A brief history, with technical specifications. Gold sovereigns are probably the world's most famous and recognisable coins.
We are limited to 10 images per review, so we have created Sovereigns George IV to Victoria with further reviews of later sovereigns to follow.
We have also written a Mints & Mintmarks on Gold Sovereigns - All Seven Mints guide.
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Pile of Bullion Sovereigns
The First Sovereign
The First One Pound Coin
The gold sovereign came into existence in 1489 under King Henry VII.
The Pound Sterling
The pound sterling had been a unit of account for centuries, as had the mark. Now for the first time a coin denomination was issued with a value of one pound sterling. This new coin weighed 240 grains which equals 0.5 troy ounces or 15.55 grams, and was made using the standard gold coinage alloy of 23 carat, equal to 95.83% fine.
Modern Pound Coin Struck in Gold
The First Design
The obverse design showed the King seated facing on a throne, a very majestic image. It is from this image of the monarch or sovereign that the new coin gained its name - the sovereign. The reverse type is a shield bearing the royal arms, on a large double Tudor rose.
One of the reasons for the issue of the sovereign was to imitate similar large gold coins being produced on the Continent, another was to impress Europe with the power, prestige and success of the new Tudor dynasty.
Leading Designer of the Age
For the introduction of this important new coin, and later the shilling, the leading German engraver Alexander of Bruchsal was commissioned.
The new sovereign has been described as "the best piece ever produced from the English mint".
Alexander came to be described as "the father of English coin portraiture".
He also produced the testoon or shilling of which it has been said that "modern coinage begins with the shilling of Henry VII".
Doubles and Trebles
A double or treble sovereign was also issued for Henry VII from the same dies as the sovereign, but thicker and heavier. These were possibly intended solely as presentation pieces.
This first sovereign occurs with a number of minor type variations all of which are rare, currently cataloguing from £7000 upwards.
Henry VIII And The First Half Sovereign
Sovereigns were then struck for Henry VIII from 1509, and a half sovereign was also introduced during his reign.
In 1526 the official value of English gold coins was raised by 10%, making a sovereign worth 22 shillings (22/- or 22s.), and then shortly after they were again revalued to 22s6d. A number of new gold coin denominations were introduced with a lower gold fineness of "only" 22 carat, equal to 91.66%.
In 1544 a lighter sovereign was issued, weighing 200 grains, but still in 23 carat gold alloy.
Under Edward VI, sovereigns, half sovereigns, and double sovereigns were struck. His first sovereigns, issued between January 1549 and April 1550, were only in 22 carat gold. From 1550 to 1553, "fine" sovereigns were once again issued with a value of thirty shillings, and also a "standard" sovereign at twenty shillings.
During the sole reign of Mary, "fine" sovereigns were struck with a value of thirty shillings (30/- or 30s.), but during her slightly longer joint reign with Philip, no sovereigns were issued.
During the long reign of Elizabeth II, "fine" gold sovereigns, with a very high (99.4%) gold content, continued to be issued with a value of thirty shillings. A separate one pound gold coin was also issued, obviously with a value of twenty shillings.
Hammered Gold Sovereign of Elizabeth I
James I - The Unite Appears
In the first coinage of James I, from 1603 to 1604, sovereigns of twenty shillings were issued before being discontinued, the previous pound coin was made lighter and renamed as a "unite". So after 115 years, this was the last sovereign to be issued until the emergence of the modern gold sovereign in 1817.
Unites Laurels and Guineas
The Unite Replaces The Sovereign
From James I's second coinage in 1604, the sovereign was discontinued in favour of the "unite", also valued at one pound. It was called a unite to mark the unification of England and Scotland upon the accession of James VI of Scotland to the British throne, as James I of England.
The Laurel Comes and Goes
In 1612 the unite was revalued at 22 shillings, and in 1619 was replace by a lighter one pound coin known as the laurel. The laurel weighed 140.5 grains.
The Unite Continues
The unite was continued in the reign of Charles I, being again valued at twenty shillings, and continued in production during "The Commonwealth", and the early hammered coinage of Charles II until 1662.
Hammered Gold Triple Unite of Charles I
Machine Made Guineas Arrive
With the introduction of regular machine made "milled" coinage under Charles II, the guinea was introduced in 1668. It was so called because the gold from which many were made was imported from the African state of Guinea by the Africa Company. The badge of logo of The Africa Company was an elephant and castle (howdah), and this symbol, or sometimes just the elephant appeared on many of the guineas.
