Isaac Newton was behind Queen Anne coronation medal, secret sketchbook at Kew shows

By Ben Miller | 23 March 2015

Medal design could explain why Newton was knighted, say literary historians

A photo of a gold coin showing a queen's head
© Trustees of the British Museum
Isaac Newton was the man behind a medal for Queen Anne’s coronation in 1702, according to an Oxford postgraduate student who found one of the physicist’s sketch and note-filled manuscripts in the National Archives at Kew.

Freely given away to crowds watching the crowning ceremony, the small metallic tokens were thought to have been designed by the court painter of the day, Sir Godfrey Kneller. But the newly-discovered notes reflect the design of the medals and suggest a political message from Newton, who was Master of the Mint when Anne came to power.

“The medal’s design shows Anne as the goddess Athena striking down a double-headed monster,” says Joseph Hone, who is embarking on a three-year examination of the writing printed at moments of national royal succession between the start of the 17th and 18th centuries.

“Earlier scholars assumed this represented domestic faction. But Newton explains in his notes that he was referring to the double Catholic threat posed by Louis XIV of France and James Francis Edward Stuart, the Old Pretender with a rival claim to the throne.

An image of a painting of a 17th century queen and a little girl sitting in a drawing room
Anne with her son Prince William, Duke of Gloucester in a painting from the school of Sir Godfrey Kneller (circa 1694)
“This find provides an insight into an often forgotten period of Newton's career at the Royal Mint. It has long been understood that Newton used his scientific and mathematical expertise to establish a gold standard currency.

“But designing medals was usually the job of lesser Mint employees. Thanks to these documents we now know that Newton designed medals himself.

“Moreover, he used his extensive knowledge of mythology and symbolism in his medals.”

Professor Paulina Kewes, of Oxford University's English Faculty, says the discovery is “really exciting”.

“Literature produced around the time of royal successions of the Stuart reign has been largely neglected,” she believes.

An image of a black and white etching of a man in profile
Isaac Newton (Bolton, Sarah K, Famous Men of Science. NY: Thomas Y Crowell & Co, 1889)© Wikimedia Commons, from the book The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England by David Williamson
“Our project aims to shed light on 17th century Britain by looking at how writers responded to moments of regime change.

“The notes and sketches for this medal give us an insight into the politics surrounding Anne’s succession and Isaac Newton’s surprising role in them.”

Newton was subsequently knighted in 1705.

“Historians have previously put this down to party politics and Newton's campaign to become MP for Cambridge,” says Hone.

“But his role in designing medals for Queen Anne might have played a part, too.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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