We’re taking a look back at some of the greatest sovereigns of the past 200 years. The coins are, we believe, among the 12 greatest for their historical significance and interest. We’ll look at the history, the obverse and reverse design and of course the reasons why we believe they deserve to be among the Twelve Greatest Sovereigns.
1. The King George III Gold Sovereign (1817-1820)
Following the financial turmoil during the Napoleonic Wars, King George III decided to replace the guinea, valued at £1/1s (one pound and a shilling) with a coin valued at £1 (one pound).
The new coin was called a ‘sovereign’ and this first design type was only struck for four years between 1817 and 1820. It features a portrait of King George III on the obverse, and St George and the dragon on the reverse, with a Garter belt around the outside. This is the only circulating sovereign to feature this rendition of St George. However, a special collector sovereign was later issued in 2017 for the 200th anniversary and it featured the same design.
2. The King George IV Gold Sovereign (1825-1830)
The first gold sovereign to be struck of King George IV features a portrait by Italian designer Benedetto Pistrucci. However, the king disliked the way he had been depicted and so in 1825 insisted that a new portrait was created based on a bust by Sir Francis Chantrey. Pistrucci, a brilliant but tempestuous Italian, refused to ‘copy’ the work of another artist, so the task was passed to an English designer, William Wyon.
The new portrait was a more modern interpretation that omitted the laurel wreath. The reverse of the coin features the Royal Arms within a garnished shield, and the royal titles were restored around the outside of the shield.
This portrait design was only ever issued on six years worth of coins, and it was also the very first to feature the Shield of the Royal Arms, making it very important to collectors.
Victoria came to the throne in 1837, but it wasn’t until the following year that the first sovereign of her reign was struck. The coin depicts a young Queen Victoria with her hair raised and tied with a ribbon. This portrait, also by William Wyon, was so popular that it was used until 1887.
The reverse design is the armorial shield of Great Britain, featuring the arms of the four countries, topped by a crown. A wreath surrounds the shield, with an intertwined rose, thistle and shamrock below.
4.The Queen Victoria Jubilee Portrait Gold Sovereign (1887)
In 1887, it was deemed that a new portrait of Queen Victoria be created, in line with her Golden Jubilee, to show a true likeness of her current age. The new portrait featured a middle-aged queen with a disproportionately small crown on top of her window’s veil.
The portrait was incredibly unpopular, not because it was not accurate – Victoria was by now almost 70 years old – but because it did not make her look like the monarch of an Empire that covered approximately one-fifth of the earth’s surface. The objections grew as time passed, and after just seven years of use it was replaced in 1893 by the ‘Veiled Head’ portrait. This meant that the Jubilee portrait was one of the shortest lived in the history of British coinage.
The first Jubilee sovereign, of 1887, was struck in ‘yellow gold’, and this makes it significant to collectors. This type of gold was created to show the finer levels of detail, by adding 1.25% silver to the alloy. This was only carried out in 1887.
The reverse of the sovereign features the depiction of St George slaying the dragon, with a flowing streamer from his helmet, a part of the original 1817 design. The very first issue, of 1887, has the lowest mintage of all jubilee sovereigns at just 1.1 million, making it one of the most significant Victorian-age coins.
5. The King George V Gold Sovereign (1925, minted in London)
Despite George V reigning until 1936, only 5 dates of half sovereign and eight dates of sovereign were ever struck in London.
By 1915, gold coins had almost vanished from circulation and paper money took the place of gold as currency. However, in 1925, Winston Churchill controversially brought back the Gold Standard and there were suggestions in Parliament that gold sovereigns would be brought back into circulation. In preparation, the Bank of England sent worn and damaged gold coins to The Royal Mint for melting and re-minting.
Eight years after the last sovereign had been struck, the 1925 gold sovereign was struck and proved to be the last ever British currency sovereign, making it so important. These coins were never released into circulation, and instead lay in the vaults of the Bank of England, penned the ‘Churchill Sovereigns’.
6. The Queen Elizabeth II Gold Sovereign (1957)
With post-war provisions still in force, no gold coins were issued for Her Majesty’s coronation in 1953. However, the first cold coins were struck with the new monarch’s portrait in 1957.
