Old name, new money – The Sovereign returns

The guinea was the major coin of the eighteenth century, but during the long war with France the banks began to issue notes in place of coins.

The issuing of bank notes helped Britain to pay for its long war, but it caused inflation and national insecurity and a spate of forgeries took hold. You can view many of the old records of cases brought at the time on The Old Bailey website.

Following the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 the decision was taken to undertake a ‘great reform of the coinage’. Gold was adopted as the ‘sole Standard Measure of Value’ and bank notes were taken out of use.

Prior to this reform, the guinea had been the major coin, and at first it was intended to re-introduce the twenty-one shilling guinea. However, upon listening to the demands of the people, it was found that

a very general wish prevails among the Public in favour of a Coinage of Gold Pieces of the value of Twenty Shillings and Ten Shillings, in preference to Guineas, Half Guineas and Seven Shilling Pieces

Hence a new gold twenty-shilling coin was born to replace the guinea, that coin arrived in 1817 and was given the old name of Sovereign.

Sovereign of 1817
Sovereign of 1817 showing Pistrucci’s original design with
St George holding a broken lance.

The traditional heraldic reverse was abandoned in favour of a classic portrayal of St George and the Dragon by the brilliant young Italian engraver Benedetto Pistrucci. This design was ambitious, modern and dramatic. It was the perfect symbol of victorious and forward-looking Britain.

As Britain’s wealth and influence increased, so too did the influence of the Sovereign. By the middle of the nineteenth century the gold sovereign had become the ‘chief coin of the world’, trusted not only in colonies and dependencies in which the Sovereign was legal tender but also in countries like Brazil, Egypt and Portugal which treated the Sovereign as their own currency.

Demand for gold, and for the Sovereign, drove The Royal Mint to open branches around the world to produce their flagship coin. The Sydney Branch of The Royal Mint was established in 1855, and they produced their own sovereigns (distinguished by an ‘S’ mintmark). The Melbourne branch opened in 1872, the Perth branch in 1899, the Ottawa branch in 1900, the Bombay branch in 1918, and the Pretoria branch in 1923. Today, the legacy of this incredible time lives on in the form of The Royal Australian Mint, the Perth Mint and the Royal Canadian Mint.

Next week: ‘The Sovereign in the modern age’

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