Spade Guinea of George III
When a Guinea was a Pound
When the guinea was originally introduced it had a value of twenty shillings, Because of the inflationary effects of war, the value of the guinea soon increased to 21 shillings. By March 1694, it had reached 22 shillings, and in June 1695 reached a peak of thirty shillings. At this crisis point, there followed great public debate, which included figures such as Sir Isaac Newton, as to whether the solution was to devalue the gold coinage or to restore the silver coinage. Restoration won, and 1696 saw a great "Silver Recoinage", at the same time the principle was established that the pound sterling would be a fixed weight of gold, and this principle effectively created the "gold standard". The guinea continued to be the main gold coin until 1813 under George III.
The Modern Sovereign
New Coinage - New Mint
In 1816, there was a major change in the British coinage, powered by the Industrial Revolution. The Royal Mint moved from The Tower of London to new premises on nearby Tower Hill, and acquired powerful new steam powered coining presses designed by Matthew Boulton and James Watt. the modern sovereign was born!
Gold Sovereign of George III
Saint George & The Dragon
A new reverse design was introduced featuring Saint George slaying a dragon, designed by a brilliant young Italian engraver, Benedetto Pistrucci. This beautiful classic design remains on our gold sovereigns today, almost two hundred years later, and for most of its life must have been one of the worlds most widely recognised coins.
Gold Gives Way To Paper
The First British Paper Money
Although the first "banknote", actually a goldsmith's note, known to exist was issued by Laurence Hoare in 1633, and the earliest known cheque was issued in 1659. Paper money did not supersede metal until the second decade of the 20th century.
Royal Mint Stops Gold Sovereign Production
During the first world war, Britain needed gold bullion to finance the war effort. Banknotes were introduced into regular circulation, and within a few years, the gold sovereign ceased to be used in everyday transactions. Production at the Royal Mint stopped in 1917, although some were minted again in 1925.
The branch mints continued to produce sovereigns, Ottawa in Canada until 1919, Bombay in India in 1918, Sydney Australia until 1926, Melbourne and Perth Australia until 1931, and Pretoria South Africa until 1932. Please see our Mints & Mitmarks Guide. There is a link below, near the "vote button!
No further sovereigns were then issued for circulation until 1957, although sovereigns were included in the George VI proof set of 1937 which was available for collectors, and sovereigns were also minted but not issued for Edward VIII in 1937, and for Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.
From 1957, bullion sovereigns were issued almost every year until 1968, then not until 1974 when regular production was restarted.
In 1979, a proof version was issued, and this continues to the present.
In 1989, a special 500 commemorative design was produced, inspired by the very first gold sovereign of 1489, showing H.M. Queen Elizabeth II seated facing on a throne. This was only issued as a proof. Although it seemed reasonably popular at the time, demand for it has grown steadily and strongly over the past few years, probably because as a single-date type coin, it is in demand by both date collectors and type collectors.
2005 - Revised St. George - Another Single Year Design
In 2005, the Royal Mint issued another new sovereign design, actually a new twist on an old design, a new, slightly modernistic version of Saint George slaying the dragon. This coin was issued in both normal circulation (bullion) and proof versions. Writing this during 2006, it appears so far to have followed a similar demand pattern to that of 1989, moderately popular at first, but with demand seeming to strengthen as time goes by.
It appears likely that gold sovereigns will continue to be struck every year for sale to collectors. They have become a very popular gift item for christenings and other special occasions.
Of course all this may change if we adopt the Euro
For all modern gold sovereigns, i.e. from 1817
Diameter: 22.05 mm.
Thickness (Depth) 1.0 to 1.4 mms.
Weight: 7.98 grams.
Alloy: 22 carat gold = 0.917 parts per 1000.
Actual gold content = 7.315 grams or 0.2354 troy ounces.
Date first issued in current format: 1817
First date ever issued: 1489
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This page was written by Lawrence Chard of Chard Coins, and is extracted from our "Gold Sovereigns" website. We hope you find this page useful and informative, please feel free to use the information we have provided, but please note we retain copyright on all contents including both textual content and images. Please do not copy our text or images without our prior written permission.