Sovereigns have a long and interesting history; first produced during the reign of King Henry VII on 28th October 1489 by the Royal Mint on his instruction to create “A new money of Gold”. Prior to this point gold coins had been in circulation for over a hundred years in a variety of forms.
When first launched the Sovereign was the largest and most valuable gold coin ever. The first coins had a portrait of Henry VII on his throne, wearing his coronation gown, with the royal arms on the reverse with a double rose which symbolised the union of York and Lancaster following the Wars of the Roses.
Monarchs continued to have new versions of the Sovereign made in their honour until James I was crowned King of England and Scotland in 1603 and the practice died out.
The modern Sovereign, as we most commonly know it, was introduced in 1817 following a review of the nation’s coinage by the authorities. This new Sovereign was almost half the weight and size and featured an image of St George and the Dragon on the reverse, designed by Benedetto Pistrucci, one of the most celebrated engravers of his time. In 1825 this image was replaced with the royal coat of arms but due to criticism of the design the St George and the Dragon was reintroduced in 1871 alongside a shield design during [a young] Queen Victoria’s reign. Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 saw Pistrucci’s St George once again being chosen for the reverse of the Sovereign, although the Half-Sovereign did not adopt this design until 1893.
Pistrucci’s image has appeared on the Sovereign of every monarch since Queen Victoria, being replaced on only 5 special occasions:
- 500th Anniversary of the Sovereign in 1989
- Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee in 2002
- A modern depiction of St George and the Dragon in 2005
- Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012
- 200th Anniversary of the Modern Sovereign in 2017
Examples of these Sovereigns can command significant premiums over ‘standard’ type Sovereigns.
Sovereigns are legal tender and have a face value of £5.00 for the Quintuple Sovereign*, £2.00 for the Double Sovereign, £1.00 for the Sovereign, 50p for the Half Sovereign and 25p for the Quarter Sovereign*, although their gold content makes them far more valuable than this.
* Quintuple and Quarter Sovereign only available in ‘proof’ sets in limited numbers
They have been produced by the Royal Mint in Britain as well as several overseas British Colonies:
- Sydney from 1855 to 1926
- Melbourne from 1872 to 1931
- Perth from 1899 to 1901
- Bombay from 1918 to 1919
- Ottawa from 1908 to 1910
- South Africa
- Pretoria from 1923 to 1932
Up to and including 1932 Sovereigns, Double Sovereigns and Half Sovereigns were produced in their thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions every year. No Sovereigns were produced between 1933 to 1956 inclusive, with the exception of a small number minted in 1937, 1949, 1951 and 1952 to ‘proof’ standard only. Sovereigns produced during King George VI’s reign actually used a die created in 1925 which depict his brother, King George V.
Regular production of Sovereigns started again in 1957 (with Queen Elizabeth now on the throne) and over 45 million were minted until 1968 when produced ceased once more as decimalisation approached. In 1974 production started again with annual volumes in the millions of Sovereigns until 1982. From 1983 to 1999 no bullion grade Sovereigns were minted but ‘proof’ standard Sovereigns were available during this period with numbers in the mid to low thousands each year.
In 2000 bullion Sovereign production started once more but with a significant reduction in the numbers minted. From 2000 to 2015 (the last year I could find records for) the number of bullion Sovereigns varied between 27,000 and 432,000 per annum. Far more effort was made on producing Sovereigns to ‘proof’ standard as presumably by now the Royal Mint had cottoned on to the fact there was more money to be made in selling these versions of the Sovereign with a significantly higher margin on each coin produced. Again, volumes of proof coins minted were kept in the low thousands in order to create a degree of exclusivity, particularly from 2009 to date when numbers have been under 10,000 every year.
The current (2021) version of the Sovereign is available in both bullion and proof standards. The proof versions of the Quintuple Sovereign, Double Sovereign, Sovereign, Half Sovereign and Quarter Sovereign have been minted in very low numbers (the Quintuple Sovereign being limited to a maximum of 550 coins) and these coins also have a special ‘privy’ mark to celebrate the Queen’s 95th birthday (a crown with the number 95 within it), which the bullion versions do not have. I shall write more about proof coins and what makes a coin more collectable in a future article.
Sovereigns weigh 7.98g (0.2354 troy ounces) with a gold content of 7.3224g. This rather odd weight came about at the beginning of the 19th Century. Great Britain already had the Guinea but that was only minted once after 1799. The French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) and the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) had eaten into the gold reserves to the extent that the government introduced £1 banknotes to make up for the lack of gold coins.
After the conflicts were finally over, Britain decided that it was time to stabilise the currency and a major overhaul of the existing system was proposed; it was known as the Great Recoinage of 1816. The idea was to use silver coins for lower denomination values and replace the Guinea with a new gold coin, the Sovereign. At the time the Guinea was one of the World’s leading coins, but it did have a strange value. At one time the value fluctuated with the gold price but in 1717 it had been fixed to one pound and one shilling, or 21 shillings. Considering there was 20 shillings in one pound then a 21 shillings coin was a pain. In the Great Recoinage there was the opportunity to have a true one pound gold coin, worth 20 shillings.
Pure gold is very soft and it doesn’t make an ideal metal from which to make coins resistant to wear and tear. Sovereigns are therefore made from 22k gold, created by combining gold with another metal to make an alloy which is more robust. Prior to the year 2000 Sovereigns were made from an alloy of gold, silver and copper. From 2000 onward the Royal Mint has used an alloy of gold and copper only which produces a rather red / copper coloured looking coin, especially when compared with pre-2000 Sovereigns. The gold content is identical though.
Sovereigns went out of general use by the public in 1914. There had been a big push by the government to get the public to accept bank notes instead of coins due to concerns that much of Britain’s gold reserve was in general circulation. They were still used after this date as currency in some foreign countries, especially in the Middle East. Sovereigns continued to be struck at the Australian and South African mints until the early 1930s, where different economic circumstances prevailed with many of them used to back currency, while the South African sovereigns were mostly for export and to pay workers at the gold mines. In 1966, the Wilson government placed restrictions on the holding of gold coins to prevent hoarding against inflation, with collectors required to obtain a licence from the Bank of England. This proved ineffective, as it drove gold dealing underground, and was abandoned in 1970.
Britannia coins are the subject of the next instalment – the Sovereign’s lesser-known cousin.
© text & images Reggie’s Mind Of Evil 2021
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