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History of the gold sovereign

The First Gold Sovereign

On 28 October 1489 King Henry VII instructed the officers of his Royal Mint to produce ‘a new money of gold’. England had by then enjoyed a circulating gold coinage for almost a century and a half but the new coin was to be the largest coin yet seen in England, both in size and value, and was to be called a Sovereign. It well merited such a splendid name, the obverse boasting an enthroned portrait of the king in full coronation regalia and the reverse depicting the royal arms, crowned and superimposed on a magnificent double rose to symbolise the union of York and Lancaster after the long-drawn-out War of the Roses.

The first gold sovereign in the reign of Henry VIIThe first Sovereign, its designs rich in symbolism, was part of the trappings of the new Tudor dynasty.

Large and handsome, it was clearly intended to augment the dignity of the king and to propagate a political message of stability and prestige rather than to fulfil any commercial or domestic need. As such, it was struck in turn by each of the Tudor monarchs, its issue coming to an end early in the reign of James I. A Sovereign was not to appear again for 200 years.

The Gold Sovereign Revived

Following the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo a great reform of the coinage was undertaken and gold was adopted as the ‘sole Standard Measure of Value’. At first it was intended to re-introduce the 21 shilling guinea but it was found that ‘a very general wish prevails among the Public in favour of a Coinage of Gold Pieces of the value of Twenty Shillings and Ten Shillings, in preference to Guineas, Half Guineas and Seven Shilling Pieces’. Hence a new gold 20 shilling coin was born and given the old name of Sovereign.

Almost half the weight and diameter of the original Sovereign, the new gold coin of 1817 more than matched its predecessor in the beauty of its design. The traditional heraldic reverse was abandoned in favour of a St George and the dragon of classic beauty by the Italian engraver Benedetto Pistrucci.

1817 Gold SovereignThe king's portrait on the 1817 gold Sovereign was also the work of Benedetto Pistrucci.

The design combined such grace and dramatic impact that it set the new Sovereign apart from every gold coin that had gone before and it may be difficult to understand why, in 1825, it was dropped in preference of a more conventional royal arms

Happily, in response to criticism of the poor state of numismatic art, it was revived in 1871 and dragon and shield Sovereigns, both bearing the charming Young Head of Queen Victoria, ran alongside each other until 1887.

That year, coinciding with Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, new designs appeared on the gold and silver coinage but only Pistrucci’s St George was approved for the reverse of the Sovereign, it being ‘sanctioned’ said the Chancellor of the Exchequer, ‘by tradition and recommended by the great beauty of the design’.

It was not until 1893, however, when Thomas Brock’s Old head replaced the Jubilee Head on Queen Victoria’s coins, did Pistrucci’s St George finally grace the reverse of the Half-Sovereign. There may have been good practical reasons for adopting St George in place of the usual royal arms, but perhaps aesthetic considerations may also have played a part, for many would agree with the critic in the London Illustrated News who declared the new Half-Sovereign of 1893 ‘vastly pretty… by far the most artistic Half-Sovereign I have yet seen’.

1817 and 1893 Half-SovereignsReverse designs of the 1817 and 1893 Half-Sovereigns

Its popularity has been borne out by its presence on the Sovereigns of every monarch since. When minting of Sovereigns resumed in the present reign there was no thought of its replacement. It therefore appeared on every bullion Sovereign of the twentieth century relinquishing its place only three times in the Queen's reign – in 1989 for the special commemorative coins celebrating the 500th anniversary of the original Tudor Sovereign, in 2002, the Queen's Golden Jubilee year, and again in 2005.

Pistrucci's St George and the dragon continues to reign supreme on the gold Sovereign family, recognised as a symbol of uncompromising standards and minting excellence. It graces all five coins in the Sovereign family of 2011; each coin has been manufactured using original master tools and therefore displays Pistrucci's dynamic masterpiece in all its original glory.

2011 Gold Sovereign2011 Gold Sovereign