The History of the British Gold Sovereign

The British gold sovereign holds a unique place among gold coins due to its long history and extensive usage globally. Not only has it become the most collected coin, it holds the record for the highest price paid for a British coin.

The modern sovereign is a world-class investment due to its status as legal tender in UK and as such exempt of Value-Added Tax (VAT) and Capital Gains Tax (CGT). However, the history of the sovereign predates the Coinage Act of 1816, which marked its reappearance under the reign of George III.

A Henry VII sovereign, Spink, 2014, for £310,000 hammer, against a reserve of £120,000—150,000

The first sovereign
The first English sovereigns were minted in 1489. King Henry VII had won the War of the Roses and founded the Tudor dynasty, consolidating the power of his monarchy and bringing financial stability to England. The Crown’s coffers were again full and he demanded a coin worthy of his reign.

He ordered a gold coin of 20 shillings — the first to be valued at one pound — the size of which had never been attempted before in England. The coin depicted himself, the ‘Sovereign’, seated on the throne holding the orb and sceptre, surrounded by other elements denoting his rank. The reverse shows the Tudor rose, elaborately set around his coat of arms. Both sides show incredible craftsmanship along the latest fashions of the English Renaissance.

His son and successor,Henry VIII’s coinage could be said to follow the route of his private life: a promising start followed by a steady decline until its third andfinal coinage (1544-47) which was heavily debased. During his reign, no less than eight mints produced sovereigns, which makes an interesting series with some very beautiful designs.

A Henry VIII sovereign, third coinage, type II, lower gold content, Spink, 2014, for £300,000 hammer

Following Henry’s reign, his son Edward VI struck gold sovereigns of two types: in fine gold at 30 shillings (15.55g) and in 22 carat reduced weight (11.31g) at 20 shillings, or one pound. The 20 shilling coin is popular for its half-length portrait of Edward, holding an orb and sword, similar to European coinage of the time.

An Edward VI gold sovereign of 20 shillings, Hess Divo, 2015, for CHF 24,000 hammer

During Queen Mary I’s short reign, coinage was restored to its pre-debasement standards. Gold coins were struck at 23 carats 3 1/2 grains and the sovereign valued at 30 shillings.

Elizabeth I’s extraordinary 44-year reign saw sovereigns of ‘fine’ gold of 30 shillings and ‘crown’ gold of 20 shillings used, resulting in a complicated accounting system.

An Elizabeth I ‘Fine’ sovereign of 30 shillings, 6th issue

The demise of the English sovereign
With Elizabeth I’s death, the reign of the House of Tudor ended, along with the official use of sovereigns for two centuries. James I struck sovereigns of 20 shillings only as part of his first coinage, then for his second (after 1604) renamed the coin ‘Unite’, as he sought to unify his realms England and Scotland into Great Britain.

The 30 shillings piece was named ‘Rose-Ryal’ but this ‘fine’ coinage of 23 carat 3 1/2 grains gradually became less used and towards the end of James’s reign was struck mainly for ceremonial purposes.

James I sovereign of 20 Shillings, first issue (1603-04), St James Auctions, 2016, for £15,000 hammer

Other than an initial reduction of weight to 9.1g for the Unite of 20 shillings, Charles I continued on the minting standards set by his father, James I, and the output of gold coins was stable throughout his reign. During the English Civil War (1642-51) the king continued to produce coin at several Royalist strongholds such as Shrewsbury and Oxford, where impressive ‘Triple Unites’ of 60 shillings were minted for presentation and political purposes.

A Charles I Unite, Civil War issue, Oxford mint 1642, sold by Ira & Larry Goldberg Auctioneers, 2017, $12,500 hammer

The execution of Charles I, the establishment of the Commonwealth of England (1649-60) and later the Protectorate (1653-59) brought immense political change to the country. However, the coinage stayed much the same and the Unite continued to be struck as a 20 shilling piece and remained the unit of account.

Commonwealth of England Unite of 20 Shillings, Spink, 2017; £14,000 hammer

Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1653 to 1658, introduced the Broad of 20 shillings in 1656, along with an impressive 50 shilling piece. At this time, minting presses, introduced by Frenchman Pierre Blondeau, finally replaced the long out of date hammer process used in English coin production.

A Cromwell Broad of 20 shillings

Finally, following the Restoration in 1660, the new monarch Charles II issued Unites during the first two years of his reign. This was followed by the introduction of the guinea, valued at 20 shillings, as part of a renewal of the monetary system. The guinea was to be used continuously until the Coinage Act of 1816, known as the ‘Great Recoinage’, when the British gold sovereign returned under the reign of George III to take its place as the leading gold coin produced by the Royal Mint. It has remained its flagship coin ever since.

Further reading on sovereigns
The list below is an account of books we have found useful for the purpose of study and valuation of gold sovereigns. The list is not exhaustive; additions to this list are most welcome — please don’t hesitate to get in touch through our contact page.

The Gold Sovereignby Michael Marsh (revised by Steve Hill), Token Publishing, 2017
The reworked and revised edition added much improvement to Michael Marsh’s popular and long-standing reference work. It is currently the most comprehensive reference book on the gold sovereign, covering all types of milled sovereigns to date, and includes many anecdotes and accounts of the Royal Mint’s workings and official letters along with a price guide for sovereigns. In our opinion, it is a must have for any serious collector or investor.

The History of the Sovereign: Chief Coin of the Worldby Kevin Clancy, 2nd (revised) edition, Royal Mint Museum, 2017
Kevin Clancy’s work is a masterpiece in all aspects, detailing not only the sovereign’s history alongside its equivalent unit-of-account denominations, but providing curcial economic and social context. The sovereign has undoubtedly played an important role in the history of Great Britain, which this book encapsulates effortlessly. The book is crucial for anyone wishing to understand gold coin production in England and the United Kingdom.

Coins of England and the United Kingdomby Emma Howard, Spink, published yearly
Since the 1960s, this has been the most commonly used price guide for British coins. It is referenced by all auction houses and coin dealers around the world, as ‘Spink’ (‘S.’ or ‘S-’) or sometimes ‘Seaby’, the original publishing house. We recommend a recent edition, as prices are updated yearly.