The 1957 gold sovereign features the coronation portrait, which was used until 1970, showing a youthful Queen with her hair tied in a fillet and wreath. It is the only one of Her Majesty’s portraits that shows her without a crown.
The reverse design features St George slaying the dragon, and maintains the design introduced in 1821. It is one of the world’s most recognised coin designs, remaining on gold sovereigns today. The sovereign was only issued for one year and features an edge with 168 ridges, rather than the typical 108.
7. The Queen Elizabeth II Gold Sovereign Commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the Sovereign (1989)
In 1989, a commemorative sovereign was issued to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the first English sovereigns of King Henry VII.
The coin is the first in over 100 years to feature a design other than the St George and the dragon on the reverse, instead featuring a crowned shield of the Royal Arms, set upon a Tudor Rose, a modernised version of Henry Tudor designs. It also is the only time in history that the word ‘sovereign’ has appeared on a British coin, reading ANNIVERSARY OF THE GOLD SOVEREIGN 1489-1989.
The obverse design features an enthroned portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, wearing a crown and holding two sceptres. The 1989 gold issue is the only time this portrait has ever been used on the coinage of this reign.
In 2002 the Queen celebrated her Golden Jubilee and a new design was created for gold coins issued that year. The symbolic St George and the dragon design was displaced from the reverse in the year of the jubilee, and replaced with the Shield of the Royal Arms.
The shield design was first used on sovereigns in 1825 under King George IV, and until 1887 under Queen Victoria. Since then all have featured St George and the dragon. This coin is a one-year type, making it sought after by sovereign collectors around the world.
The year 2017 marked 200 years of the British sovereign and a new gold coin was struck. The limited edition coin is the first twelve-sided sovereign coin ever to be struck, coming in the same year as the introduction of the new twelve-sided £1 coin.
The sovereign is directly linked to the monarchy, with its name being another word for ‘monarch’. Therefore this commemorative coin celebrates the longevity of the monarchy, featuring a cameo portrait of Queen Elizabeth II with the Latin inscription DIU VIVERE MONARCHIA (long live the monarchy) along the top outer edge.
Only 1,817 coins were struck to honour the year 1817 in which the first British sovereigns were minted.
In November 2017, The Queen celebrated her Platinum Wedding Anniversary, marking 70 years of marriage between her and HRH Prince Philip. Her Majesty is the only British monarch to celebrate this anniversary.
Prince Philip has had a long career of public service and so to acknowledge his contribution, a double portrait features on this gold sovereign coin. This is the first time a double, or ‘jugate’, portrait has appeared on a gold sovereign, as well as the first time in 200 years that a royal consort has had their portrait on a gold sovereign.
The 11th November 2018 marked one hundred years since the armistice brought an end to the First World War. To mark just a significant moment in history, and to bring upon its significance to a new generation, a new gold sovereign was struck.
The coin depicts the Distinguished Service Order medal, one of the highest awards for bravery in the First World War. What also makes this coin exceptional is that it features a Remembrance Gold finish, achieved by adding to each 22 carat gold side a layer of Ruthenium. This metal darkens the surface of the coin, except where the medal appears.
This is the first sovereign to feature a Remembrance Gold finish, giving a subdued commemoration of the event. It is also a special coin due to its significance to the First World War, which ultimately led to the withdrawal of the sovereign from daily circulation.
The year 2019 was a remarkable one for Britain, its exit from the European Union dominated media coverage, ahead of later officially leaving the EU in 2020, and through this, a gold coin was released to remind Britons to celebrate the nation and the four countries, which make up Great Britain.
An innovative and first-of-its-kind four-sided gold sovereign was minted, to symbolise Britain taking on a new shape and embracing change. The four-sided shape reflects England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and features the floral motifs of each nation. At the centre of the reverse design is the figure of Britannia with the HMS Ark Royal behind her.
We’d love to hear which of our Twelve Greatest Sovereigns you’d like to add to your collection. Head over to our Facebook page and leave us a comment.