This coming Wednesday marks the bicentennial of the reintroduction of the gold sovereign coin into the coinage of Great Britain. This was part of the government’s effort to update and stabilize the national currency after the Napoleonic Wars. The last version of the English gold sovereign had been struck over a century before, during the reign of King Charles II. This new coin would also be the first sovereign struck by steam power at the new Royal Mint. Despite the fact that gold sovereigns to the value of nearly four and a half million pounds were struck that first year, curiously, very few of them made it into regular circulation.
The strange story of the sovereign in the Regency . . .
The very first gold sovereign coin was introduced by Henry VII, the first Tudor king of England, in 1489. This new gold piece was part of the king’s makeover of the national coinage. It was the largest gold coin ever minted in England and carried the value of one pound. The gold coin got its name from the fact that the obverse, or front, side of the coin depicted the king seated on his throne, in full royal regalia, his intent being to send a message that he was absolute sovereign of his realm. All of the Tudor monarchs after Henry VII continued to mint gold sovereigns as part of their own coinage. The first Stuart monarch, James I, who succeeded Queen Elizabeth I, had only one sovereign struck during the course of his reign. However, his son and grandson, Charles I and Charles II, both issued gold sovereigns during their reigns. James II, the last Stuart king, was deposed and exiled before he could have any coins struck with his image. The English monarchs who succeeded him did not issue gold sovereigns during their reigns and the coin eventually fell out of circulation. Therefore, the sovereign coin was all but forgotten by everyone but numismatists and few economists by the time of the Regency.
In Great Britain, over the course of the eighteenth century, the government paid little attention to the state of the country’s currency. Though there had been growing complaints from many quarters, government officials had generally taken a laissez-faire attitude toward the currency used within the country, making no effort to reform it for over a century. As a result, before the century was out, a silver shortage led to a significant shortage of coins, particularly those in small denominations. But by then, the war with France took up most of the British government’s attention and the issue of national currency reform would have to wait. Finally, in 1797, in large part due to the French invasion attempt at Fishguard, in Wales, an Act of Parliament legalized the use of paper money in lieu of coins and suspended the option of converting those paper notes into gold or silver. By so doing, the British government was able to stockpile vast quantities of gold, which they later used to pay subsidies to encourage their allies to continue the battle against Napoleon.
In June of 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte and his French army were finally and definitively defeated on the fields outside the Belgian village of Waterloo. With that allied victory, the Napoleonic Wars were well and truly over. Within a year, the British economy was severely depressed, exacerbated by the Corn Laws which were passed the previous year, and the many thousand of demobilized soldiers who had returned to Britain after Waterloo. It was clear to the government that they must find a way to reform and more importantly, stabilize, the currency of Great Britain. One of the most important steps in that direction was known as the Great Recoinage of 1816. The ambitious program called for the Royal Mint to produce all new coinage and to exchange those new coins for any old coins which were in circulation. The first phase of this process was to mint new coins in the smaller denominations, since those were the coins most widely in demand. Those small denomination coins were all minted in silver, over the course of the second half of 1816, and they were distributed across the nation in a period of about three weeks in early 1817.
Sometime in late 1816 or early 1817, it was decided to reintroduce the gold sovereign coin as part of the Great Recoinage effort. This new gold sovereign would be a coin of smaller size than its earlier, larger predecessors, but it would still be valued at twenty shillings, or one pound. The government intended this new gold coin to replace the guinea, a gold coin worth twenty-one shillings, production of which had ceased in 1813. The weight of the new sovereign was tied to the current gold standard of one troy pound of twenty-two carat gold, which was then £46 14s 6d. Therefore, the new gold sovereign coin was supposed to weigh 7.988030269 grams. Though it was nearly impossible for the technology of the time to ensure such a precise individual coin weight, the Royal Mint did their best to create sovereigns as close as possible to that standard.
The Master of the Royal Mint, from 1814 to 1823, was William Wellesley Pole, an elder brother of the Duke of Wellington. It was his responsibility to direct and manage the execution of the Great Recoinage program, including the production of a new gold sovereign. It is believed that the Italian gem-engraver and medallist, Benedetto Pistrucci, who was living in England by 1815, was introduced to Wellesley Pole by Sir Joseph Banks, early in 1816. Pistrucci had been commissioned by Banks to execute an effigy of George III and Banks was of the opinion that Pistrucci should be given the commission to design the new gold sovereign. It seems that Wellesley Pole agreed with Banks, and Pistrucci was appointed to the Engraving Department of the Mint and would execute the design of the new sovereign as well as the designs for many other coins and medals. The obverse of the new coin would display the profile of George III, while the reverse would carry an image of St. George slaying the dragon from the back of a rearing horse. It is believed that Wellesley Pole sought an informal meeting with the Prince Regent in order to get his approval of Pistrucci’s designs. Once that approval had been gained, the Chief Engraver, Thomas Wyon, Jr., copied Pistrucci’s designs, in reverse, on steel, to make the dies from which the coins would be struck.
