Two hundred years ago, Britain reintroduced the gold sovereign as part of the Great Recoinage of 1816. To mark the 200th anniversary of the rebirth of this coin, the Royal Mint has released a special 2017 edition.
The reverse designs of these latest coins revisit the 1817 original. For the first time in 197 years each coin displays a buckled garter encircling the reverse rim. This carries the legend HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE [Shame on him who thinks evil of it]. This is both the motto of the Britain’s chivalric Order of the Garter and part of the Ensigns Armorial of the United Kingdom. These design elements appeared on all sovereigns of George III. This year is the first time they have been used since 1820.
The Great Recoinage
Throughout the reigns of the later Stuarts and first Hanoverians, Britain’s coinage was far from satisfactory. For starters there was never enough of it in circulation. Secondly, the quality of many coins had become severely compromised.
From time to time ad hoc expedients were adopted to address specific currency issues but little thought was given to long- term solutions.
Among these issues was that of bimetallism. Britain had used this standard since medieval times to provide its range of coin denominations. However, the relative value of gold and silver had become subject to appreciable fluctuations and in the latter half of the 18th century the free interchange of the two metals was restricted.
By the beginning of the 19th century the state of the nation’s coins was seriously impacting the economy. This was exacerbated when the bills arrived for the costs of the political upheavals in former British North America, the French Revolutionary Wars of 1792-1802, and the Napoleonic Wars of 1803-1815 – along with their manifold economic aftermaths.
The government of the day realized it had to stabilize the nation’s currency. As a first step it announced a major recoinage using the new mint at London’s Tower Hill equipped with the steam-driven coining presses of James Watt.
The main aims were a total makeover of the silver and a change in the gold from the guinea, valued at 21 shillings, to a lighter coin worth 20 shillings. The name adopted for the new piece was “sovereign” last used for a gold 20-shilling coin struck for James I in 1603.
The Coinage Act of 1816 abolished bimetallism. The sole standard of British monetary value and legal tender became the new gold sovereign. Silver coins would be legal tender for amounts up to £2 (40 shillings) only. They would be of reduced weight with 66 shillings rather than 62 shillings to the troy pound, i.e. their face values were more than their melt values.
One troy pound of standard Crown Gold (22 karat or .9167 fine) was defined as equivalent to £46 14s. 6d. Hence each sovereign would, in theory, weigh 123.27448 grains or 7.98803 grams. The round flan containing this amount would be 0.868 inch (22 mm) in diameter and 0.067 inch (1.70 mm) thick. The weight and dimensions have remained constant for 200 years.
On July 1, 1817, the sovereign was proclaimed legal tender along with its sibling half sovereign. The face value of each was tied to the pound sterling. Neither coin showed a denomination.
The temperamental Italian genius, Benedetto Pistrucci, had joined London’s Royal Mint in June 1816. The Master of the Mint, William Wellesley-Pole, gave him the task of providing designs for the new coinage in general and the sovereign in particular.
Pistrucci learned about St George from a friend of Pole, Lady Spencer. She showed him a wax model of the saint and asked him to make another, “in the Greek style.”
When the commission was completed Pistrucci suggested to Pole that the patron saint of England might provide a suitable subject for the new sovereign. Pole agreed and for a fee of 100 guineas Pistrucci provided a jasper cameo of St. George slaying the dragon for the Mint engravers to reproduce in steel. As his model Pistrucci used an Italian servant from Brunet’s hotel in Leicester Square.
Pistrucci’s George was shown mounted on a fiery steed trampling a wounded dragon, its side pierced by a lance head. A fragment of the shattered haft lay on the ground; a second was clenched in George’s right hand.
The entire action was enclosed within a buckled garter, part of the insignia of the Most Noble Order of the Garter whose motto it bore. The garter’s use was most apt. St. George is the patron saint of the Order as well as of England.
The initials WWP for William Wellesley-Pole appear on the buckle of the garter. Those of Benedetto Pistrucci occur on the ground under the broken haft of George’s lance. Pistrucci had also provided the obverse effigy of the monarch.
As the Royal Mint observes today, “The result is a masterpiece of numismatic art, a coin design combining such grace and dramatic impact that it now ranks as one of the best loved and most enduring of numismatic designs.”
Nonetheless the public did not warm to the new coin. They had gotten used to the Bank of England’s paper money during the Napoleonic wars and now preferred it. The lack of demand for sovereigns saw a reduction in the number of coins minted in successive years of George III’s reign: 3,235,239 in 1817, 2,347,230 in 1818, and just 3,574 in 1819. A small number of proofs were produced each year.
