Gold Sovereigns

The pictures used here that are not from the collection are from the book, "The Sovereign" which is available from Token Publishing
The British Gold Sovereign is the official coinage of English Royalty and have been issued for both Kings and Queens since they were first minted to honor Henry VII in 1489

The original design depicts a shield over a highly elaborate Tudor rose. Five different types of sovereign were struck during Henry VII's reign, each with differing reverse and obverse until 1509. Sovereigns were then issued by Henry VIII and his son Edward VI, and "fine" sovereigns were issued by Mary and Elizabeth I. During Elizabeth I reign ( 1558-1603 ) however, the name fell into disuse and the gold coins of 20 shillings were known simply as pounds. The name 'sovereign' is thought to have originated because of the depiction of the ruling monarch or sovereign of the realm on the obverse.

A sovereign of Henry VII, picture courtesy of a CU forum member.

In 1813 the Royal Mint appointed a new Master of the Mint, William Wellesly Pole, and was given specific instructions to completely re-organize the mint. This began with moving from The Tower of London to new purpose built premises on nearby Tower Hill, and acquiring powerful new steam powered coining presses designed by Matthew Boulton and James Watt. Pole was older brother to the Duke of Wellington, not only was he responsible with the improvement of the manufacture of the coins he wished ' to improve the manufacture of the coin itself both in design and workmanship, so that we not only have to boast of the most beautiful and correct Mint Machinery in the world, but that we may stand equally unrivalled for the perfect form and exquisite taste of our several coins '. In 1816, coinage reform made gold the only standard, this means that a unit of currency is , or is kept at the value of, a fixed weight of gold. The guinea of 21 shillings was superseded by the sovereign of 20 shillings, though the former survived as a money of account until decimalization in 1971. Valued at one pound and at 10 shillings respectively, the sovereign and its fraction, the half sovereign, thereafter became the basic units of Britain’s gold coinage. Thus powered by the Industrial Revolution, the modern sovereign was born in 1817.

Sir Joseph Banks had introduced a brilliant young Italian engraver named Benedetto Pistrucci to William Wellesley Pole appointing him to the mint on the 26th June 1816, Pistrucci then suggested that the St George & Dragon theme would do well to remind the world of Britain’s victory over Napoleon in the battle of Waterloo in 1815.
Pistrucci supplied the Royal Mint with "a model in wax of the St George and the Dragon to serve as a model for the reverse of the crown" along with "cameo in jasper of the king's Head to serve as a model". Pistrucci reputedly used an Italian servant employed at Brunet's Hotel in Leicester Square as his model for St George.
The mint staff were unable to produce suitable dies and it "was found to be necessary for Pistrucci himself to engrave both obverse and reverse dies for the gold coinage" which also resulted in the design being modified for coinage purposes.
Many British artists resented the Italian but his abilities were seemingly boundless. Up until this time, the engraving was almost the sole responsibility of the Wyon family.
This beautiful classic design remains on gold sovereigns today, almost two hundred years later, and for most of its life must have to be one of the worlds most widely recognized coins.

The original sovereign design used until 1820

The reverse design had an ennobled Garter surrounding the image of St George armed, sitting on horse back encountering the Dragon with a spear. The legend translates as 'evil to him who evil thinks' . The obverse featured George III facing right with short hair with a laurel crown of a Roman emperor with the legend in taller than usual lettering.
For more history and information on St George visit Catholic Pages or St George of England

George IV succeeded his father officially in 1820, though because of the latter’s insanity he had served as regent since 1811. Sovereigns were coined with the Pistrucci reverse and later with an ornately garnished shield surmounted by a crown. This reflected an ongoing struggle between William Wyon, Benedetto Pistrucci and the Masters of the Mint. The half sovereigns, as well as the single five-pounds issue, bore the shield design alone, while the two-pounds coins displayed St. George and the dragon.

St George underwent the first of many alterations in 1821, the Garter was removed and replaced by a reeded a border, instead of a spear St George now wielded a sword and his helmet was shorn of its flowing streamer. The date was also moved from the obverse to the exergue of the reverse. It is not known why Pistrucci made these alterations, he was also responsible for the obverse used until 1825 were he contrived to make the King look like the Roman Emperor Nero.

