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The UK’s national personification is… Roman

Britannia, a symbol of British success and power, first appeared on a coin issued by Roman emperor Hadrian.

Personifications were the Roman way of giving a face to an idea, place or people. Cultures, cities and kingdoms were usually embodied as females, dressed in and holding items relevant to that particular culture or civilisation.

Egypt was often depicted holding a local musical instrument, the sistrum, on Roman Imperial Coinage. Hispana, or Spain, is depicted with a rabbit at her feet.

The emperor Hadrian’s ‘travels’ coinage displays these fascinating Roman personifications in amazing artistic style. Coins of Hadrian’s ‘travels’ were issued in bronze, brass, silver and gold, for all levels of Roman society to see. This is where Britannia appeared for the first time.

The Britannia of Hadrian’s coinage is a warrior, armed with a spike-tipped shield and a spear, harks back to the fearsome revolt of Boudica around 70 years earlier. She appears solemn, likely due to the construction of Hadrian’s Wall, which was probably intended to put an end to damaging barbarian raids from Scotland. To defeat a weak enemy is easy; there was little glory in that. The Romans preferred to depict their conquered enemies as strong and powerful.

Antoninus Pius, Hadrian’s successor continued to depict Britannia on coinage. While those coins are now much more accessible to the modern collector, it was Commodus that altered the depiction of Britannia on coins.

The power-crazed emperor adopted the title of ‘Britannicus’ in 184 AD, abbreviated as BRIT in much of his coinage issued thereafter. She is shown standing, upright, majestic, holding a sword downward in her right hand and a helmet upright in her left. This is the first time we see Britannia with a helmet, the modern trademark we associate with her today.

It is not until the end of the Third century that the Roman world treats us to the final depiction of Britannia on its coinage.

Carausius’ revolt (286-293 AD) brings us a Late Roman interpretation of Britannia. Carausius, a Roman naval leader gone rogue, made himself emperor of Britain and parts of Northern France. He set about introducing his own coinage during his reign feature the emperor being crowned by a somewhat crude figure of Britannia. She holds Carausius by the hand, welcoming him. Surrounding the scene is the inscription ‘EXPECTATE VENI’ or ‘Come ‘o Awaited One’.

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This Sovereign was minted in the second half of Henry’s relatively lengthy reign. In 1526 the value of English gold coins was increased by 10% in order to stop the flow of gold into Europe, and therefore the Sovereign assumed a new value of 22 shillings.

Henry VIII (1526-44), Gold Sovereign, Second Coinage. m.m. lis on obverse, arrow on reverse, henricvs dei gracia rex anglie et franc dns hib, king enthroned holding orb and sceptre, portcullis at feet. Rev. ihesvs avtem transiens per medivm illorvm ibat, square shield over Tudor rose, 15.32g (Schneider 570; N. 1782; S. 2267).
About extremely fine with excellent detail.
A comparable example sold at auction by CNG in New York (January 2018) for $120,000 (approx. £75,000) including buyer’s premium. 

By 1526 Henry was becoming increasingly concerned about the birth of an heir. His wife, Queen Katherine, had borne him six children, but only one of these, Mary, had survived infancy. His eldest son, Henry, born in 1511, had died after only seven weeks. Their last born child died within hours of its birth in November 1518.

By 1526, when Katherine had turned forty, it was evident that Henry would not have a son, and by 1527 Henry had become infatuated with the 25-year old Anne Boleyn, whose elder sister Mary had been Henry’s mistress for some years. At this stage Cardinal Wolsey, on behalf of the king approached Pope Clement VII, asking him to formally annul Henry’s marriage to Katherine.

The matter could not be resolved, Wolsey fell from power and the king’s adviser, Thomas Cromwell, recommended a clean break with Rome, leading to the establishment of the new Church of England, with Henry at its head. The new Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, pronounced in May 1533 that Henry’s marriage to Katherine was void, and he was free to marry Anne.

henry viii and Anne

King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn 

Henry’s early delight over Anne Boleyn’s pregnancy late in 1532 soon faded when she gave birth to a girl (the future Elizabeth I) in 1533. The relationship soured, and Anne was executed on 19 May 1536. By now, the king had become besotted with Jane Seymour, one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, and she gave birth to a boy (the future Edward VI) in 1537. Jane died during childbirth, but she remained the favourite of Henry’s six wives and after his death he was laid beside her in St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

This coin was minted in a period which was one of remarkable change in Europe. Martin Luther began a prolonged attack upon the Papacy and the Catholic Church, and gradually the Protestant religion evolved. In England, Henry VIII seized the opportunity to suppress all the small monasteries on the grounds that they were uneconomic, and on the strength of this he dissolved all the remaining monasteries in 1539.
But despite the turbulence of the times, the reign of Henry VIII produced some of England’s finest Tudor gold coinage.

