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Coin Rarities & Related Topics: Amazing English Gold Sovereign of Henry VIII

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds
News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #127 …..

During the evening of Thursday, Sept. 6, at the Long Beach Expo, Heritage will auction a large and historically important, English gold coin of Henry VIII that is of amazing quality for a coin of its type. This Sovereign was minted at some point between 1526 and 1543, the second era of coinage during the reign of King Henry VIII, which lasted from 1509 to his death in 1547. It is a large, thin gold coin, probably around 1.65 inches (42 mm) in diameter. Furthermore, it weighs more than half a standard ounce (in U.S. terms), a little less than one half a troy ounce, and more than fifteen grams. This gold piece is well detailed, very brilliant, and extraordinary overall.

This Henry VIII Sovereign is NGC graded ‘AU-50,’ which is an extremely high grade for a coin of this type. It is the star of the upcoming Heritage auction of a wide variety of coins of the world. Last week, I wrote about some of the U.S. coins that Heritage will auction at the same Long Beach Expo in Los Angeles County.

I have examined a large number of English gold coins from the 1300s through the 1700s. I really like English coins from this time period. For a large gold coin, this Henry VIII Sovereign is just tremendous. The luster is wonderful.The natural gold color is rich. This gold piece has only been lightly to moderately dipped. The surfaces have never been doctored. Moreover, there are almost zero, noticeable contact marks. There is only a minimal amount of wear. This Sovereign was made with a relatively sharp strike on a choice, prepared blank (planchet). When compared to other gold coins of the 1500s or 1600s, it is just terrific looking.

Yes, there are some imperfections relating to the rims and edges, which are hard to see in its NGC holder. On old, large gold coins, such rim and/or edge issues are to be expected. If not for these rim or edge imperfections, however, it probably would have been awarded a grade higher than 50! There is very little, actual wear.

The Henry VIII Sovereigns that survive tend to have the detail of Very Fine-20 to Extremely Fine-45 grade coins. I suggest, though, that around half of the surviving Henry VIII Sovereign gold coins have problems that are too serious for them to qualify for numerical grades, or are borderline gradable. Though I was unable to inspect the edges, this piece seems to be definitely gradable. Plus, it is more than very attractive. It really grabbed my attention, more so than any English gold coin since the Goldbergs auction of the Millennia Collection in May 2008.

To put this coin in its historical context, I discuss the reign of Henry VIII and the coinage of this denomination, the Sovereign, under his rule. Later, I mention some other Sovereigns that have sold at auction during the last seven years.

The English gold Sovereign, as a denomination, was instituted by King Henry VII, the father of King Henry VIII. The “Sovereign was first issued in 1489,” according to Richard Doty, who is the curator of coins at the Smithsonian Institution. In 1982, Doty’s The Macmillan Encyclopedic Dictionary of Numismatics was published.

While Henry VII it not now well known, Henry VIII is the most famous king in the history of England. His daughter, Elizabeth I, may be the most famous English monarch of all.

Although there are ceremonial monarchs, such as the current Queen of England and the current King of Norway, I am using the term ‘monarch’ here to refer to an individual who holds the pre-eminent political position in a society and has tremendous political power. Usually, a monarch holds his or her position for life, unlike elected politicians.

Throughout most of the history of Europe and of Asia, nations and city-states were usually monarchies. Yes, there were democracies, constitutional republics and other forms of government in Ancient Greece. Over the centuries, some societies were ruled by elected politicians or self-perpetuating councils. In Europe until the 1800s, however, most societies were governed by monarchs, who, in some cases, ruled along with legislatures.

Henry VIII was not just another monarch. Father and daughter, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, each had a large impact upon the history of England and each influenced the history of Europe. Coins issued under their respective reigns are more highly demanded than coins issued by English monarchs who were not as historically important.

I. The Reign of Henry VIII

Henry VIII was born in 1491. Upon the death of his father in 1509, Henry VIII became King of England, when he was not quite eighteen years old. His older brother, Arthur, had died when Arthur was fifteen and Henry was ten.

