Great Britain’s modern gold sovereign celebrates 200th anniversary in 2017

Royal Mint marks milestone of flagship bullion coin
By , Coin World
Published : 12/16/16
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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. 

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