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A beginners guide to coin collecting

Types of Coins Coins are made from either precious or base metals. They come in many different monetary denominations, just like today, and they split into two broad types: the older hammered variety and the more modern milled type.

Unique Pieces EveryTime

Hammered coins were made by hand by hitting two dies together with a hammer. On the inside, the dies contained the imprint for each side of the coin. Often the head of the monarch or emperor was on one side. On the other were the coin’s denomination and other designs. The motifs of these coins, especially those from the Greek and Roman world can be nothing less than spectacular. Just like with sculpture, master craftsmen were often employed to engrave dies for Greek cities, resulting in exquisite miniature masterpieces. The hammer-striking process was not an exact science and coins from the ancient and medieval worlds can be somewhat off-centre. This usually adds character to the century-old coins, and also means that no two coins are exactly alike.

Milled coins came about around 400 years ago. They were produced in large quantities from the mid 17th century onwards and are machine made. They have much more precise definition and uniformity. The machining of coins also enabled the introduction of serrated edges and inscriptions which helped prevent forgery and clipping. Mechanised production also came hand-in-hand with improvements in realism and style brought about by the Renaissance two centuries earlier. For the first time rulers of Europe appeared on their coins in spectacular realism.

We’ll come to the condition of the coins you buy later. This is a whole separate subject. Condition is vitally important to the value of the coin.

Coin collectors usually want to collect the coins of one country or group of countries. They might want coins from a particular historical era. Others collect coins that have unusual characteristics. These could be, for example, commemorative sets, or those with errors.

Many collections are based on coins that are similar but have subtly different die patterns. Tokens, used as substitutes for small change in some countries at certain times, are also a highly collectable area.

A common collecting theme is a set series: one coin of each type and denomination for each year the coin was minted during the reign of that particular ruler. This could also include different design variations which might have been introduced. It could include coins struck at different mints. There are many different nuances.

 It makes sense in the first instance to collect and invest in coins of the country where you live, or from a time period which you have a specific interest in. The chances are that you will be more aware of its history and better able to judge what makes a particular coin special.

From a practical standpoint too, for example, it makes sense for a UK collectors and investors to buy British coins, or for US ones to buy American coins. The biggest volume of coin dealing and the largest number of collectors, dealers and investors in this type of coin will be in the home market. The Ancient Coin market, however, is stable and international, with collectors in most countries.

Some coins are indisputably very rare. There are many instances of coins where only a handful of examples are were produced and then a design was discontinued. Proofs and errors – coins made to test a new pattern, or those where some minor production error resulted in an unusual variant of a common coin – are also a fruitful hunting ground for those seeking something scarce for investment purposes.

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Coins are classic collectable items. The opportunity to own a piece of history used by people of times gone by has established coin collecting as a popular hobby enjoyed by individuals of all ages. Using coins as a medium of investment is also becoming more widespread.

Collectable coins have a value that depends on two major factors; scarcity and condition. Prices are set by collectors and dealers based around demand. This happens mainly through auctions and a network of coin dealers. As well as rarity and condition, coins can also be attractive due to their cultural or historical significance. Coins featuring famous historical figures can often carry a premium due to their international fame.

Collectable coins are distinctly different from bullion coins, whose value derives solely from the weight of the precious metal they contain.


The rarest collectable coins exist only in very limited quantities. Own a rare item in first rate condition and you have a reasonable chance that its value will increase in the future. The value of a rare coin is set and evolves through demand from the widespread collector or investor base. Although hoards of coins occasionally come to light, supply is usually strictly limited to known pieces on the marke


Coins are bought and sold through a network of dealers. Some specialise in particular aspects of the coin market. Coins are also bought and sold through coin fairs, and at auctions. It is a global market not dominated by any one player. Values are set by supply and demand. Auction records are a reference point for prices and values and there are well documented historical price trends for almost every type of coin.



