Editor's note: this is the first part of a story about the British
gold sovereign, which celebrates a milestone anniversary in 2017.
senior editor Jeff Starck's story about the coin and its history
appears in the January 2017 monthly Coin World.
Britain’s gold sovereign, with the famous image of St. George
slaying the Dragon, is one of the most recognized gold coins ever.
The sovereign — a coin that lacks a declaration of country or
denomination — is the choice of investors and evaders, secret agents
and villains alike (after all, James Bond famously carries 50 of them
in his attache case).
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A sovereign is of course a supreme ruler, especially a monarch, one
possessing supreme or ultimate power. The coin of the same name evokes
similar power and prestige, characteristics the Royal Mint celebrates
in 2017 on the modern sovereign’s 200th anniversary.
Kevin Clancy, director of the Royal Mint Museum, said: “The
Sovereign has endured for centuries, and the fact that it is anchored
almost as much in the heart as in the purse has defined its character
and made it immeasurably more than money.”
Sovereign’s deep roots
The modern gold coin has a historic past — the sovereign as a
denomination traces its history to 1489 when it was struck under the
rule of Henry VII, making it is one of the oldest coins still produced today.
According to John Porteous, writing in Royal Sovereign
1489–1989, edited by Graham Dyer, portrayal of the king was copied
in part from another large gold coin, the real d’or of the
Netherlands, struck for Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian in 1487.
Porteous describes the British coin: “The enthroned king sits in
splendour, but against a simpler background [than on the Dutch coin].
The reverse is much bolder, with the shield bigger in proportion to
the rose and surmounted by a magnificent crown.”
The sovereign of Henry VII was worth 20 shillings, but Henry VII
valued it much more as a propaganda vehicle. Its diameter of 42
millimeters allowed plenty of room for the message — “his wish to
emphasize the grandeur of monarchy, ruler and England itself inspired
all that appears on the coin,” according to Richard Doty in The
MacMillan Encyclopedic Dictionary of Numismatics.
The coin eventually would be debased, as economic need pushed rulers
to squeeze profits from every corner of the kingdom.
The final sovereign of what might be termed the medieval type was
struck in 1662, after which a new gold coin, the guinea (worth 21
shillings), replaced it.
While the sovereign’s story is more than five centuries old, it was
interrupted until the post-Napoleonic era in England.