Shortly before his death, Arthur had married Catherine of Aragon, daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella financed the expeditions of Christopher Columbus, which lead to European colonizations of the Americas.

Henry VII wished for England to have friendly and productive relations with Spain. After the death of Arthur, Henry VII strongly desired that his second son, Henry, marry Catherine as well, mostly for political reasons. Spain was a great power of the era.

So, Henry and Catherine were married.They had a a daughter, Mary, who would later become queen in 1553. The word ‘queen,’ in the context of royalty, has two meanings. Usually, a queen is the wife of a king. Mary, however, was single when she ascended to the throne in 1553. She was the monarch, though, within a couple years, she married Philip II of Spain, who became her co-ruler.

The idea of a female monarch was extremely controversial and many people did not accept the idea at all. Indeed, throughout the history of human civilization, a small percentage of powerful monarchs, as opposed to ceremonial monarchs, have been female.

In the 1500s, most people in England reluctantly accepted the idea of a female monarch, though there was then a consensus that a male was strongly preferred. To reflect upon the reign of Henry VIII, it is necessary to consider the values and viewpoints of people in the 1500s. It is easy to criticize them from a more enlightened, modern perspective. Their understandings of medicine, science in general and the abilities of women were primitive, by 20th century standards.

Because of the application of 20th century values, extremely negative reviews of Henry VIII by historians and other writers in the 20th century have been misleading and typically poorly reasoned. While Henry’s obsession with having a male heir may seem ridiculous in 2012, it made perfect logical sense to English citizens and almost everyone else, in the 1500s.

Most monarchies were hereditary. Upon the death of a monarch, his or her oldest surviving son usually became the next monarch. While the notion of a hereditary monarchy does not make sense to most people now, this form of government was widely accepted in Europe and in Asia for thousands of years. Even now in 2012, in some nations in the Middle East, kings, or monarchs with other titles, continue to rule.

One reason why most people strongly preferred the idea of a male monarch to that of a female monarch is that a major part of the job of a monarch, traditionally, was to be commander-in-chief of the military and often to literally lead troops into battle. More than once during his reign, Henry VIII traveled to France to oversee English troops fighting French troops.

So, it was important to most of the citizens of a monarchy, not just to the king himself, for a male child of the king to reach adulthood. Before the 19th century, a substantial percentage of children in general never became adults. Indeed, many children did not live for a week, or even an hour after birth. There were no antibiotics and medical care was very crude, by current standards.

While it is upsetting or irritating to many students now that Henry VIII was married six times, his behavior was understandable to citizens of England in the 1500s. None of his male children reached adulthood.

Because so many children died of diseases, it made logical sense for the king to have multiple sons with the hope that one would reach adulthood. Indeed, most English citizens wanted Henry VIII to have male heirs, so one would become the next king. His son, Edward VI, did become king in 1547, when he was ten years old. Edward VI died in 1553, before he reached the age of sixteen.

Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon did not have a son. During the 1520s, Henry was furious that the Catholic Church would not grant an annulment of his marriage to Catherine, which was controversial anyway, since she had earlier been married to his late brother. King Henry VIII very much wanted to get divorced. The fact that Catherine did not give birth to a boy was not the only factor. Their marriage had serious problems.

Henry’s anger at the Pope and other Catholic authorities at the Vatican should be placed in a larger context. Intellectual-theological revolts against the Catholic Church had been brewing for centuries. In much of Europe, especially in German speaking societies, there were priests and other clerics who were philosophically opposed to key Catholic doctrines.

The revolt against Catholicism climaxed in the 1500s. Martin Luther, a German priest, was just eight years older than Henry VIII. Luther, John Calvin and others challenged Catholicism. They did not recognize the authority of the pope. Luther made the bible available for many people to read. Previously, the bible had been available only to Catholic Priests and scholars. In most of Europe, people in general learned about the bible through the teachings of Catholic Priests. Also, Luther got married and remained a priest. The Catholic Church did not and does not now allow Catholic Priests to get married.