There are collectors of, and investors in rare coins in most markets of the world. Many start off by collecting in the coins of their own country, or those of a particular historical period. So whether it is coins of the English Civil War period, American silver dollars, Islamic coins or Ancient Green and Roman pieces, there is an active market to suit the interests of most collectors and investors.


The rich variety of historical coins and medals issued over the past 2000 years gives an amazing opportunity to anyone interested in starting a collection of their own. It might come as a surprise to many that it’s possible to own a genuine Roman or Greek coin from over 2000 years ago; or that a medieval silver groat of King Henry VIII, which might appear more at home in a museum is actually available to buy. Paintings from the Elizabethan Period or Ancient Classical Statues would cost a small fortune, but coins from these periods can be far more affordable. Coins are miniature monuments to the times they originate from, and a lasting, physical memory of the rulers and people who used them. It is an exciting prospect for many to build a collection of historical coins from a time period which fascinates them. As well as high value pieces there is a plethora of material available at almost any price point, making it possible for budding collectors of any age as well as seasoned veterans of the coin world to build or enhance a collection.

To guide you through this process, Baldwins’ experienced staff of specialists can tailor an initial pathway of coins to suit your interests, your time horizons, and the amounts – large or small – you wish to spend. 

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Mark Smith – Featured interview Medal News

How did you get started?

On Friday afternoons I used to be taken from school to see one of my two Grandma’s, my Father’s Mother.  She lived in a very Victorian house which had a parlour, dark cold and spotlessly clean; in the sideboard was a wooden box in which were my Father’s medals from World War Two, he was a Wireless Operator Air Gunner with 240 Squadron R.A.F. with Coastal Command and then in the Far East with the Special Duties Flight of 240, where he and his crew delivered Force 136 S.O.E. and O.S.S. agents in to the Japanese-held islands.  My bedtime stories, when small, were taken directly from his RAF Log Book and he would tell me the story of one “Op” from briefing to the target and back, I never got much sleep but the stories were fascinating.  One Friday afternoon in June 1969 on my visit to Nan, my Grandma gave me the box with the medals in; I went home made a display, got a book from the Library and was totally hooked on medals and the stories.  More family medals, cap badges, steel helmets, bayonets and trench art started to turn up as Aunts and Uncles at last found a home for all this military junk they had brought home from various wars; World War Two, World War One and the Boer War were well covered stretching back to my Great Great Great Grandfather, Private Henry Dickerson, who joined the Rifle Brigade in 1854.

What is your favourite medal?

For pure aesthetic look, design and feel the first Arctic Medal, the shape, the star suspension and the pure white ribbon are a joy to behold.  The stories behind the medals are absolutely fascinating, as Franklin and his men wandered through the ice and then the rescue missions to find them, real “Boys Own” adventure stories, but pieces of history you can hold and own.

What is your Top Tip for collectors?

Handle as many medals as you can, go to shops talk to your friends, attend the OMRS Convention, join an OMRS Branch, go to museums and ask to see the medals and handle them to get the naming styles and fonts engraved, (forgive the pun) in your memory. Consulting now for Baldwin’s for just over two years, I have crossed from collector to dealer, a completely different world, fascinating but very different, and the one startling fact that stands out is how many medals are wrong, re-named, broken, reconstituted and alas just fakes.  Know your medals; know what they should look like and feel like.

Do you collect and if so what?

From those early days I was given a poster of all the British Medals from 1815 onwards up to about 1965, my first collection was one of each medal and clasp.  I have now about 500 medals and clasps but I am still looking for the elusive few, Defence of Kelat-I-Ghilzie, South Vietnam, the Newfoundland Volunteer War Service Medal and a few more!

I collect RAF Log Books and have about 70, two for the Battle of Britain, a Dambuster, many to Lancaster crews and of course my most treasured Log Book, my Dad’s.

I started back in 1986 a Great War Casualty collection, a medal or group or Plaque or scroll to a man (or woman) killed during the War; the concept was to collect medals to a man killed on every single day of World War One.  I have about 750 days completed.  I also tried something similar with World War two casualties and found that, although this could not be done by day, it was possible by campaign.  I have about 350 casualty groups from the sinking of H.M.S. Royal Oak, an ARP Warden in the Blitz to Dunkirk, D-Day, the Battle of Britain, Imphal, Benghazi, and Monte Casino etc.

