Known for being one of the most famous British coins, the gold sovereign is perhaps one of the most historically significant coins across the globe. Today, they are primarily used as bullion coins and are struck with meticulous care to a very high quality standard by craftsmen at the Royal Mint.
But what is the history behind gold sovereign coins and how did they come to bear the name ‘sovereign’?
King Henry VII in 1489
The story began with Henry VII during the 15th Century. As a monarch, Henry VII was an interesting one. He was the last royal to take the English thrown by battle and it was in the Battle of Bosworth Field that he defeated Richard III, resulting in his coronation. Henry VII was credited with restoring political stability and monarchical power to the royal family following the War of the Roses and this is where we can start the story of the gold sovereign.
During the 1400s, the first gold sovereigns minted were large and rich in symbolism. King Henry VII wanted to create a new money of gold that would be bigger than any coins seen before in England – both in size and in their value. This can directly correlate with his political image at the time and his wish to restore dignity and power to the royal family.
The coin itself was detailed with rich engravings and was originally minted to 23 carat gold. The obverse side boasted an elaborate engraving of the king in full royal regalia and the reverse depicted the royal coat of arms surrounded by a double rose. The double rose was particularly significant, as Henry VII is credited with bringing the War of the Roses to a close, uniting both the Lancaster and York houses. Henry VII was a Lancaster and he united the houses by defeating the last ‘Yorkist’ (Richard III) and then marrying into the York house.
Sovereign coins were in use throughout the Tudor dynasty, although the purity of the gold sovereign was reduced from 23 carat gold to 22 carats during Henry VIII’s reign. The coins were widely used and minted from 1489 to 1604, however production stopped when the reign of Elizabeth I ended. Elizabeth I was the last of the Tudor dynasty and the Stuart house took the thrown with the reign of James I. This era was known as the Jacobean period and the main reason as to why gold sovereigns stopped production is simple. James I was a Stuart and when he inherited the throne, he wanted coinage that would reflect his new era of reign.
King George III and the Gold Sovereign Revival
Although gold sovereign coins were out of production for 200 years, the sovereign was revived during the reign of George III. One of the key events during George III’s reign was the war with France, which lasted over a decade and culminated in 1815. It’s worth noting that although George III was technically the monarch during this period, his son George IV was in control as Prince Regent as his father suffered periodically from an illness. George IV was less involved with political affairs and it was predominantly due to Lord Liverpool’s efforts that the war was won.
Following the war, there was a great coinage revival and this can be put down to the comparative years of peace that came after Napoleon’s defeat. There was also a need to introduce stability to the British Empire following the wars with France, and what is now known as the Great Recoinage of 1816 occurred. In this, the gold standard was once again adopted (under the Coinage Act of 1816) and approximately 58.3 million coins were struck within a four-year period.
Of this number, a new gold sovereign was minted and this was quite different to the sovereign minted by Henry VII. The public was keen for a 20-shilling coin, and this is what the sovereign became. Almost half the weight of their predecessors and significantly smaller, the new gold sovereigns were still made with 22 carat gold and the gold content was equivalent to nearly 113 grains. This standard for gold sovereigns remains in place today, and it has simply been the design that has altered dependent on the current monarch.
The defining feature of the new gold sovereigns was the classical design of St George and the Dragon, which was designed by Benedetto Pistrucci. This engraving was hailed for its beauty and representation of great numismatic art. Apart from a 62-year absence, the engraving of St George and the Dragon has appeared of the reverse of gold sovereigns since the Great Recoinage.
Elizabeth II and Gold Sovereigns Today
Queen Elizabeth came to the British throne in 1952 and her first coins appeared to the public in 1953. Unlike the widely circulated sovereigns previously, Queen Elizabeth’s sovereign was not issued to the public. The sovereigns minted to celebrate her coronation were proof sets, which were issued to a number of national collections. Queen Elizabeth’s sovereigns bore her royal portrait as well as Benedetto Pistrucci’s St George.
There have been a few occasions in which the Italian design did not appear on Queen Elizabeth’s sovereigns and this is something that tends to happen on special occasions. The most recent change was in 2012 to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the British sculptor Paul Day conceived the reverse design. Still depicting the image of St George and the Dragon, Paul Day’s design was more Arthurian than classical.
Gold sovereign coins have been present at some of the key events throughout history and they continue to play a significant representative role today. Bearing the portrait of Britain’s monarchs since their inception during the 15th Century, gold sovereigns are coins that are closely linked with the royal family and deeply rich in history.