The Gold Sovereign long served as the premier gold coin for the British Empire and, indeed, the most trusted gold trade coin for the entire world.
Based off the English gold sovereign that was minted throughout the 16th century, the modern Gold Sovereign has been part of the kingdom’s coinage since 1817. In 2017, the Sovereign coin will celebrate its 200th birthday. Fittingly, the Royal Mint will issue a special edition of the iconic gold coin in 2017.
As the standard gold coin of Great Britain, the Gold Sovereign was preceded by the the English Gold Sovereign coin, first introduced in 1489. These coins weighed 240 grains, or one-half troy ounce. The last English Sovereign was minted in 1604. Originally minted with an extremely high purity of 23 karats (.9583 fine gold), King Henry VIII altered the fineness standard for the coin to 22 karats, or .9167 fine (91.67% pure) gold. This purity standard, known today as “Crown gold,” is still used for the Sovereign today. In fact, other modern gold bullion coins like the South African Gold Krugerrand have adopted this same standard. This gold alloy (with a balance of copper) is highly durable and therefore perfect for coinage.
Thanks to the unprecedented sprawl of the British Empire, the Gold Sovereign found its way all around the world during the Victorian Era. In Australia, Canada, India and South Africa, subsidiary facilities of the Royal Mint struck Gold Sovereigns during the 19th and 20th centuries. Since 2013, these coins are still struck in Delhi in addition to London. British Commonwealths, former colonies, and other nations around the world used the coin due to its availability and trusted gold content. During the 19th century, it was often considered the “chief coin of the world.”
Iconic Sovereign Design
Benedetto Pistrucci created the original reverse design for the Gold Sovereign, showing St. George riding horseback and slaying a dragon. (St. George is the patron saint of England.) The hero is shown holding a broken spear in Pistrucci’s original coin design, while the dragon is trampled underfoot. The design was updated more recently with a sword rather than a spear.
Authorized by the Great Recoinage of 1816, the Gold Sovereign became the flagship of all of Great Britain’s gold coins. Issued primarily as bullion with a face value of one pound (20 shillings), the Sovereign supplanted the popular—and slightly larger—Guinea gold coin (21 shillings). Gold Sovereigns are also smaller than their earlier namesake, containing slightly less than one-quarter troy ounce of pure gold.
The 2017 bicentennial Gold Sovereigns bring back the broken spear motif as well as incorporating the artist’s garter pattern bordering the scene. The garter includes a Latin inscription: “HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE,” meaning “Evil unto him that thinks evil of it.”
The obverse of the 200th anniversary Sovereigns will use the newest official portrait of HM Queen Elizabeth II facing right that appears on other British coins.
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