If you could retire to an exotic location where would it be?

Well not exotic but over the many years of travelling to the Battlefields of Northern France it would have to be the Somme, a haunting place that never ever ceases to amaze me.

When not working how do you relax/unwind?

I have managed to turn my life-long hobby into a job.  I was lucky enough to be chosen to be part of the Militaria team on the BBC Antiques Roadshow, and I have taken people to the Battlefields for over 35 years.  I lecture in medals and military history, my days are very full with work but doing something I love.  I have two dogs who I like to take on long walks, I enjoy shooting during the season and I have returned to another boy-hood love, making model aircraft – military ones of course!


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Coin of a Tyrant: The Agathocles Gold Stater

The island of Sicily has an unusual past.  During the classical period the small island off the coast of Italy was home to a variety of small city states, originally Greek colonies – the largest of which was Syracuse.  Syracuse, unlike many traditional Greek cities, had a tormented political history.  From the 5th Century BC until the Roman period, it was ruled both a tyranny and a democracy – sometimes both – countless times in its history. One tyrant, however, has become more infamous than any other.

Agathocles was a tyrant of Syracuse and King of Sicily, who, after conquering Syracuse in 317 BC (and promising to uphold the city’s democratic values) murdered over 10,000 of its citizens, made himself master of the city, and formed a massive army to conquer the rest of Sicily.

‘It cannot be called prowess to kill fellow-citizens, to betray friends, to be treacherous, pitiless, irreligious. … Still, if the courage of Agathocles in entering into and extricating himself from dangers be considered, together with his greatness of mind in enduring and overcoming hardships, it cannot be seen why he should be esteemed less than the most notable captain. Nevertheless, his barbarous cruelty and inhumanity with infinite wickednesses do not permit him to be celebrated among the most excellent men.’

Machiavelli, on Agathokles of Syracuse.

Silver Tetradrachm and bronze Trias of Agathocles, depicting the nymph Arethusa. Syracuse, c.317-289.

Agathokles’ gold 100 Litra coins usually feature a portrait of Athena and a thunderbolt. Struck c. 304-289 BC, Syracuse.

Silver Tetradrachm and bronze Trias of Agathocles, depicting the nymph Arethusa. Syracuse, c.317-289.


The tyrant’s army of mercenaries needed payment, and for this, gold staters were struck.  Gold coins were always popular with mercenaries, who would be able to take the small, high value objects back to where they came from.   Depicting the Goddess Athena, and a thunderbolt of Zeus, Agathocles’ coins are some of the finest of the ancient world.  Athena’s helmet is decorated with a depiction of Pegasus, the winged horse, which has remained in exceptional condition on this coin, while most examples have completely worn away.  Agathocles also issued silver coins, called tetradrachms, which were common denominations in the ancient world.  They feature a portrait of the local nymph goddess Arethusa, who was said to live in the fresh-water spring on an island in the bay of Syracuse.  She is a common motif on Sicilian coins.  

Agathokles’ gold 100 Litra coins usually feature a portrait of Athena and a thunderbolt. Struck c. 304-289 BC, Syracuse.

Agathokles’ gold 100 Litra coins usually feature a portrait of Athena and a thunderbolt. Struck c. 304-289 BC, Syracuse.

The coins of Syracuse, and other Sicilian cities, are considered some of the highest quality of the ancient world.  Prior to Agathokles’ rule, massive silver decadrachms were issued.  These huge silver coins, weighing over 40 grams, were the largest silver pieces of the ancient world.  The artists who engraved the dies for these masterpieces actually included their signatures as a mark of pride in their work.

Agathokles ruled for over two decades, though the final years of his life were plagued by illness.  He died of natural causes in 289 BC.

Huge silver decadrachms were issued by Syracuse at the end of the 5th Century BC.

Huge silver decadrachms were issued by Syracuse at the end of the 5th Century BC. 


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The Caesar Denarius: Face of a Dictator

The Romans hated kings.  Since XXX BC Rome had been ruled as a Republic, and as a Republic, had risen to become the dominant power in Western Europe.  Hannibal was defeated.  Greece was occupied, and Celtic Gaul was being subdued thanks to a popular general by the name of Gaius Julius Caesar.  The Senate controlled Rome.  A select group of high-ranking citizens controlled the armies and almost all elements of Roman society.