Over the course of the 1500s and 1600s, most of Northern Europe became Protestant. France and the societies of Southern Europe tended to maintain allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church. The people of Ireland remained Catholic as well. In central Europe, there were was a battle of ideas regarding religion, which sometimes became literally violent.

The strong opposition to some (though not all) Catholic doctrines by Henry VIII paralleled the blossoming of the Protestant Reformation. The religious position of Henry VIII, however, was really in the middle. He did not adhere to agendas of Luther, Calvin or other Protestant luminaries.

Under his rule, the Church of England became defined by a mixture of Catholic doctrines and Protestant doctrines. Henry VIII never embraced the Protestant Reformation, though he ended the authority of the Vatican in England. With the cooperation of the English Parliament, King Henry VIII shut down Catholic Churches and other Catholic institutions in England.

Even in the present, the structure and rules of the Church of England are similar to those of the Catholic Church, in many ways, though are clearly Protestant in other ways. The Church of England bears more resemblance to the Catholic Church than do most other Protestant sects.

His rejection of Catholicism and his six wives are not the only historically important components of the reign of King Henry VIII. He was a leader in promoting sports and the arts. Indeed, he was both an accomplished athlete in multiple sports and a serious, enthusiastic supporter of music, theater and stand-up comedy. He encouraged creative activities.

The reign of Henry VIII was generally positive. In my view, the negative treatment of him by 20th century historians and, especially, by popular writers is misleading. Yes, two of his six wives were executed. It is very likely, however, that there were reasons, in accordance with the values and social order of the time, for these executions.

While the charges against the two wives who were executed may seem unfair, absurd or ridiculous, now, the alleged acts were regarded as terrible crimes in the 1500s (and in later eras). It was obviously, from a society-wide perspective, much more serious for a queen to engage in adultery than it was for anyone else to do so. There was no DNA testing in the 1500s. If a queen committed adultery and then became pregnant, it would often be impossible to determine if the king was the father of the child. The well being of the citizens and the future of the whole nation would be substantially affected if their queen was impregnated by a man other than the king.

While historians continue to debate the strength and meanings of the evidence regarding ‘wrongdoing’ by Queen Anne Boleyn and Queen Catherine Howard, respectively, my point here is that the charges, true or false, were not fabricated; they were quite real. King Henry VIII was not seeking to execute innocent people, certainly not innocent ex-wives.

Of course, King Henry VIII did not have a perfect record in regard to civil rights and human rights. Did any historically significant, powerful monarch have a perfect record in this regard? In comparison to monarchs of affluent nations, over the centuries, Henry VIII had a better ‘human rights’ record than more than ninety-five percent of the others.

Indeed, even when political dissenters were executed for treason or similar offenses, they were typically first given the option of having the charges dropped if they agreed to repudiate or just modify their viewpoints. In many such cases, merely signing a statement of allegiance to the king would result in all charges being dismissed and the accused would then be free to resume normal lives. During the reign of Henry VIII, most of the people who were executed for treason or political offenses refused to sign any kind of statement, even when signing would result in an acquittal or a full pardon.

When I was twelve years old, I was horrified when I was taught that Henry VIII executed two of his wives just because they did not give birth to boys. This is not true.

After the Church of England became independent of the Catholic Church, early in the reign of Henry VIII, marriages could be ended. In another words, during the reign of Henry VIII, there was no need for a spouse to die, or for the Pope to issue a ruling, for a marriage to be ended. Henry VIII himself was the head of the Church of England and the king appointed the highest ranking religious official in England, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The marriage of Henry VIII and his fourth wife, Anna of Cleves, was amicably ended in 1540. They remained friends and she was socially active in English society. There is much information, however, regarding the wives of Henry VIII that will never be known. Historians will debate the details of their lives, endlessly.

