In this age of democracies and constitutional monarchies, we don’t often use the word “sovereign” for a reigning monarch. But back in Tudor times, the king was sovereign and his word was absolute.
So when the first pound coin was minted in 1489, with the obverse (front) portraying the sovereign King Henry VII seated majestically on his throne, the word “sovereign” was the obvious choice as a name for the coin. Those first sovereigns were crafted of 23 carat gold, (95.83 % pure gold) and featured a shield bearing the royal coat-of-arms set on a double Tudor rose on the reverse. Gold Sovereign
Since the coins were meant as official billion, there was no face value engraved on the coins. They were commonly valued at 20 shillings, although that changed as the value of gold changed. King Henry VIII reduced the gold content to 22 carat gold (91.6% pure) which became the standard for gold coins and is known as “crown gold.” Under Edward VI, in 1549, half sovereigns as well as double sovereigns were struck.
The sovereign continued to be minted in various forms. Viewing historic sovereigns is like looking at a timeline of British history. Almost every reigning monarch issued sovereigns with their own image, usually a facial profile. During the reign of James I & VI, the sovereign was technically discontinued. The replacement coin was known as the “Unite” because of the unification of England and Scotland under King James.
The pound coin was called a guinea during the late 1600s, due to the fact that so much of Britain’s gold was produced in the African state of Guinea. These coins often featured the elephant-and-castle logo of the Africa Company and continued until 1813.
The modern age of the sovereign began in 1816 with the Industrial Revolution and steam-powered coin pressing. Italian engraver Benedetto Pistrucci created the classic St. George-and-the-dragon image, which was used for over two hundred years.
During World War I, Britain needed gold bullion for the war effort, and introduced paper money. Minting of sovereigns trailed off, until the last ones were struck in 1932. From 1957 to 1974, and then starting in 1974, the government again issued gold sovereigns. In 1989, a commemorative 500th anniversary set was issued, as a proof only, with the image of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in the enthroned, forward-facing pose. Many spectacular proof sets are available today.
For hundreds of years, the British sovereign was the most recognizable coin in the world. Even today, like Krugerrands in South Africa, and the Gold Nugget in Australia, Sovereigns are legal tender, with face values of 50p, £1, £2 and £5. The USA uses sovereigns as emergency funds for soldiers in Iraq. Even James Bond used them as emergency currency in one of the classic Bond movies.