Caesar’s military denarius depicts a snake (the senate) being crushed by Caesar’s power.  Silver Denarius, 49 BC, Moving Mint.

Caesar’s military denarius depicts a snake (the senate) being crushed by Caesar’s power.  Silver Denarius, 49 BC, Moving Mint.


Caesar is without a doubt one of the most famous figures in history.  He was cunning, ruthless and ambitious.  His ambition, combined with the strength and loyalty of his armies, resulted in him Crossing the Rubicon, and eventually being elevated to ‘Dictator for Life’ – a newly created position reserved only for him.  The Senate hated this, but had to oblige – Caesar had the military might to do essentially what he wanted.  

A traditional Roman Republican silver denarius featuring the head of Roma.  Silver Denarius, Rome, 137 BC.

A traditional Roman Republican silver denarius featuring the head of Roma.  Silver Denarius, Rome, 137 BC.


During the Roman Republic, coins were issued by moneyers and featured motifs relevant to Roman history or mythology.  The heads of gods appear commonly on these coins as well as animals and buildings.  During the 1st century BC, the faces of ancestors begin to appear, but never a living person.  Caesar changed this.  He was the first living person ever depicted on a Roman coin. 

A traditional Roman Republican silver denarius featuring the head of Roma.  Silver Denarius, Rome, 137 BC.

Caesar’s denarii would have caused a stir.  Clearly portrayed are his distinctive facial features. Silver Denarius, Moneyer M. Mettius, Rome, February 44 BC.

Silver denarii were issued in 44 BC onwards, bearing Caesar’s portrait in impressive detail.  All of the dictator’s features were depicted as Caesar wanted, there was no flattery.  Suetonius, writing in the 2nd Century AD, describes Caesar’s appearance as ‘lean, with a long and wrinkled neck, prominent nose and thinning hair’, all of which are visible on his coins.  Some bear the inscription ‘CAESAR DICT PERPETVO’ or ‘Caesar, Dictator for Life’.  Thanks to Caesar’s historical fame, coins bearing his portrait are very valuable today.

The coins of Caesar’s Assassins were generally more conservative, pushing Roman Republican values.  Silver Denarius, Moving Mint, 43-42 BC.

The coins of Caesar’s Assassins were generally more conservative, pushing Roman Republican values.  Silver Denarius, Moving Mint, 43-42 BC.


Depicting himself on Rome’s coinage would certainly have infuriated the Senate – it may have been the last straw.  On the 15th March, 44 BC, knives were drawn in the Senate house.  Caesar was assassinated, and the conspirators ousted from the city.  Caesar’s Assassins struck coins as well.  Brutus, in a somewhat hypocritical move, issued a rare few coins depicting his own portrait, and two daggers, with the inscription ‘EID MAR’ referring to the Ides of March.  He did, however, return to more traditional designs supporting civil liberties and freedoms.  During their campaigns against the Pro-Caesarean factions of the civil war which erupted after Caesar’s death, the assassins Brutus and Cassius issued coins from moving military mints, most of which are rare.  They were both defeated at the Battle of Philippi, in 42 BC. 

 Octavian’s naval victory at Actum was celebrated on a silver denarius issued for the anniversary.  Silver Denarius, Rome, 27 BC.

Octavian’s naval victory at Actum was celebrated on a silver denarius issued for the anniversary.  Silver Denarius, Rome, 27 BC.


Caesar’s right-hand man, Mark Antony, and his adoptive son, Octavian, would continue to grapple for power for another decade.  This would eventually culminate in the Battle of Actium, which saw the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra, and Octavian’s ascension to sole ruler of the Roman World, and the first Roman Emperor.  



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Constantine: Rome’s First Christian Emperor


Constantine’s reign was a turning point in the history of the Roman Empire.  He introduced economic and social reforms which would see the end of a century of crisis in the Roman world, but most importantly he allowed for a religion which had been shunned by Roman Society for three decades to come into the light. 

2.	Bronze follis of Constantine, struck in the aftermath of his accession in York.

Constantine was declared emperor by his troops in 309 AD, in the British City of York (then Eboracum), after the death of his father, Constantius I.  At this time, the Roman Empire was ruled by a number of emperors, working together.  Constantine declared himself sole ruler of the empire and marched on Rome, to face his rival Maxentius in battle.

