The first sovereign – a coin designed to impress

In a new weekly series of articles focused on bringing The Royal Mint’s history to life, we focus on our flagship coin, the sovereign.

The original sovereign was struck on the 28 October 1489 by The Royal Mint in the Tower of London.

The Sovereign of 1489

The Sovereign of 1489

Henry VII ordered the striking of the largest gold coin yet issued in England. The King wished to issue them as gifts to foreign dignitaries to impress upon them the strength of the Tudor dynasty.

He would have had no idea that the coin he issued would, in time, become renowned around the world.

The beginning of a regal tradition

The obverse of the first sovereign featured a regal portrait of the king in full coronation regalia, while the reverse depicted the crowned Royal Arms superimposed on a double rose to symbolise the union of York and Lancaster after the Wars of the Roses.

A Henry VIII sovereign

A Henry VIII sovereign

The striking of the first sovereign marked the beginning of a regal tradition. Coins of exceptional beauty continued to be struck by each of the Tudor monarchs including Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

The fine gold sovereign was the king of coins and while it represented the ultimate token of exchange, it never entered mainstream popular culture of the time.

This is evidenced by the fact that though Shakespeare mentions the penny, the three-farthings, the groat, the testoon, the crown and the noble…the sovereign is only alluded to. While this does not represent absolute evidence…we may conclude that it was a cut above the circulating currency of the time. In fact, it remained a relative rarity with a special value all of its own.

This Dutch money book of 1606 echoes English sources in describing twenty shilling sovereigns as double sovereigns and half sovereigns as sovereigns.

This Dutch money book of 1606 echoes English sources in describing twenty shilling sovereigns as double sovereigns and half sovereigns as sovereigns.

Shortly after his accession to the throne, James I brought the issue of the sovereign to a close. By 1604,  its 115 year history seemed to have been written. With hindsight we know that this was not the case, but the coin would not re-appear for another 200 years.

Next week: Old name, new money – The Sovereign returns