The History of the Gold Sovereign


The British gold sovereign is another coin that was designed and minted as a result of a politics.

People unfamiliar with the strife, plotting, unseating, and court intrigue that resulted when Henry of Bolingbroke, one grandson of Edward III, rose up and deposed Richard II, another of his grandsons, might be interested to know that the civil war depicted in the popular television show, Game of Thrones, is loosely based on the chaos of this period – the Wars of the Roses – in English history. For nearly a century, the country saw assassination attempts, imprisoned kings, secret marriages, brothers betraying brothers, and, of course, the famous missing and murdered Princes in the Tower.

When Henry Tudor pushed his royal claim, won victory over Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, and became king, he wasn’t taking any chances that the fates that met some of his predecessors on the throne would happen to him. He established the House of Tudor on August 22, 1485, and took steps to cement his place on the throne, including marrying Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth and eliminating any Lancasters or Yorks with a better claim than his. How does the English sovereign fit into this? It was essentially Henry VII saying, “I won.”

Henry VII instructed the royal mint to create a new gold coin in October of 1489. England already had circulating gold coinage, but this coin was to be larger – much larger. It featured the King on his throne on one side and a Tudor double rose on its reverse side. The Tudor rose was a combination of the white rose of the House of York and the red rose of the House of Lancaster. The message communicated by the coin was clear: Henry was sovereign, and he was here to stay. All of the subsequent kings and queens in the House of Tudor had this coin struck as well. When James I, ruler of the united Great Britain and King of England, Ireland, and Scotland, came to the throne in 1603, the coin stopped being minted.

Over two hundred years later in 1817, the crown ordered a new gold sovereign be minted. This coin was half the size of the original, but it also commemorated a victory: Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat at Waterloo. Designed by engraver Benedetto Pistrucci, this new sovereign featured the head of George III on its obverse and St. George defeating a dragon on its reverse. Since that time, the gold sovereign has continued to be minted with the faces of subsequent rulers and differing images on its reverse side. Today Elizabeth II is featured.

Because the sovereigns were in constant circulation and British gold stores were limited, they were often reminted when they became worn. They were used to make international payments as well and were often melted down upon receipt. For this reason even though nearly a billion sovereigns have been minted over time, there are not nearly so many available for collection. The most valuable sovereign is the British Edward VIII, struck in 1937 in honor of the new king who abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson. As a result, it was never issued into circulation.

If you would like further information on collecting either the English or the British sovereign, call us today at Grand Rapids Coins in Grand Rapids. We would love to help you add this piece of history to your coin collection.

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