The Pound Sterling: a Very British Pound

La sterlina è da sempre motivo di orgoglio nazionale per i britannici, che ostentano la moneta più antica al mondo. Di origine romana, nei secoli la valuta usata nel Regno Unito è passata da essere composta d’argento all’oro e a superare periodi di svalutazione.

Victor Blackburn

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Daniel Francis

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Not many countries are as proud of their currency as the British are of their pound. In fact, even though the name ‘pound’ sounds very English, it is of Roman origin and derived from the word ‘poundus’, meaning ‘weight’. The symbol of the pound (£) is an embellished L taken from the word ‘libra’, which was the basic unit of weight for the Romans. The ‘Libra Pondo’ was, in other words, the ‘weight of a pound’. The division of the pound into pennies is reminiscent of the way the Romans divided their coins into denarius and solidus.

Fifteen cows

In Anglo-Saxon times, a pound was worth the same weight in silver. It was worth a small fortune: one pound was enough to buy fifteen cows. It was not until the 15th century, under King Henry VII, that a pound coin was minted. Bank notes, on the other hand, only started to circulate in the late 17th century.


Silver would remain the marker of the value of the English pound for centuries, until in 1717 its value was set against gold. One ounce of gold was worth 4.25 pounds. This value system remained for two hundred years, until World War One. Since the 1800s, you could change your coins or bank notes for the corresponding amount of gold at the Bank of England. In 1914, the United Kingdom was forced to suspend the gold standard, due to reserves being used to pay for the war. The gold standard was briefly reintroduced after the war, but it was abandoned for good in 1931.


After World War Two, an international system was established aligning the values of the different currencies with the US dollar. The different international crises in the 20th century led to various devaluations not only of the pound, but of all the national currencies. The real existential crisis for the pound, however, came with the 21st century, when most of the other European countries adopted a common currency: the euro. Still, many people in Britain consider the pound to be much more than a coin; a source of national pride and a connection with the common past, it is also the oldest currency in the world.

Banknotes of the pound sterling

Queen Elizabeth II has appeared on all the British pound notes since 1960. The current portrait dates from 1990, when the Queen was 64 years of age. The £5 note features a portrait of Sir Winston Churchill portrait and the quote “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat,” from his first speech as Prime Minister. Writer Jane Austen appears on the £10 note along with the quote “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”, from her 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice.

Until 2020 the back of the £20 featured economist and philosopher Adam Smith and a quote from his 1776 book The Wealth of Nations: “The division of labour in pin manufacturing: (and the great increase in the quantity of work that results).” The current polymer note features painter J. M. W. Turner on the reverse.

Matthew Boulton partnered with engineer James Watt to exploit the latter’s patent for steam engines and propel the Industrial Revolution. Boulton’s quote was on the £50 note: “I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have - POWER.” The new polymer note entered circulation on 23 June 2021 and features the mathematician Alan Turing.

The Latin engraving D.G. REG on the £1 coin stands for “Dei Gratia Regina” meaning “By the grace of God, Queen” and F D (“Fidei defensor”) meaning “Defender of the Faith”. The reverse side of the £1 coin features four emblems for each of the nations of the UK — the English rose, the leek for Wales, the Scottish thistle, and the shamrock for Northern Ireland.

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