By: Lance Tchor & Larry Michelson
WINGS™ Coins, LLC
More than 520 years after its introduction, the historic gold coin is still going strong.
The British gold sovereign is much like the British Empire of old: with few exceptions, the sun never sets upon it. Introduced in 1489, the coin was hand-struck under King Henry VII (r. 1509-47) and is produced by The Royal Mint to this day, though with a smaller diameter and less gold.
Fast forward to the first machine-made (or “milled”) sovereigns, produced in 1817, with a weight of 7.9881g and fineness of .9167, the same specifications as current examples. The obverse depicted King George III (r. 1760-1820); the reverse bore a classic image of St. George slaying a dragon, a design that has withstood the test of time.
The sovereigns struck in 1821-30 pictured George IV (r. 1820-30). The year 1825 yielded two sovereign issues, with different obverse portraits of the king and two reverses—one with the ever-present St. George, the other the royal shield.
From 1831 through 1837, William IV (r. 1830-37) appeared on the sovereign’s obverse, followed by Queen Victoria (r. 1837-1901). The “Young Head” portrait of the monarch appeared on sovereigns until 1874.
Coins struck from 1871 to 1874 depicted both the Shield and St. George reverses. (Since then, the latter has been used almost continuously, except for 2002, when the shield appeared once again, and 2005, when a revised knight/dragon motif was employed.)
From 1887, during the 50th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s reign, through 1892, the sovereign displayed a veiled and crowned bust known as the “Jubilee Head.” From 1893 until 1901, the coin paid homage to Victoria with a more mature “Veiled Head” portrait.
After the queen’s death, King Edward VII (r. 1901-10) ascended the throne and was depicted on the obverse from 1902 until 1910. King George V (r. 1910-36) graced the coin’s obverse from 1911 until 1917, and again in 1925, after a 7-year lapse in sovereign production.
Sovereigns also were minted in Canada, India, Australia and South Africa, always picturing the current British monarch. In Canada, the gold coins were struck from 1908 to 1919, while India issued them only one year, 1918.
Australia minted the sovereign from 1855 until 1901, using a native reverse (a wreath, a small crown and the word AUSTRALIA) from 1855 to 1870. The Shield and St. George reverse designs were used concurrently from 1871 until 1887.
The Jubilee Head obverse carried on in Australia a year after it ended in Great Britain. South Africa struck sovereigns from 1923 to 1932. All told, the historic coins were minted in London, Ottawa, Bombay, Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Pretoria.
During World War II, Allied soldiers carried a survival kit that contained a few British sovereigns, as the coins were recognized and accepted all over the world. With more than a billion coins struck in modern times, the British sovereign is the king of gold coins!
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Reproduced courtesy of The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association (www.money.org)
Photos: Library of Congress (portraits) & Heritage Auction Galleries