Trustees of the British Museum
An Oxford University English researcher has discovered that a ‘highly political’ medal issued to mark Queen Anne’s coronation was designed by Isaac Newton.
Oxford postgraduate student Joseph Hone, who works on the Stuart Successions Project run by Exeter University and Oxford University, discovered a manuscript in the National Archives in Kew with sketches and notes by Newton, who was Master of the Mint when Anne was crowned in 1702.
The medals were small metallic tokens distributed for free to attendees and crowds at coronation ceremonies. Scholars previously thought Anne's medal was designed by the court painter Sir Godfrey Kneller.
Newton's notes also shed light on the political message behind the medal. 'The medal’s design shows Anne as the goddess Athena striking down a double-headed monster. Earlier scholars assumed this represented domestic faction,' said Mr Hone.
'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.
'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.'
The discovery may also illuminate why Newton was knighted three years later in 1705. 'Historians have previously put this down to party politics, and Newton's campaign to become MP for Cambridge’, said Mr Hone. 'But his role in designing medals for Queen Anne might have played a part too.'
The Stuart Successions Project is a three-year project run by academics at the Universities of Exeter and Oxford, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which examines the writing printed at moments of royal and protectoral succession in Britain between 1603 and 1702.
Professor Paulina Kewes of Oxford University's English Faculty, who co-directs the project, said: 'This is a really exciting discovery. Literature produced around the time of royal successions of the Stuart reign has been largely neglected and 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.'