Pistrucci's portrait as used until 1825

In June 1824 William Wyon was put in charge of die engraving and Pistrucci ceased to be employed on the engraving of coinage dies thereafter. The reasons for this start with Pistrucci's refusal to copy Sir Thomas Lawrence's portrait for the Waterloo Medal* and again when he refused the Kings request to use the bust sculpted by Francis Chantrey for the obverse of the 1823 2 pound piece. Pistrucci refused to "copy another artist's work", rather he liked to work from live subjects. Wellesley Pole, now Lord Maryborough had resigned from the mint in 1823 and Thomas Wallace the new Master of the Mint had enough of the Latin temperament of the prima donna and used it to remove him, but Pistrucci's work on the Waterloo Medal* was incomplete, in fact he gained the position of Chief Medallist. Pistrucci managed to use the Medal to spin out his employment for 20 yrs. In fact by the time the dies had been completed in 1849, only one of the people it was intended to honor was still alive, The Duke of Wellington
* For more information and pictures of this epic work visit The State Hermitage Museum site or the Napoleonic Medals site
1826 Royal Mint Proof Sovereign Obverse 1826 Royal Mint Proof Sovereign Reverse
The "Bare head" with shield design
br> In 1825 William Wyon produced a new obverse based on the Chantrey bust, with a bare-headed profile and a much shorter legend also restoring the date to the obverse. The reverse was an entirely new design showing a garnished heraldic shield surmounted by a crown designed by a French engraver, Jean Baptiste Merlen, employed as Pistrucci's assistant in 1820, these were struck until 1830.

George’s brother succeeded him 26th June 1830 and ruled as William IV (1830-37). His gold coinage consisted of sovereigns and half sovereigns, both bearing the shield and crown motif. The two-pounds denomination was struck only for the proof set of 1831.
1831 Royal Mint Proof Half Sovereign Obverse 1831 Royal Mint Proof Half Sovereign Reverse
The "Bare head" with shield design as seen on this half sovereign
br> William Wyon used a bare headed profile of the King facing right, again modeled by Chantrey with the lettering reduced to fit the extended legend, the date was transferred to the reverse. Merlen now had greater scope on the obverse because of the removal of the inscriptions. The rococo which garnished the shield was expanded and the shield itself was broadened to take advantage of the extra space. Instead of splitting the date into two digits flanking the shield, the date was placed to the right with the Latin inscription "ANNO", (in the year), placed to the left to balance it.

King William IV died without a legitimate child and was succeeded by his 18 year old niece Victoria. The reign of Victoria (1837-1901) was long enough to prompt three distinctive portraits. These depicted her as the young woman of 18 on her ascension to the throne, as a mourning widow on her golden jubilee in 1887 and as an elderly empress in 1893

The two-pounds piece was coined only in 1887 and 1893, both times with the St. George reverse. In each instance, it was accompanied by a five-pounds piece of similar design. The 1839 five-pounds issue, struck only as a proof, depicted Una and the lion and is perhaps Britain’s most highly desired coin.
1871 Royal Mint Shield Sovereign Obverse 1871 Royal Mint Shield Sovereign Reverse
871 Shield reverse with the die number '28' between the knot of the wreath and the heraldic flowers
br> The design formally approved on the 26th February 1838 consisted of Wyon's obverse showing the left facing profile of the young Queen with her hair drawn back into a chignon and her head bound by a double fillet, with the date again transferred to appear below the truncation of the neck. Merlen designed the rather crowded reverse with the Queens titles now appearing with the shield being reduced in size and wreathed in laurel. Since Salic Law forbade succession of a female and the German dominions passed on to the Duke of Cumberland, the crowned shield of Hanover was omitted.

In 1859 a consignment of gold arrived from the Australian gold fields, and was considered to brittle for use in coining because of the antimony,lead and arsenic it contained. A metallurgist employed by the mint, G.F. Ansell experimented with the gold and successfully worked it into sovereigns, these can be identified by the additional raised line on the lower part of the ribbon. Ansell was later dismissed for being critical of changes at the Mint and continued to be a vocal critic for some time.
Ansell sovereign
Detail showing additional raised line on an Ansell sovereign
br> During the time that young head sovereigns were struck several changes where happening at the Royal Mint. Merlen retired in 1844 and William Wyon's son, Leonard Charles Wyon was appointed to the Mint as Second Engraver. Leonard remained at the Mint until his death in 1891. William Wyon died in 1851 and Leonard's cousin, James Wyon became resident engraver. James departed in 1860 and his son, George, was appointed but died in 1862.

