The pinnacle of British coins: a history of the sovereign part 1

Most countries have an emblematic coin.

The US has the silver dollar, the French collect their five franc gold Rooster coin, and the British have the sovereign.

It’s been a circulating coin and a collectors-only bullion coin. It’s even a popular piece of fashion jewellery.

And, it’s got a long - and slightly interrupted, winding history - that goes back to Henry VII, the 15th - 16th Century founder of the Tudor dynasty that did so much to forge the modern British state.

Tudor power plays

Portrait of Henry VII

Henry VII forged much of modern Britain, and had the first sovereigns struck.

Henry came to power after the carnage and chaos of the Wars of the Roses. A dynastic power struggle that was used as the base for Game of Thrones.

By adopting a national emblem that united the warring Red and White roses of Yorkshire and Lancashire he hoped to signal a new era of calm.

And he stamped that onto his coinage too.

With the sovereign.

According to the Royal Mint, Henry made the order on October 28, 1489, bringing “A new money of gold” into being.

This coin was English rather than British, so it is not quite a direct ancestor of the current sovereign, though it was an inspiration. 

The coins were big, brash and high value. At 42 mm in diameter and 15.55 grams (0.500 troy ounces) in weight it was around double the size of the ryal, the circulating gold coin of the time.

Henry’s reign, coinciding with an age of European naval expansion, saw gold from new colonies pouring into the continent. His new coin reflected the wealth of the states who could take a share of it.

It’s size meant it was unlikely to be used in any day-to-day transactions and Henry may have given them away to important guests.

The coins were a strong signal that there was a new, strong hand at the national helm with resources and, perhaps, generosity for those who served him well.

His dynasty followed his lead, each minting a new sovereign of their own as they came to the throne.

The practice ended with the crowning of James I (of England and VI of Scotland) whose accession signalled the arrival of the Stuart House on the English throne.

The modern sovereign - stability again

Battle of Waterloo

The Battle of Waterloo marked a victory, but it was an expensive one.

Henry VII wanted to announce a new era.

In 1816, the finances of the British state were in a mess.

The country might have been in a victorious coalition against Napoleonic France but winning the way had cost blood and gold.

One of the first measures to address economic turmoil in the peace as a Great Recoinage of 1816.

And among the reforms was the reintroduction of the Sovereign as a 20 shilling piece to replace the guinea, that had come to trade at 21 shillings because of its high gold content.

This is essentially the coin we have today.

The design featured the famous George and Dragon scene on the reverse by Benedetto Pistrucci. It’s been modified several times and sometimes removed, but is still on the sovereign today.

They didn’t take off straight away, but government interventions in money supply (they cut the supply of £1 notes), helped make them a hit.

Sovereigns were designed to be international and they were struck around the British Empire until 1932. Many were bought by ingenious French investors who melted down the coins, removed the silver that was used in making the alloyed metal sold it, and sold the full weight of gold for a profit.

A row over Pistrucci’s depiction of George IV cost the Italian his coinage work and the George and Dragon motif was ditched for the royal arms from 1825 to 1871.

Look out for Part II, when we follow the sovereign from Victoria to Charles III

Buy rare coins now

We buy and sell rare coins and you can see some of what we have to offer here. 

We'll let you know when we have exciting new arrivals if you just give us your email address. You'll never miss out again. 

Featured products

Elvis Presley Authentic Strand of Hair
Elvis Presley Authentic Strand of Hair
Sale price£399
In stock
Fidel Castro signed certificateFidel Castro Signed Certificate
Fidel Castro signed certificate
Sale price£2,995
In stock
King Henry VIII Autographed DocumentKing Henry VIII Autographed Document
King Henry VIII Autographed Document
Sale price£55,000
In stock