 3.	Bronze follis of Maxentius (306-312), minted in Rome.  His coin types promoted traditional Roman imagery, in this case, the Dioscuri.

A strange event occurred when Constantine was on his way to Rome.  According to sources, Constantine and his soldiers witnessed a massive Christian symbol, the ‘Chi Rho’ on the horizon.  The night before his confrontation with Maxentius, Constantine had a strange dream.  He was told the name of God, and that if his soldiers fought under the banner of Christ, then he would have his victory.  The following morning, to the horror of his generals and no doubt some of his soldiers (most of whom were traditionally Pagan) Constantine ordered that the shields of his men be painted with the ‘Chi Rho’.  They obeyed.  

 The Milvian Bridge still spans the Tiber today, though heavily rebuilt in medieval times.

The ‘Battle of the Milvian Bridge’, October 28th, 312 saw the demise of the emperor Maxentius and Constantine’s elevation to sole emperor of the Roman world.  The Christian symbols appear to have worked.  Not only did Constantine legalise Christianity across the Empire, he actually converted to the religion before he died, starting a lineage of Romano-Christian emperors which would last for a thousand years.




Constantine’s reign lasted until 336 AD.  Many of his coins feature radically new artwork which had not been seen on Roman coinage before.  He introduced a new gold coin which would become the staple of the Roman world for centuries – the Gold Solidus.  Very rare solidi feature the emperor’s head facing upwards towards god and after his death, special commemoratives were struck, which include the hand of God welcoming Constantine to heaven.

The Chi-Rho or Christogram appeared on coins of Constantine onwards.

Constantine paved the way for the Christian Era.  Churches were thrown up in Rome, on the sites of former martyrs’ deaths.  It was no longer a shunned, underground practice and by 380 AD, Christianity was the state religion of the Roman Empire.  Constantine also founded what would become the new capitol city of the Roman world – Constantinople.  









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New World Record at Baldwin’s of St. James’s Auction

Baldwin’s joint venture with Baldwin’s of St. James’s has resulted in a most successful outcome with their Coinex auctions achieving almost £3 million coming from the sale of one of Britain’s most beautiful and iconic coins setting a new World record

The auction room was full for the duration of the session and the bidders of the room were joined by over 150 hopeful bidders online. The highlight of the day came towards the middle of the session when a Victoria, proof five pounds, 1839, commonly known as ‘Una and the lion’, garnered bids from both the room, over the phone and online. After some intense bidding to start with, it was eventually wheedled down to just two bidders, who went toe-to-toe for at least five minutes before the hammer finally came down on a price of £340,000.  The realised price was more than double the original estimate of £150,000 and a New World Record for a British five pounds piece.

A Victoria, proof five pounds, 1839, commonly known as ‘Una and the lion'

This coin was struck as part of the first coin issue of Queen Victoria in 1838, shortly after she had come to the throne. The obverse displays the famous young head portrait of Victoria by William Wyon while the reverse portrays her as Una leading the lion. This coin is not only very rare but is particularly in good condition.

The story is familiar, the mythical tale it is based on is ancient, but here we see a classic, exquisitely produced golden rarity whose origins and emblematic significance certainly bear repeating. In the Elizabethan epic poem by Edmund Spenser, the legend of The Faerie Queene was born. Ethereal Una, companion of the Redcrosse Knight in Book One of the allegorical poem, captivated readers’ imaginations for generations: she was more of the spirit than of the flesh, a delicate lady whose knight protected her virtue and her being with undying loyalty. Una was young, untried, innocent but majestic. Two centuries after the poem appeared, a new age in England evolved, and to the poets and adventurers of the Romantic Age no image had more appeal or offered more inspiration than did the mythical Una, who seemed so much like the new Queen Victoria, for she, too, was young, untried, innocent and majestic.

