The Gold Sovereign was first minted in 1489. King Henry VII had won the long war of the roses and founded the Tudor dynasty. He had concentrated power to the king and stabilised the crown after many years of war. The Crown's coffers were again full and he needed a gold coin worthy of his success and displaying his wealth.
He ordered to produce a gold coin of 20 shillings - One Pound (£1) - the size of which had never been attempted before in England, with himself, the 'Sovereign', seated on the throne, holding the sphere and sceptre, surrounded by other elements worthy of a King of his rank. The reverse shows the Tudor rose, elaborately set around the shield of arms. Both sides show incredible craftsmanship along the latest fashions of English Renaissance.
Henry VII sovereign sold at Spink in Dec. 2014 for £310,000 hammer against a reserve of £120,000 - £150,000
Where earlier attempts to produce a large gold coin in England had failed, Henry VII's Sovereign was an immediate success and the coin was produced in fairly large numbers, although very few have survived to this day.
If Henry VII was a prudent and financially astute Monarch, less so can be said about his son, Henry VIII, who has become famous in modern times thanks to the TV series 'The Tudors' (2007-2010), which focuses on his love life and obsession around a male heir to the throne.
Henry VIII's coinage could be said to follow the route of his private life: starting promising and robust but on a steady decline for the most part, eventually turning sour with his 3rd and final coinage (1544-47), which was heavily debased to fund his war efforts in France and quite frankly, a rip-off to the people of England.
Henry VIII sovereign, third coinage, type II, lower gold content, sold at Spink in Dec. 2014 for £300,000 hammer.
During Henry VIII's debasement, silver was gradually reduced from the traditional 925 fine to c. 250 fine and the gold was reduced from 23 to 20 carats. This made the sovereign simply by comparison more sought-after and production of coins increased. During this period, no less than 8 mints produced sovereigns, which makes an interesting series with some very beautiful designs.
Edward VI struck gold sovereigns of two types: in fine gold at 30 shillings (15.55 grams) and in 22 carat reduced weight (11.31 grams) at 20 shillings (£1). The 20 s coin is popular for its half-length portrait, holding a sword and orb, much seen in the rest of Europe at the time.
Edward VI gold sovereign of 20 shillings sold by Hess Divo in Nov. 2015 for CHF 24,000 hammer.
Queen Mary restored the coinage to its pre-debasement standards and gold coins during her reigns were struck at 23 carats 3 1/2 grains and the sovereign valued at 30 shillings.
During Elizabeth I's 44-year long reign, sovereigns of 'fine' gold of 30 shillings and 'crown' gold of 20 shillings were used intermittently, resulting in a rather complicated accounting system as the term 'sovereign' sometimes referred to a 20 shillings piece and other times a 30 shillings piece.
Elizabeth I 'Fine' Sovereign of 30 Shillings, 6th Issue, offered at Baldwin's of St. James's.
The end of the Tudor dynasty became the end of the sovereign for nearly 200 years, at least as known by that name. James I struck sovereigns of 20 shillings only as part of his first coinage, then for his second coinage (after 1604) renamed the coin 'Unite' as he sought to Unite his realms England and Scotland into Great Britain.
The 30 shillings piece was named 'Rose-Ryal' but this 'fine' coinage of 23 carat 3 1/2 grains gradually became less used and towards the end of James' reign struck mainly for ceremonial and political purposes.
James I Sovereign of 20 Shillings, first issue (1603-04), sold at St. James Auctions June 2016 for £15,000 hammer.
Other than an initial reduction of weight to 9.10 gram for the 'Unite' of 20 shillings, Charles I continued on the minting standards set by his father and the output of gold coins was stable throughout his reign. During the Civil War the king continued to produce coin at several Royalist loyal locations such as Shrewsbury and Oxford, where impressive 'Triple Unites' of 60 shillings were made for presentation and political purposes.
Charles I Unite, Civil War issue, Oxford mint 1642, sold by Ira & Larry Goldberg Auction, June 2017, hammer $12,500.
The death of Charles I, the establishment of the Commonwealth of England and later the Protectorate brought immense changes to the country politically. However, the coinage stayed much the same and the Unite continued to be struck as the 20 shillings piece and unit of account.
Commonwealth of England Unite of 20 Shillings, auctioned by Spink in March 2017; £14,000 hammer.
Although the technique had been known and used on the continent for some time, it was not until the arrival of Frenchman Pierre Blondeau that the minting press using machinery replaced the traditional hammer process. Tested briefly during Elizabeth I's reign, then again during Charles I's, the machines had been too slow to produce the required output.
During Oliver Cromwell, the minting presses finally took over and following the authorisation to mint portrait coins in 1655 Cromwell's coinage was introduced with the Broad of 20 shillings in 1656 along with an impressive 50 shillings piece. Although not hammered, the Broad is imaged below for accuracy of this account.
Cromwell Broad of 20 shillings, Baldwin's of St. James's, Sep 2017, hammer
Finally, Charles II issued hammered Unites during the first 2 years of his reign before introducing the Guinea of 20 shillings as part of a reworking of the monetary system. The Guinea was to be used continuously until the Great Recoinage of 1816. Click here to read about the Milled Gold Sovereign.
Charles II Unite of 20 shillings, St. James's Auctions February 2016, sold for £18,000 hammer.