In 1863 die numbers were introduced to the reverse of the sovereign. There are many possible reasons for using die numbers. The most obvious is to be able to check and control the quality of the dies, particularly if experiments were being conducted into die wear. It is possible that different methods of treating and hardening dies may have been carried out, and die numbering would have helped to ascertain which methods of processing were most successful. Other possible reasons include quality and security control during production.
1887 Sydney Mint St George Obverse 1887 Sydney Mint St George Reverse
br> In 1871 London was re-introducing it's now famous Benedetto Pistrucci's rendition of St George slaying the dragon along side the shield reverse until 1874 when the shields were no longer struck by the London. As Pistrucci had died in 1850, it is almost certain that it was engraved by other hands, the obverse was altered to include the Queens titles and the date was once again moved to the reverse on the St George versions only. Interestingly enough William Wyon's initials continued to be used. 1871 also saw the establishment of the first branch of the Royal Mint outside of England being Sydney in Australia. It made good sense to produce British sovereigns close to the gold mining source areas, rather than ship the gold to London to be made into coin, then possibly ship it back again. In 1872, the Melbourne mint followed. The branch mints struck both types of sovereigns until 1887.

1887 was also Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee year,after having appeared as a teenager on sovereigns for 50 years. a new portrait was introduced. The new portrait by Joseph Edgar Boehm was engraved by L.C. Wyon using the new reduction punch from a plaster model.
1887 Royal Mint Proof Sovereign Obverse 1887 Royal Mint Proof Sovereign Reverse
1887 Jubilee Head Proof Sovereign
br> The portrait of the 68 year old widow appeared to show a Queen scowling with disapproval. Perhaps she was just concentrating as she appeared to be balancing the crown on her head. Victoria was also wearing the ribbon and star of the Garter and family order of Victoria and Albert. This portrait drew much criticism, and only used the St George reverse, which incidentally , had the flowing ribbon which was removed in 1820 re-introduced to St Georges helmet,.though the half sovereign continued to display the nation’s arms until 1893, when it too acquired the St. George motif

In 1891 a committee was formed and asked eight artists , all members or associate members of the Royal Academy, to submit two portraits each. Sir Thomas Brock's "old head" design was chosen on the 27th November 1892
1893 Royal Mint Proof Sovereign Obverse 1893 Royal Mint Proof Sovereign Reverse
The "Old Head" design introduced in 1893
br> Sir Thomas Brock's obverse introduced in 1893 showed the veiled crowned bust of Victoria wearing the ribbon and star of the Garter. The Queens titles were expanded to include IND:IMP referring to the title Empress of India conferred in 1876. It seems considerable ingenuity was required to fit the lengthy inscription around the Queen's not inconsiderable bosom. This type of obverse used only the St George reverse. Another branch of Royal Mint was established in Perth, Australia and started the production of sovereigns in 1899. During this time the policy of 'continuous recoinage' was instituted, meaning that worn and damaged coins were automatically withdrawn and used to make new coins. Hence the higher mintages than previous times.

Although Queen Victoria died on 22nd January 1901, It was not until 1902 that coins were issued for Edward VII (1901-10) having succeeded his mother when he was already quite advanced in years. The sovereign and half sovereign were hereafter standardized with the scene of St. George slaying the dragon. Commemorative two-pounds and five-pounds coins were struck with this design in 1902 only. An Austrian sculptor, Emil Fuchs, who came to the Kings attention whilst making a somewhat macabre death mask for Victoria, made a maquette for George William De Saulles to use in designing his effigy for the obverse.
1902 Royal Mint Proof Sovereign Obverse 1902 Royal Mint Proof Sovereign Reverse
1902 Matte Proof Sovereign
br> George William De Saulles modeled the effigy of the bare headed King facing right with the initials De S below the truncation of the neck. The Kings titles were expanded and now included BRITT : OMN meaning 'all of the Britons' to signify the far flung British Empire. Seemingly to underline this, a new branch mint in Ottawa, Canada started in 1908 to process the gold from the Klondike.