George III died in January 1820. His sovereigns continued to be struck to the end of the mint year. In 1821 sovereigns were issued showing the new monarch, George IV. Pistrucci modeled and engraved both dies.
St. George was reworked. The streamer from his helmet was eliminated and the garter and its legend discarded. His right hand now grasped a short sword.
It is unknown who suggested the change of weapon. Some regard it as the work of Thomas Wyon. Others believe Pistrucci suggested it in September 1817. Whoever was responsible, this aspect of the design came to be the norm for all subsequent St. George sovereigns – until 2017.
On the obverse Pistrucci showed the king facing left crowned with a laurel wreath in the manner of his father. The king disliked this effigy intensely. He asked for it to be changed. For its part the mint played for time and so-called “laureate head sovereigns” were struck from 1821 to 1825.
However, in 1823 the king was given a medallion decorated with his effigy by Sir Francis Chantrey. The monarch was enchanted by this new portrait. He asked for it to be used on his coins. Pistrucci was instructed to engrave the dies. He refused. He would not copy the work of another. He was relieved of his duties.
In the event William Wyon did the engraving. Rather than using Pistrucci’s St. George reverse – and throw further fuel on that particular mint fire – a new reverse was developed by Pistrucci’s assistant, Jean Baptiste Merlen. In an echo of the reverses used on the reduced weight sovereigns of the Tudors, the Merlen design displayed the Ensigns Armorial of the United Kingdom (U.K.) with the arms of Hanover in the center surmounted by a small crown.
These “bare head sovereigns” were struck for George IV from 1825 to 1830, with both sovereign types produced in 1825.
William IV succeeded his brother in June 1830. A new coinage was ordered later that year. Chantrey prepared and engraved a new bust. Merlen remodeled and engraved a new coat of arms. The date appears below as ANNO 18[xx].
Sovereigns were struck from 1831 to 1837 with just proofs in 1830.
Queen Victoria ascended to the throne in June 1837. In the 63 years and 216 days she was on the throne three main coin effigies were used for her sovereigns. These were combined with at least three distinct shield reverses and three St. George reverses.
The first appeared in 1838. It displayed a “young head” of the new queen and was combined with a shield reverse. The effigy was by William Wyon, who at the Queen’s personal request, attended at Windsor Castle to model Her Majesty from life.
Merlen produced the new Ensigns Armorial for the reverse. These are enclosed within a laurel wreath with a thistle, rose and shamrock below.
The Arms of Hanover are now absent. Victoria’s gender meant she could not become Prince-Elector of Hanover despite being a male-line descendant of George I.
The designs were approved by the queen on Feb. 26, 1838, and the first gold coins of the new reign appeared later that year. They were struck by the Royal Mint in each year from 1838 through 1874, by Sydney Mint (S mintmark) from 1871 through 1887, and by Melbourne Mint (M mintmark) from 1872 to 1887.
In 1863 the Royal Mint introduced die-numbered reverses. The number appears just above the rose. A common interpretation of these numbers is that they enabled the extent of die wear to be tracked but they could just as easily have been used to monitor a press and even its operator. The numbers range from 1 to 123.
A great rarity is a sovereign showing “827” on the queen’s neck truncation instead of the initials “W.W.”
In 1871 the queen asked for a new sovereign that would combine Wyon’s young head effigy with Pistrucci’s St. George reverse. These were struck by the London mint concurrently with the shield type from 1871 to 1874 and were the only sovereigns produced by this mint from 1876 to 1880 and in 1884 and 1885. The Melbourne branch mint struck them from 1872 to 1887 and Sydney from 1871 to 1887.
In 1887 Queen Victoria celebrated 50 years on the throne. She proposed that a portrait effigy of her by Joseph Boehm could be used on the obverse of her Jubilee coinage. Like her young head portrait it had been modeled from life.
In due course it appeared on her sovereign combined with the St. George reverse. The resulting coins were struck by the Royal Mint (1887-1892), Melbourne (1887-1893) and Sydney (1887-1893).
Boehm’s effigy shows the Queen facing left with her widow’s veil and wearing the Star of the Garter and Victoria and Albert Order. On her head is perched the small crown she had made as she disliked the weight of her full-sized crowns.
Despite the portrait being chosen and approved by the queen it produced widespread resentment. The small crown was seen as ridiculous and demeaning. As a result Boehm lost his position.
The fourth and final effigy is known, appropriately, as the “old head.” The queen is veiled and wears a small coronet. She sports the ribbon and Star of the Garter. The design was selected by a Royal Mint committee from several proposals. It is the work of Thomas Brock.
