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The Gold Sovereign

A Brief History

The pound sterling, as a denomination of account, originated in Anglo-Saxon Britain during the 8th century (775/780AD) when the basic monetary unit, called a 'sterling', was made equivalent to 1/240th of a pound of silver (a penny). 240 sterling's became known as a 'pound of sterling'. It was to be 700 years before a pound coin was first issued. The first pound coins were hammered in 1489AD during the reign of Henry Tudor (King Henry VII) to help England recover from the ravages of Civil War. They were magnificent 23¾ carat (99%) gold coins carrying an obverse design of the King enthroned in majesty, giving the coins their name - 'sovereigns'. The reverse design was a shield on a Tudor rose. Their value was the equivalent of 240 silver pennies or 20 shillings (the shilling as a coin denomination did not appear for another 59 years until 1548).

By 1526, a drain of gold to continental Europe led King Henry VIII to increase the sovereign's value by 10% - to the equivalent of 22 shillings. A few months later it's value was increased again to 22s 6d, a value at which it remained until 1544 when a process of 'debasement' saw the sovereign's fineness reduced initially to 23 carats, then to 22 carats a year later and not long afterwards to 20 carats. During this period, the value of the sovereign was reduced to 20 shillings once more. In 1549, King Edward VI raised the gold fineness to 22 carat (91.6%).

Fine Sovereigns and Pounds

By Queen Mary's reign (1553-4), gold coins were once more struck to the 23¾ carat standard. The newly issued 'Fine Sovereigns' struck to this standard, were valued at 30 shillings. In 1592, under the reign of Elizabeth I, a 22 carat (91.6%) gold 'Pound' coin with a value of 20 shillings was introduced alongside the 30 shilling 'Fine Sovereign'. By 1603-4 in the reign of James I, this confusing state of affairs had been rationalised (in the short-term) by the issue of a smaller and lighter 22 carat gold sovereign coin valued, once more, at 20 shillings. This was to be the last sovereign issued for over two centuries!

The Unite, the Laurel and the Broad

In 1604, the weight of the gold sovereign/pound was again reduced and the new coin became known as the 'Unite'. In 1612, the 'unite' was revalued to 22 shillings. A yet again smaller 20 shilling gold coin - the 'Laurel' was introduced in 1619 but survived only until 1625 when the 'unite' was devalued to it's original value of 20 shillings. The 'unite' survived the civil war and execution of Charles I in 1649 and continued to be minted during Oliver Cromwell's 'Commonwealth'. Another, smaller 20 shilling gold coin known as the 'broad' was issued in 1656. After the 'Restoration' of Charles II to the crown in 1660, unites were hammered for another two years.

Gold from Guinea

In 1662, two major initiatives were introduced. Firstly, hand hammering of coins was abandoned in favour of manufacture by the Roettiers improved mill and screw presses. Secondly, new 20 shilling coins were minted with gold imported by the Africa Company from Guinea - hence the name of the new coin - the 'guinea'. 50 shilling (5 guinea) and 10 shilling (Half Guinea) coins were also introduced. All coins were minted at the 22 carat (91.6%) gold standard. The guinea was re-valued to 21s 6d at the commencement of the reign of William and Mary (1688-1694) and by the end of their reign had reached 30 shillings. The fluctuating value finally settled again at 21s 6d by 1698 and remained at this value for the balance of William III's reign (1694-1702) and throughout Anne's reign (1702-14), the latter period significant for the Act of Union of 1707 which effected the unification of the ancient kingdoms of England and Scotland into a single realm and resulted in changes to the royal arms appearing on all coins.

During the first of the Hanoverian kings, George I's, reign (1714-27) more changes occurred to the royal arms. The guinea was re-valued for the final time to 21 shillings in 1717 and remained at this value for 96 years. A short-lived issue of quarter-guinea coins was made in 1718 and in 1733, all hammered gold coins were officially withdrawn and demonetised. The last of the guineas, the famous 'spade guinea' featuring a spade shaped shield on the reverse, was issued between 1787 and 1796. In the first years of the 19th century, gold coin issues were restricted to half and third guinea coins. After a gap of 17 years the spade guinea was issued for the final time in 1813.

Modern Sovereigns

The year 1816 was a landmark for British coinage. The mint was moved from the Tower of London to a new site on Tower Hill and steam powered minting machinery built by Boulton and Watt replaced the old hand operated presses. Significantly, new coinage was produced with an intrinsic value substantially below the face value of each coin - the first official token coinage in the world. In 1817, after an absence of 213 years, sovereigns were minted to replace the guinea. The new coins, valued at 20 shillings (the same as the original rate of over three centuries earlier), were accompanied by half sovereign issues and pattern five & two pound pieces. All were minted to the 22 carat (91.6%) fineness standard previously used for the guinea.