The second son of Edward VII, George V was an enormously popular ruler. Although George reigned from 1910 until his death on 20 January 1936, his effigy first appeared on coins in 1911. His gold coinage followed the pattern set by his father’s reign in that sovereigns and half sovereigns were coined for circulation, while the two larger gold pieces were struck only in 1911 as coronation commemoratives.
1911 Royal Mint Proof Sovereign Obverse 1911 Royal Mint Proof Sovereign Reverse
The George V obverse appears to be Dr Spock's Uncle.
br> The bare headed King George V obverse effigy, facing to the left was sculpted by the Australian artist Sir Edgar Bertram Mackennal and apart from substituting the Kings name the inscription remained the same. Mackennal made a maquette from a photo supplied by W & D Downey Limited and refined it with a special sitting granted by the King, master punches were made by use of the reduction machine from a plaster medallion. George reigned during the height of the Royal Mint's reach, but the tumultuous events of World War I, the collapse of the international monetary system and the demise of the gold standard ,prompted the suspension of gold coinage in Britain. Sovereigns were withdrawn from circulation in 1914 as banknotes were introduced into regular circulation but actual production at the Royal Mint stopped in 1917, although some were minted again in 1925 , and within a few years, the gold sovereign ceased to be used in everyday transactions. The Bombay mint in India was established to mint South African gold and recycle Indian gold into sovereigns but did so for just one year, 1918, although it continued to refine gold until 1920. The Pretoria mint in South Africa started production in 1923. The branch mints continued to produce sovereigns, Ottawa in Canada stopped in 1919 and the Sydney Mint in Australia ceased to be in 1926. King George V was the only monarch whose effigy appeared on sovereigns from all seven branches of the Royal Mint.
his was design changed to a smaller version in 1929. This incorporated double beading around the coin's edge. It was introduced in an attempt to improve the level of detail seen both in the obverse & reverse designs and prevent 'ghosting ' of the reverse design. One of the technical considerations for an artist designing a coin is that when the coin is struck, the metal should flow evenly throughout both designs. If the design is higher on one side than the other, then not all of the opposing design will be clear. This was thought to be the case with the George V Large Head portrait, hence the change.
1931 Melbourne Mint Obverse 1931 Melbourne Mint Reverse
The Small Head Design introduced in 1929
br> The price of gold rose in the 1920s, the gold in sovereigns was worth more than the coin's face value. This value rose to 28 shillings in 1932. In 1931 the Credit-Anstalt Bank of Austria collapsed triggering a world-wide economic crisis causing a cessation to the production of sovereigns in Melbourne and Perth Australia , and Pretoria, South Africa in 1932, in fact these are the only sovereigns made in 1932. 1933 was the first time in more than a 100 years that no sovereigns were produced anywhere in the Empire. During the years 1949 to 1952 sovereigns dated 1925 were produced for the international bullion markets although these can be differentiated by a more pronounced rim

1925 Royal Mint Sovereign Obverse 1925 Royal Mint Sovereign Reverse

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.
1937 Royal Mint Proof Half Sovereign Obverse 1937 Royal Mint Proof Half Sovereign Reverse
Thomas H Paget's design for the 1937 Set as seen on this half sovereign.
br> George VI assumed the throne after Edward VIII abdicated , a 4 coin proof set was made to celebrate the Coronation, with a left facing profile modeled by Thomas H Paget during a personal sitting but with a plain edge to emphasize that they were not for circulation, under British law coins must have a milled edge to be legal tender. During his reign bullion sovereigns were struck in the years 1949, 1951 and 1952 but all carried the date 1925, this must have caused a great deal of consternation amongst collectors of the time as up until then the 1925 sovereign had been considered quite scarce.

The halt in production didn't bring an end to the sovereigns' usefulness. People around the world continued to accept them and spend them as money. During World War II, in fact, they came to be regarded as the only measure of value in German-occupied Europe. In Greece, for example, wartime prices were stabilized based on the value of the sovereign, and destruction of Greek property by the Germans was measured by the Greeks in sovereigns. The coins were used and hoarded not only by the victims of German occupation but also by the occupiers themselves. They also were used by Germany's foes: Allied airmen flying over enemy territory were given survival kits which included gold sovereigns. In case they were shot down, the coins would be accepted anywhere in Europe in payment for goods or services.

Following the war, sovereigns remained so popular in war-ravaged Europe that supplies fell far short of demand. As a result, they acquired premium value and forgers began to make counterfeits. The premium rose so high that the forgers were able to use a full weight of gold in their copies -- and sometimes even more than full weight -- and still reap handsome profits.

The sovereign was used as a measure of value in Greece long after World War II ended. Rents in Athens, for instance, were calculated in sovereigns well into the 1950s. In Saudi Arabia, too, the British coins circulated widely for well over a decade after the end of the war. British and American oilmen doing business there were paid in gold sovereigns throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