The first gold sovereigns, produced for Henry VII, in 1489, were made by hand. The process comprised placing a metal blank between two coin dies, which were then struck with a hammer. English coins were made in this way until 1662, when, during the reign of Charles II, a screw press method was introduced. Coins made using the screw press were more regular in shape and the designs stood out in much higher relief. Both hammer struck and screw press struck coins were all made at the Royal Mint, which was located in the Tower of London until the early nineteenth century. In 1805, a new, purpose-built mint building had been designed and construction began on Tower Hill, which was situated northwest of the Tower. This new Royal Mint complex included the main building, which had a gatehouse on either side. Behind that stood the building into which the mint’s new machinery was installed. There were other, smaller buildings constructed as part of the complex which provided housing for mint officials and senior staff members. The new mint complex was completed in 1809, though, as with many ancient royal English institutions, the move was not considered official until 1812, when the keys of the old mint rooms in the Tower were ceremoniously returned to the Constable of the Tower.
The new features of the Royal Mint included more than just a modern complex of buildings. That machinery building which stood behind the main building housed state-of-the-art rolling mills and coin presses which were powered by steam. These steam-powered machines were supplied by Matthew Robinson Boulton, the son and heir of the famous Birmingham manufacturer who had developed them to mint his own tokens. James Lawson, the Supervisor of Machinery at the Royal Mint, ordered two additional steam-powered coin presses from Boulton, as well as six additional boilers for the steam engines, in order to prepare for the rigorous demands of the Great Recoinage program. Boulton, in turn, offered to allow the Royal Mint to use the machines he used in Birmingham to produce tokens, in order to keep the recoinage program on schedule. This offer was accepted for the making of some silver coins, but it is not clear whether or not any gold sovereigns were struck outside the confines of the Royal Mint complex in London.
The gold bullion from which these new gold sovereigns would be minted was supplied by the Bank of England. Bank officials worked with Wellesley Pole and his senior moneyers, the men who made the money at the mint, to ensure a steady supply of gold in the quantities needed. The amount and the schedule of bullion delivery had to be adjusted from time to time, most often due to a machine breakdown at the mint, which slowed production until the machine could be repaired and returned to service. By the time the sovereign went into production, the mint moneyers were working around the clock to meet the coining goals set by the government. Nevertheless, the grounds of the Royal Mint complex were still guarded twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The bullion deliveries from the Bank of England to the Royal Mint were also made under guard. There is no record of any loss of either bullion nor coins during the minting of the new gold sovereigns.
The striking of gold sovereigns began at the Royal Mint in early May of 1817. By early July of that year, there were enough coins stockpiled so that they were ready to be put into circulation. The official release date was set for Saturday, 5 July 1817. The banks and government officials were rather underwhelmed by the demand for the new coin among the members of the public. Though the demand for the new silver coins which had been released for circulation earlier in the year had been very strong, the demand for the new gold sovereigns was decidedly lackluster. A former governor of the Bank of England noted that people seemed quite indifferent to gold. He remarked that instead of coming to the bank for gold, they brought their gold to the bank. Initially, in fact, the majority of the new gold sovereigns went to banks, where they were stockpiled, in anticipation of the redemption of government notes with cash payments. Half-sovereigns were first struck in September of 1817, and were released into circulation a few months later, garnering a similar lackluster response from the public.
One of the problems which had plagued the silver currency of Britain in the eighteenth century was the rising price of silver. When the market price of silver rose higher than that set by the Royal Mint, large numbers of silver coins were smuggled out of Britain and sold abroad for bullion at the market rate. A similar situation arose in the autumn of 1818. By that time, the market price of gold had risen significantly above the price set by the Royal Mint. Vast quantities of British gold sovereigns and half-sovereigns were smuggled out of the country and sold as bullion abroad. Early in 1819, Sir Rober Peel reported that at least seventy-five percent of the gold coin minted in France since October of 1818, valued at least £5 million, had originally come from British gold coins issued during the Great Recoinage. This flow of gold abroad also had the effect of eventually reducing the Bank of England’s gold reserves by over half by early 1819. Similar problems would plague the British currency as the price of gold fluctuated over the next few decades.
Dear Regency Authors, might some shiny new, glittering gold sovereigns enrich an upcoming romance set in 1817? Perhaps an older character, who remembered the gold guinea, valued at twenty-one, rather than twenty shillings, will cast aspersions on the new smaller, lower value coin? Mayhap the heroine has a younger brother, a devoted numismatist, who is determined to get his hands on a brand new gold sovereign in the first days of July 1817. To what lengths might that young man go, and in what coils might his actions entwine the heroine, ideally with the hero? Then again, an author setting a story in the years of peace after Waterloo might still have an opportunity to make the hero a romantic, and, of course, a patriotic spy, if he is working for the Crown in an effort to stop the smuggling of British gold coins out of the country. Are there other ways in which the new gold sovereigns or half-sovereigns might subsidize the plot of an upcoming novel?