A History of the British Sovereign
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A History of the British Sovereign

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Few modern coins have as long and intriguing history as the British Sovereign. Since its inception in 1489, the coin has set a global standard for quality and beauty. Its legendary design has made the British Sovereign a numismatic icon among collectors and investors alike.

King Henry VII ordered issuance of the first British Sovereigns in 1489. The coin originally had no value indicated on its surface. Early Sovereigns featured a prominent portrait of the king on their obverse, and the Royal Coat of Arms, surrounded by the Tudor double rose motif. Originally, the Sovereign was 23 carats, but Henry VIII reduced the purity to 22 carats. Future monarchs would also devalue the coin’s purity, until the Great Recoinage Law of 1816 fixed required gold content to 113 grains (0.2354 troy ounces).

James I suspended production of Sovereigns soon after ascending the throne in 1603. Over the next two centuries, Britain adopted Unites, Laurels, and finally guineas as its primary coin currency. In 1817, however, King George III reinstituted the Sovereign in Britian’s currency. That same century, the Master of the Mint commissioned Benedetto Pistrucci to create a new image for the coin’s reverse. Pistrucci designed a new engraving of St. George and the dragon, which is still used on the coin today. The coin has featured only four monarchs.

  • Edward VII ruled from 1901 to 1910. Known as a peacemaker, Edward VII forged alliances with several European nations. Both circulated and uncirculated Edward VII Sovereigns are available.
  • George V succeeded Edward VII and ruled until 1936. The first ruler of the House of Windsor, George V guided the nation through World War I. George V Sovereigns can be found both circulated and uncirculated.
  • Victoria, who ruled from 1837 until 1901, promoted expansion of the empire and industrial development. Sovereigns were widely used as circulation during Victoria’s reign, but uncirculated samples can still be found.
  • Elizabeth II, Britain’s current reigning monarch, celebrated her 50th year as queen in 2002. Sovereigns featuring Queen Elizabeth II are available only in brilliant uncirculated condition.

During Queen Victoria’s reign, the Bank of England began removing worn coins from circulation to have them recoined. The coins generally lose their value after about 15 years of circulation. Meanwhile many British Sovereigns were used as payment for foreign debts, particularly to the United States. These Sovereigns were frequently melted down into bars. During World War I the US and England abandoned the gold standard, so vast holdings of Sovereigns were lost to melting.

From World War I to 1932, Sovereigns were minted only at Britain’s branch mints in Australia, India, and Canada. Although Winston Churchill attempted to revive the gold standard in 1925, the effort failed. In 1957 the Bank of England reissued British Sovereigns for foreign policy transactions in the Middle East.

From 1882 until 1999, only proof coins were minted, but in 2000, the Bank of England recommenced production of bullion Sovereigns at the Royal Mint in Wales. Modern British Sovereigns remain uncirculated, minted only for numismatic and investment purposes. Current estimates indicate that only 1% of gold Sovereigns remain in collectible condition.

This information is provided for general reference purposes and does not constitute professional advice. For detailed coin collecting or investing information, please consult with a professional expert.

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