At the Royal Mint, recently situated outside the ancient fortress on Tower Hill, the greatly talented engraver William Wyon sought to capture the public’s imagination and its loyalty to the young Victoria by working to create an image that would endure the ages. By so doing, he also secured his own position, for who could doubt the mastery of the largest gold coin appearing in Victoria’s coronation coin set of 1839? Not only was his sensitive portrait of the young queen lifelike and most beautiful, but his image of ‘Una’ leading the British lion across the Empire and across time itself truly captured the essential spirit of the last years of the Romantic Age, when adventuring ruled the British mind and when the world seemed Britain’s for the taking. Victoria’s ‘little wars’ around the globe were all yet to be played out, and Victoria herself faced the kinds of challenges that no teenager could ever imagine. Over the coming decades, both defeat and triumph would burn into Britain’s collective body politic as the wild escapades of Lord Byron and his contemporaries of the first four decades of the nineteenth century metamorphosed into the realities of conquest and dominion, and as Great Britain reached the zenith of its imperial ambitions.

Considered to be one of Britain’s most beautiful coin, it occurs with two small variant reverse legends, based on Psalm 119:133 and translates as ‘May God Direct My Steps’. William Wyon in 1839 seemed to sense and express  the inspiration of the British Empire by the use of this legend, but his image of the queen guiding the British nation, engraved so beautifully on this coin, reflects Britain’s confidence as a world power. Drawing on inspiration from an earlier age, the engraver achieved something few artists ever have – an indelible image of his own times, the Victorian Age

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A Brief History of the British Gold Sovereign

A Brief History of the Gold Sovereign

There are many sources for the history of the gold Sovereign some of which are given in the Bibliography but one of the more recent, succinct and accurate is that which this cataloguer would recommend in the Royal Mint publication “The Gold Sovereign 1489-1989” essay The Fifteenth Century Revival” by John Pourteous, published 1989.



Introduced by King Henry VII (1485-1509), in 1489 the gold Sovereign in the hand made hammered period of our Tudor Coinage formed the grandest and most impressive coin ever issued in the English series at that date. This was a direct result of the influence of the Renaissance style that had emanated from Italy and a distinct display at how wealthy King Henry VII had become after the closure of the 100 years war and his own victory over King Richard III (1483-5) at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

                The gold Sovereign issued at 30 Shillings and struck in 23 carat 3 7/8 grains fine gold, was approximately 38mm in diameter and weighing some 30g was a most impressive issue. It was a most illustrious coin depicting the King seated on his throne with orb and sceptre, surrounded by a tressure of many arcs and a legend declaring him King of England, France and Lord of Ireland. The reverse showing a full bloom Tudor rose, it is a most impressive coin and went through five incarnations in Henry VII’s reign alone, which is a great deal for a denomination that was not used in everyday transactions and never really seen by the majority of the population.

 A Tudor centrepiece, the Sovereign continued to be issued in fine gold into the reign of Henry VIII (1509-47) through three incarnations, but due to the extravagant spending of the King, the coinage suffered and subsequent issues of the gold Sovereign endured being reduced in weight, and eventually in fineness to as low as 20 carats. It was only through the efforts of his son, the “boy” King Edward VI (1547-53), that the fineness of the gold Sovereign was eventually restored and a 30 Shilling face value, running through three different issues of Sovereign in his short reign.

                Edward’s older sister Queen Mary (1553-8), continued the issue of the fine gold Sovereign in her reign as did her younger sister Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), though Elizabeth also introduced a lower 22 carat 20 Shilling gold piece the Pound which ran concurrently and then solely to the end of her reign. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth the first experimentation began with striking by method of machine, which was too controversial to be introduced over the traditional hammered method at this time circa 1561-70.

                The Stuart King James I (1603-25), already King of Scotland since 1567, issued a fine gold Sovereign for the first two years of his reign of a different design to Elizabeth. However from 1605 James demonstrated how he was King of both England and Scotland by introducing a new 20 Shilling denomination the “Unite” and latterly in his final coinage the “Laurel” where he is depicted laureate and draped like a Roman Emperor. The 30 Shilling Sovereign had become the Rose Ryal in this coinage and latterly the Spur Ryal of differing designs, two types of which depict the King quite life-like  seated on the throne as with the Tudor Sovereigns.

The Unite denomination was continued as the staple gold coin into the reign of his son King Charles I (1625-49). During the Civil War the gold coins were issued provincially for the first time and we see the issue of the largest hammered gold denomination ever, the magnificent Triple Unite from both Shrewsbury and Oxford.