These sovereigns were minted in London (1893-1901), Melbourne (1893-1901), Sydney (1893-1901), and also by Western Australia’s Perth Mint for the first time (1899-1901).
In the mid-19th century Australia had a growing mountain of gold. It needed to be coined. A petition to Queen Victoria saw the colony of New South Wales win the honor of establishing a branch of the Royal Mint in Sydney.
A prefabricated mint and coin press turned up in August 1853 along with a small party of Army engineers. The new facility was set up in what had been Sydney’s 1814 Rum Hospital. The first gold arrived in May 1855 and the first sovereigns appeared one month later.
The mother country supplied the dies. The obverse was a young-head effigy of Victoria by James Wyon, her hair filleted and sporting a mini ponytail.
But when it came to reverses the Royal Mint was making sure there would be no confusion between the real McCoy and the colonial product. The reverse design by Leonard Wyon was loosely based on the current British sixpence. It showed a laurel wreath enclosing the word AUSTRALIA topped by a crown. The words ONE SOVEREIGN were below and SYDNEY MINT above.
This coin was struck from 1853 to 1856. Two years later a new distinctive Australian obverse by Leonard Wyon arrived Down Under. It made the middle-aged queen look even younger. Her hair was crowned by a wreath of Australian flowers, possibly Banksia. This effigy was used through to 1870.
There were several problems however. For starters the Australian sovereigns were not legal tender in the U.K. nor several Australian states. Secondly, they had a higher intrinsic value than their British counterparts. Australian gold was pale in color due to a significant silver content. This could was not easily be removed until the chlorine process was developed in the 1860s.
Thirdly, and probably most importantly, they were being produced in vast numbers. Despite their restricted legal tender status, within a few years a significant percentage of the sovereigns circulating in the British Empire were Australian.
In 1867 the British Government declared all sovereigns legal tender provided they corresponded in composition and design to those current in Britain. These changes came into effect in 1871 when copper replaced silver in the Australian alloy and the Sydney Mint commenced using William Wyon’s young-head effigy combined with either Merlen’s arms or Pistrucci’s St. George. An “S” mintmark was all that distinguished Sydney coins from their London counterparts.
This design model provided the pattern for sovereigns struck at the branch mints of Melbourne (M) and Perth (P) when they were established.
In a wry twist, in 1887 the London Tower Hill Mint would use silver in its gold flans to make them more malleable to allow Boehm’s jubilee effigy of Queen Victoria to be fully struck up.
Edward VII and George V
Edward VII began his reign in 1901 with his new coinage, including the sovereign, introduced in 1902.
The king’s effigy for all his coins was modeled by Royal Mint engraver George de Saulles. His initials “DeS” appear below the neck truncation. The reverse of the sovereign continued to use Pistrucci’s George and the dragon.
Sovereigns were struck in each year of the reign by the parent Royal Mint and at the branch mints of Melbourne, Perth and Sydney as well as at the new Ottawa Mint (C mintmark) from 1908 to 1910.
George V ascended to the throne in 1910. The first sovereigns struck in his name appeared in 1911. The obverse effigy was the work of Australian designer Bertram Mackennal. His initials appear at the base of the neck truncation and were again combined with Pistrucci’s George and the dragon.
The coins were struck at the Royal Mint, Ottawa, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney and, for the first time at the mints of Bombay (I mintmark) and Pretoria (SA mintmark).
The outbreak of war saw the British Government move to protect its gold reserves for international trade. The sovereign and half sovereign were withdrawn from circulation in the United Kingdom and replaced by Treasury notes. Gold coins struck during the war were added to the government reserve and eventually used to pay war debts.
Sovereigns ceased to be struck in London in 1917 but recommenced in 1925. In Ottawa they ceased production in 1919, in Sydney in 1926, and in Melbourne and Perth in 1931. Pretoria produced the coin from 1923 to 1932 with Bombay in 1918 only. The 1932 coins were the last regular striking of the sovereign for circulation. The United Kingdom had left the gold standard in 1931.
A reduced effigy (small head) of the monarch was used by Melbourne and Perth on their gold coins in 1929-1931.
Following Edward VIII’s accession to the throne in 1936 various pattern coins were prepared by the Royal Mint for the new monarch. They included a sovereign that never received royal approval before Edward abdicated. While the coins were struck as proofs, they are patterns.
The obverse effigy, with the king facing left, was by Thomas Paget and, as usual, was combined with the standard Pistrucci reverse.
Just six examples were produced. None was made available to the public. Four are in museums and one is in a complete set of rare sovereigns. The sixth surfaced in 1984 when it sold in Tokyo for $50,189 [£40,000].
