A New Dawn

First struck in 1817, the modern sovereign represented a new dawn for the United Kingdom’s gold coinage. Prior to the start of the decades-long war with France in the 1790s, the guinea – a gold coin with a value of 21 shillings – had been in active use since the seventeenth century.

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George III guinea (RMM944)

The demands of war led to banknotes replacing gold coins and it was not until the end of the conflict in 1815 that an opportunity arose to enact a much-needed reform to the coinage. Unlike the guinea, this new gold sovereign would be a 20-shilling piece, holding the value of one pound, and became currency under a proclamation passed on 1 July 1817.

These new coins were produced at the Royal Mint’s relatively new site on Tower Hill in London, which was under the energetic management of William Wellesley Pole, the Master of the Mint and brother to the Duke of Wellington.

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Royal Mint building at Tower Hill, London

Whilst the coin would go on to firmly establish itself in the minds of the public, it got off to an inauspicious start, as people were reluctant to stop using the small banknotes to which they had become accustomed. An unfavourable exchange rate led to many early sovereigns going to the continent and in 1819, a Norfolk banker reported that he had never seen one in circulation.

Benedetto Pistrucci

Both the obverse and reverse are the work of the Italian designer Benedetto Pistrucci. As a highly gifted engraver, he came to the Royal Mint after the Battle of Waterloo and gained the favour of the Master of the Mint, William Wellesley Pole. Despite his talent, he was a difficult man to work with and his tempestuous character made him few friends. Although not officially appointed to the post, as foreign nationals could not hold the position, Pistrucci nominally occupied the post of Chief Engraver on his arrival.

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George III sovereign (RMM1176)

Taking as his theme the legend of St George slaying the dragon, Pistrucci produced an iconic design for the reverse of the sovereign. Heavily influenced by his Italian heritage, he drew inspiration from classical art and sculpture. On the obverse, the portrait of George III depicts the king in the style of a Roman emperor, crowned by a wreath of laurel and appearing to be a vigorous, robust-looking man of middle age. This contrasted sharply with reality as by 1817, George III was well into his 70s – bald with a long white beard – and his failing physical and mental health had confined him to his rooms for many years.


Did You Know?


• Today, the sovereign has the same specifications as those introduced in 1817 – regulated to five decimal places by law and still holding a nominal value of one pound.

• One of the rarest modern sovereigns is the 1819 sovereign of which only a handful are known to still exist.

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