                The Puritans under Oliver Cromwell continued the issue of the Unite through the guise of the Commonwealth (1649-60), though by now the concept of machinery was being entertained in the Mint once again and there was a Pattern milled “Broad” of 20 Shillings produced bearing the portrait of Oliver Cromwell in 1656.

                At the Restoration King Charles II (1660-85) expressed his wish for mechanisation of the Mint, however the controversial machinery based at Drury House on The Strand, London where it had been housed through fear of sabotage from the hammered workers, was so massive that it took nigh on two years to fully move all the parts across, and set them up in the Tower of London within the Mint compound. During this delay Charles II  issued at first his own hammered gold Unite of 20 Shillings, later termed a “Broad” once the milled machine-made coinage emerged from 1663 as the diameter of the hammered piece was larger though much thinner than its machine made counterpart.

                This machine made piece was the gold Guinea and was first coined in 1663 initially at 20 Shillings face value. Officially it was a Twenty Shilling piece, but colloquially called a Guinea, so-named after the place where most of the gold supply came from being Guinea in Africa. Some gold supplied by the “African Company” was denoted with either an elephant, or elephant and castle, below the busts.

This successful denomination continued through the reigns of all the other Stuart Monarchs, King James II (1685-88), William and Mary (1688-94), King William III (1694-1702), Queen Anne (1702-14), some issues with the African mark, and in Queen Anne’s reign a very rare issue with VIGO below the bust denoting gold captured from the Spanish after the Vigo Bay conflict. Throughout all of these reigns including those back in the hammered Tudor and Stuart period, the price of gold had fluctuated as the gold to silver ratio varied over time compared with those ratios in trade in Europe, and at various times the supply of gold or silver coin maybe flowing into or out of England, hence varying the face value of the gold Guinea. This coupled with the poor state of the silver coinage before the Great Recoinage of silver in 1696, meant the value of the “Guinea” fluctuated as high as 30 Shillings.

                The Master of the Mint in the reign of Queen Anne was a certain Mr Isaac Newton (later knighted), who recognised the problem of a lack of fixed face value on the gold and it was in a Proclamation of 1717 in the succeeding reign that the value was set at 21 Shillings for a Guinea with which we are still familiar today in traditions like the 10,000 Guineas horse race. This set the mark for the 100 year period until the introduction of the modern gold Sovereign.

                The Guinea continued to be issued by the Hanoverian dynasty, from King George I (1714-27), King George II (1727-60), and King George III (1760-1820). During the reign of King George II, in 1733 all the old hammered gold was finally called in to be withdrawn, the silver having already been withdrawn back in the reign of William III and the Great Recoinage .

                However there was still a long-standing issue with the import and export of silver and gold coin and the lack of harmonisation in Europe of the gold and silver ratio. Towards the end of the 18th Century there had become a distinct lack of small change in silver, as there was no limit to the specie of how coin and bullion payments were made up in transactions, both here and overseas. This major problem was relieved in part by the Bank of England who released their stocks of silver Spanish Colonial dollars to be countermarked with a head of King George III and circulate, however these countermarked Dollars were unfortunately easily copied. This problem was solved in the short term by Matthew Boulton of the Soho Mint, who used James Watt’s steam presses to totally overstrike the Spanish Dollars with a Bank of England design. However the lack of a law of legal tender still meant that large payments could be tendered in large quantity of silver, and it was subsequently drained out of England and onto the Continent.

After much deliberation in Parliament this led to the Coinage Act of 1816, in which the involvement of Lord Liverpool was instrumental, where a limit of 40 shillings was set upon payments made in silver, with gold remaining legal tender for payments of any size. This immediately helped the flow and ratio of gold and silver, and made the use of European and foreign coin illegal. A newly anticipated “recoinage” was in preparation and underway with gestation and proposals starting in 1816. The Chief Engraver who later died that year was Thomas Wyon Jnr. who submitted designs as well as the Italian Second Engraver Benedetto Pistrucci. The Master of the Mint was William Wellesley Pole, later Lord Maryborough, brother of the Duke of Wellington was instrumental in bringing Pistrucci to the Mint and whose work was eventually adopted for the new coinage.

The modern gold Sovereign was first issued on 5th July 1817 at a weight of 7.98grammes and 22mm in diameter with a face value of One Pound or Twenty Shillings. The gold Half-Sovereign followed later in the year in October.