It returned to the block in 2014 when offered for sale by Baldwins. This time around it realized $647,323 [£516,000], the highest price up to that point paid in Britain for any coin struck by the Royal Mint.
All bullion sovereigns struck during the reign of George VI used George V dies and were dated 1925. They totaled 886,000 and were struck in 1949-1951. This striking was part of an attempt by Winston Churchill to return the UK to the gold standard.
The sole sovereign bearing the effigy of George VI was a proof dated 1937 and was included in cased sets. These coins are not legal tender. An oversight in a Proclamation of March 1937 specified that legal sovereigns had to have milled edges. The proofs were struck with plain edges. Perhaps they too should be described as patterns.
The effigy of the king was by Paget with Pistrucci’s reverse continuing in use. Mintage was 5,001.
Elizabeth succeeded her father in 1952. A small number of gold coins, £5 to half sovereign, were struck dated 1953 to mark the coronation. The neo-classical effigy of Her Majesty was by Mary Gillick.
These coins were not included in the 1953 proof sets issued to the public. None were released individually. It is likely no more than 10 sovereigns exist.
At the same sale that her uncle’s pattern sovereign fetched a record price, one of the few Elizabeth 1953-dated sovereigns available to collectors realized $481,698 [£384,000].
The striking of bullion grade sovereigns recommenced in 1957 to further British foreign policy in the Middle East where the sovereign is readily accepted for payments. This year saw the words BRITT OMN removed from the Queen’s titles as a result of the changing status of many Commonwealth countries.
BU sovereigns showing the Pistrucci reverse have continued to be struck each year through to the present day with some exceptions. No sovereigns were produced in 1960, 1961, 1975 and 1977 with proofs only struck from 1983 to 1999. Proofs were struck alongside BU coins in 1957-1959, 1963, 1976, 1979-1982. The main change over this time was in the obverse effigy of the queen.
From 1957 to 1968 Gillick’s effigy was used. From 1974 to 1984 it was the portrait of the queen by Arnold Machin. From 1985 to 1997 it was that of Raphael Maklouf with Ian Rank-Broadley’s effigy taking over in 1998.
In 2015 a new effigy of the monarch by Jody Clark was introduced. It has continued in use until today but with a portrait of the queen by James Butler used last year for all proof sovereigns and their multiples.
The last gold sovereign was struck in London at the Tower Hill Mint in November 1975. Since then all sovereigns with one exception have been produced at the Royal Mint in Llantrisant, Wales. Here the coins are struck in the precious metal unit which is sealed off from the rest of the mint.
In 2013 India recommenced striking gold sovereigns to cater for the high demand in the local market. The minting is done under license by an Indian/Swiss joint venture company MMTC-PAMP in its facility near Delhi. Quality control is exercised by the Royal Mint.
As with the 1918 Bombay minting these coins are U.K. legal tender. They are of identical design and specification to U.K.-minted sovereigns apart from the addition of an ‘I’ for India mintmark.
In recent years a number of commemorative mintings of sovereigns has led to the now traditional Pistrucci reverse being supplanted. Perhaps the most important is that of 1989 that marked the 500th anniversary of the original sovereign issue of Henry VII. In this instance the obverse effigy of Queen Elizabeth II was also transformed. Both obverse and reverse designs by Bernald Sindall echo those of the original English coin of 1489.
On the obverse the queen is shown at her coronation. She is seated in King Edward’s Chair having just received the Scepter with the Cross and Rod with the Dove. On the reverse the current Royal Arms and Royal Crown are superimposed upon a Double Rose. This coin was available only as a proof.
In 2002 a sovereign showing a modern shield reverse by Timothy Noad was issued (KM-1026) and in 2009 the 1820 design in which St George’s plumed helmet lacks its streamer was used. Each of these was struck in both bullion and proof grades.
And now we have 2017 issue marking the 200th anniversary of the modern sovereign. The original Pistrucci design has been reproduced; the garter surrounds St. George who is again grasping the broken haft of his lance rather than his short sword.
Afterthought: No attempt has been made to document the many sovereign varieties that exist as might be expected from the more than a billion coins that have been struck during 200 golden years. But, whether you prefer to chase subtle varieties or simply hoard the basic design types, sovereigns provide a challenging and fulfilling collecting area.
This article was originally printed in World Coin News. >> Subscribe today.
More Collecting Resources
• The 1800s were a time of change for many, including in coin production. See how coin designs grew during the time period in the Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1801-1900 .
• The Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1901-2000 is your guide to images, prices and information on coinage of the 1900s.