In 1953 sovereigns were produced for Queen Elizabeth II for the Coronation Sets but these were intended for national collections rather than for collectors. The Royal Mint resumed production of bullion gold sovereigns for circulation in 1957 as world demand for the coins had become so great, and the counterfeiting problem so acute, that Britain decided to issue them again on a regular basis. By doing so, it reasoned, it would satisfy the demand and thereby blunt the premium that was making it so lucrative to counterfeit the coins.
1958 Royal Mint Sovereign Obverse 1958 Royal Mint Sovereign Reverse
The Mary Gillick portrait
br> 16 artists submitted designs and a design by Nottingham born Mrs Mary Gillick was chosen, the delicate design portrays a young uncrowned Queen facing to the right. The 1957 issue had much finer milling than previous times to combat counterfeiting. In 1958 slight changes were made to improve definition and detail along with the return to the normal coarser milling of previous times. The ubiquitous St George slaying the dragon continued to appear on the reverse.
The Royal Mint stated in 1971 that the minting of sovereigns had stopped, maybe forever. The bulk of the 1968 coins went to the Greek Government, but a military coup lead to no more orders being placed. A spokesman for the mint stated that since minting had recommenced in 1957 most were sent to the Eastern Mediterranean (Syria, Lebanon Israel) and apart from the Greek government orders, the other countries which ordered large amounts were Canada and Australia.

1974 saw the introduction of another portrait. Arnold Machin, the designer of the Queen's portrait which appeared on British stamps since 1967, described as the most reproduced portrait of all time, as literally billions of these stamps were made, was granted four sittings at Buckingham Palace and Balmoral.
1981 Royal Mint Proof Sovereign Obverse 1981 Royal Mint Proof Sovereign Reverse
Arnold Machin portrait
br> Arnold Machin depicted a still young but more regal monarch, wearing a diamond tiara. The Royal Mint now increasingly aware of the collector market released a proof version in 1979, and continues to do so to this day. In 1983 the production of bullion sovereigns ceased , only collector proof versions continued to be struck.

Some time during this period the Royal Mint ceased refining and blank production for gold coinage, commercial and industrial advances allowed private contractors to supply the blanks within the strict tolerances required.

The Third Portrait was used from 1985 to 1997 inclusive. No ordinary bullion circulation type sovereigns were issued in this period, so that only proof versions are available with this portrait.
1989 Royal Mint Proof Sovereign Obverse 1989 Royal Mint Proof Sovereign Reverse
Bernard Sindall's design
br> The 1989 Proof Sovereign is unique firstly by being the first ever commemorative sovereign and the first ( Imperial ) sovereign to ever have the denomination on the coin. The Sydney Mint sovereign (1853 - 1870) had 1 Pound on them but its design and composition was different to Imperial sovereigns.

In 1997 the winner of the Royal Mints competition to design a new effigy was announced, it was sculptor and medallist Ian Rank-Broadley. His new effigy graced the collector proof versions from 1998, and in 2000 The Royal Mint resumed production of bullion gold sovereigns, but with much lower mintages as they are aimed at the collector market rather than to be used strictly as bullion.
2000 Royal Mint St George Sovereign Obverse 2000 Royal Mint St George Sovereign Reverse
Ian Rank-Broadley portrait
br> Ian Rank-Broadley's portrait depicts an older monarch wearing a tiara and continues in use until this day. St George is still slaying the dragon on the reverse.

2002 saw the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth's reign and revived a modern version of a coin design last seen on sovereigns struck for the same anniversary of Queen Victoria in 1887. Instead of the renowned Benedetto Pistrucci engraving of St. George and the Dragon, the reverse of the 2002 gold sovereign carries the royal coat of arms for only second time in 115 years.
2002 Royal Mint Shield Sovereign Obverse 2002 Royal Mint Shield Sovereign Reverse
Timothy Noad Shield Reverse for 2002
br> The shield design has been redrawn by Timothy Martin Noad, a herald painter at the College of Arms. The design of a crowned shield of the Royal Arms within a wreath of laurel directly recalls the popular 'Young Head' sovereigns of Queen Victoria, this design was used only for the Golden Jubilee and in 2003 St George once again graces the sovereign.
The world-famous design of St George and the dragon by Benedetto Pistrucci has dominated the reverse of the gold sovereign since it finally supplanted the Victorian shield in 1887.
2005 Royal Mint Proof Sovereign Obverse 2005 Royal Mint Proof Sovereign Reverse
2005 Design
br> It surrenders its accustomed place on its reverse to a new and modern interpretation of St George and the Dragon. The distinctive design by Timothy Noad, a Herald Painter at the College of Arms, features the shield as the focal point to capture the drama of the engagement as the three protagonists play out their legendary contest.

The modern depiction of George and the Dragon will only appear on the 2005 issue.

In 2007 the Royal Mint announced it had re-mastered the dies for St George and the obverse, reports indicate that the coin now has much more detail, harking back to the earlier sovereigns that represented the Empire throughout the world. In 2008 the Royal Mint announced yet another re-mastering.

Nearly two centuries have passed since St. George first started slaying the dragon on the sovereign. The design seems as fresh today as it did when it first appeared, and these coins remain just as popular today as they were back in 1817.