of the ‘King Edward Penny’ – now showing his parting as he preferred rather than his fringe as the traditionalists had demanded – for 8am on 1 January 1937.

But news of the abdication meant that thousands of the newly minted coins were melted down before they ever reached the public and only a handful of proof copies that came out of the design consultation process secretly survived, locked in the Royal Mint’s vaults.

Richard Gladdle again: 'All the prepared coinage of Edward was thought to have been melted down. Except that in June of 1938, nearly two years after the abdication, George VI was made aware of a few sets that had escaped this fate. And in this knowledge he asked for one set for the Royal Collection. This request was obviously met and the Deputy Master sent him one and placed the remaining sets in a small cardboard box marked ‘Not to be opened except in the presence of two senior officials’ in his safe at the Royal Mint.“

And there they remained undisturbed for another 13 years until a second royal royal request was received.

'At some point Edward, by now the Duke of Windsor, also learnt of the coins’ existence and in late 1951 he approached the Royal Mint asking if he could perhaps have a set,' Mr Gladdle goes on.

The request caused consternation and indecision which went all the way up the chain of command at the Royal Mint to the chap at the very top, the one whose own face in profile was now on the product, Edward’s brother George, who seems to have been distinctly unimpressed.

'Much to the Royal Mint’s relief the matter [of Edward’s request for one of the pennies bearing his image] was deferred to George VI for a decision,' Mr Gladdle explains. 'He declined.'

It was in many ways a petty stand-off but it also gives an insight into the frigid relations between the two brothers after December 1936, the willful Edward and the quietly dutiful younger sibling who stood in for him.

In a final twist, the pennies circulated after the abdication featured George facing left – like his father. It seems that, however brief and unmarked by coinage Edward’s reign may have been, it still counted. So, as with the throne, dutiful George ended up getting what wilful Edward wanted.

The whole affair had a curious echo last week when it emerged that the current Prince of Wales also has designs on revamping some of the imagery around the Royal Family when he finally ascends to the throne after the longest wait imaginable.

Charles, according to news reports, has plans to modify royal insignia including the Royal Cypher, so familiar on post boxes, to his own designs – something that is each new monarch’s prerogative.

Ownership of the Edward VIII Penny has been divided into 4,000 shares which go on sale from March 8 for £50 each by shared ownership collectables platform

Written byJohn Sturgis

John Sturgis is a veteran Fleet Street news journalist

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