What happens to our money when a head of state dies?

Written by Tom Flanagan | 8 November 2022

Whether a country’s head of state is a monarch or revered public figure, their faces often serve as the designs for the national currency. And when they die, while the majority of the population will be engaged with the emotional aspects of their death, the bank has a more pressing and practical task: reprinting our money. It’s a massive task in reframing the face of the nation but an exciting turning point for collectors. Expert in Coins Yunheng Deng explains why.

The death of Queen Elizabeth II was marked by near unanimous coverage of her long reign and the mark she left on the planet. Less was made of the currency her face adorned for decades. It was a moment for the Bank of England to commemorate her as well as welcome in the new reign of King Charles. And that meant minting new coins and banknotes

Coins with James II, George III, George IV, William IV, Queen Victoria, Edward VII and George V

“When a monarch dies and someone new succeeds to the throne, the nation’s banknotes, coins and stamps – symbols of national identity – will be redesigned”, says Expert in Coins Yunheng Deng. “A portrait of the new monarch will be a key feature of the new design, which will include title, the royal cypher and the year of issue as well. The message carried on a coin or banknote is not only the face value of the currency itself, but also a symbol of the country.”

The origins of monarchs on money

The reason we put monarchs on our coins in the first place dates back to a time when the monarchy had more power – and needed to show it. 

“Back when currency was first introduced, the name and portrait of the monarch appeared on money to guarantee its value in order to make it acceptable and recognisable to the public”, says Yunheng. “As coins were widely circulated, they were also used by rulers for political and other propaganda purposes. At a time when transport was not as developed, monarchs needed to assert their power by being visible to every corner of the kingdom. It was therefore essential that the message on money needed to be renewed immediately so that it could continue to be widely circulated and accepted.”

Elizabeth II (2002-2022) gold coins (United Kingdom)

These days, currency has the bank to provide its value, but the the symbolism of the monarch on money still has sway, says Yunheng. “In modern times, money no longer needs to be guaranteed in value by the monarch. Yet, the monarch's presence on money as a symbol of the state has been retained. A new monarch symbolises a new era, new leadership – and so a new symbolic design is necessary.

What happens to the old money?

If the idea of money being burned is an offensive one, then you may not want to find out what happens to outdated coins and banknotes, says Yunheng. “The currency bearing the symbol of the previous monarch is gradually withdrawn from circulation by the banks, where it is destroyed or melted down. It’s a long and complex process, but one thing is certain; money bearing the symbols of the deceased monarch will cease to be minted.” 

That doesn’t mean the money you have bearing old designs, like that of Queen Elizabeth II, stops being valuable. “The minting programme for the new design of currency will start immediately. As a result of this gradual process, the old currency and the newly designed currency will circulate simultaneously as legal tender and of equal value for a long time, as it would be impractical to withdraw such a large amount of old money from circulation immediately.

Elizabeth II. 25 Pounds 2023 (United Kingdom)

“The old currency will not be cancelled immediately, but it will be slowly withdrawn from circulation by the bank. It gets melted down and minted anew with the image of the new monarch. Some coins of course will be preserved by collectors and become little pieces of history bearing witness to the passing of time.”

How are coins and banknotes chosen for redesign?

It’s an adjustment seeing a new face on the currency you’ve come to know. Yet the design the bank lands on – as well as the coin or note it is chosen for – undergoes a careful selection process. 

“It’s extremely exciting introducing a series of newly designed currency to the public,” explains Yunheng. “However, in order to make payment with the new money as easy as possible, the new design needs to be easily identifiable. Generally, the new design will have some elements of continuity in design, in order to keep the currency recognisable by the public to support acceptance. 

“In terms of the shape, size, denomination, the selection for redesign starts with the denominations that are most in demand in circulation, such as small denominations of 50p, one, two, five and 10 pounds. After the new design is adopted by the public, the higher denominations then follow. There are other important factors to consider too: such as the needs of visually impaired people, coin-operated vending machines, ticket machines, ATMs.”

Queen Elizabeth II 5 dollars (Cook Islands)

The United Kingdom is currently undergoing an overhaul in its money and the designs have long been settled on. “Following the tradition of Charles II in the 17th century onwards, the British currency design on coins depicts the new monarch facing the opposite direction to their predecessor,” explains Yunheng. “On the current coinage, the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II is facing right. So the new coin with the image of King Charles III will show him facing left, without a crown, his name rendered in English for the legend as CHARLES III.

“Last month, the UK Royal Mint announced that the first coin with the new King's portrait would be the 50p coin with a recreation of the 1953 Crown, issued to mark Her Majesty's coronation. Designed by the heraldic artist Edgar Fuller and modelled by Cecil Thomas, this commemorative design will be soon headed for circulation."

King Charles has a role to play in all of this too – in fact, he has the last say. “Any new image of the monarch requires the approval and sign-off of Buckingham Palace, which means that King Charles would have to approve the use of his own image on coins and banknotes."

A moment in history

In the wake of the Queen’s death, history itself forms and commemorative coins are being issued to recognise that; the same coins are often sought out by collectors. “A double-portrait commemorative coin has been issued to pay tribute to the Queen's long life of service," says Yunheng. "It has one side with the right-facing portrait of Elizabeth II, yet, the legend above will no longer refer to her as “Queen Elizabeth II”, but rather “ELIZABETH REGINA" (to mean “queen” as taken from Latin) and is set to be highly collectable."

For coin collectors, this is a time to pay attention to what you love, says Yunheng. “As currency bearing the symbols of the deceased monarch will no longer be re-struck they become more collectable.

“What is more interesting is that, for not anticipating the Queen's death, a number of bullion coins bearing the “2023 Queen Elizabeth II” have been struck and released to circulation, which is technically an error coin. The Royal Mint said that ‘each Britannia 2023 bullion coin featuring the fifth and final effigy of Queen Elizabeth II has a limited production run’. Meaning these coins minted at a specific time will have great investment potential.”

A selection of Queen Elizabeth II coins over the years

And while new coins are being struck, Yunheng says in the case of the United Kingdom, it’s worth noting how widely Elizabeth’s face was used and the physical legacy she left behind.

“Queen Elizabeth II currently holds the world record for having appeared on the currencies of 45 countries. During her 70-year reign, her portrait was featured on all 29 billion coins in circulation in the UK, as well as on the coins and currency of many Commonwealth countries. Taking the coin and currency with her symbol out of circulation will be a large project for many years, a testament to the mark she left on the world.” 


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