In a new book in 2010, Professor G. W. Bernard argued that Anne Boleyn was guilty of many of the charges against her. In 1989, another influential university professor, Retha Warnicke, wrote an intriguing book arguing that there were ‘medical’ reasons, which are now known to be scientifically wrong, as to why authorities in 1537 would have honestly concluded that Anne Boleyn was guilty of sex offenses. Importantly, Warnicke provides logical reasons as to why such ‘evidence’ would not have been openly introduced in legal proceedings. Warnicke’s theory, whether true or false, relates to my point here that it is likely that authorities at the time honestly thought her actions constituted crimes against the kingdom. Queen Anne Boleyn was not executed solely because she did not have male children and she was not executed by the king as an alternative to a divorce.

The foreign policy of Henry VIII is also controversial. England had yet to become a superpower. During his rule of more than thirty-seven years, there were just a few battles with France. British troops were not engulfed in large-scale wars.

Although Henry VIII avoided needless wars, he felt compelled, by international circumstances, to involve England in some conflicts, mostly through alliances and expenditures. After all, it was a priority to ensure that no enemy was powerful enough and situated to conquer England. These conflicts were expensive and England had yet to become nearly as wealthy as some other European powers. In my view, Henry VIII deserves credit for a relatively sound foreign policy, certainly one that is more sensible and logical than the foreign policies implemented by many other European monarchs, which were dominated by crazed desires for power.

His foreign policy was expensive, given the realities of the nation’s treasury. Henry VIII was not a financial wizard and management of financial resources was one of the weaker aspects of his reign. In this area, he deserves criticism. His administrations implemented some inflationary policies, which relate to the history of gold Sovereigns that were issued under his reign.

II. Issues of Sovereigns

The Sovereign is a coin denomination that was instituted to serve more of a political purpose than an economic one. While the Sovereign gold denomination was introduced in the 1480s, the gold Noble had already been in production since the 1320s and the gold Angel denomination had been minted since the 1420s. Further, the Noble and the Angel were consistent with evolved, unwritten international monetary standards. There was no practical need for a large, thin gold coin.

The father of Henry VIII, King Henry VII, had risen to power under controversial circumstances. Another family had perhaps a better claim to the throne. Henry
VII used the new Sovereign gold coin denomination as a public relations tool to reinforce the concept that his reign was proper, legitimate and beneficial.

The Sovereign of the first coinage of Henry VII shows the king on a throne along with a variety of heraldic symbols, which are meant to emphasize his role as the sole, true and deserving King of England, at the time. Moreover, the reverse (back of the coin) features a the royal arms of England embedded on a large, majestic rose, the symbol of the ‘House of Tudor,’ the newly reigning royal family.

For Henry VII, the Sovereign was not just a coin; it was an announcement and a bold statement. It is unlikely that Henry VIII gave a lot of thought to the Sovereign gold denomination.

Under the reign of Henry VIII, at least three types of Sovereigns were issued, depending on how a type is distinguished from a variety. In 1884, Robert Lloyd Kenyon identified five coinages of Henry VIII, including five types of Sovereigns. In the 20th century, however, cataloguers and researchers generally refer to three eras of coinages during the lifetime of Henry VIII. If Sovereigns of fourth and fifth coinages exist or existed, these are beside the thrust of my discussion here.

I repeat that the Henry VIII Sovereigns of the first era were struck between 1509 and 1526. These are 99.48% gold, a high level of fineness.

The weight standard for a Sovereign was, at first, 240 grains, which equals 15.55 grams, and is exactly one half of a troy ounce. In England and the U.S., gold and silver are traditionally measured in troy ounces, while the weights of other things are measured in standard (avoirdupois) ounces and pounds. Traditionally, a Sovereign equaled twenty shillings.

Sovereigns of the first coinage of Henry VIII are extremely rare. Double Sovereigns were made, though these are patterns rather than coins.

The piece being offered by Heritage this week is from the second coinage of Henry VIII, which began in 1526 and ended around 1543. The gold content of each Sovereign is the same for those of the first and second coinages. There are some differences in the design. Moreover, Sovereigns, in 1526, were revalued as being worth twenty-two shillings, rather than twenty shillings. Later, a Sovereign became worth twenty two and half shillings (22 shillings, 6 pence).

For the third coinage, the value of twenty shillings per Sovereign was restored, yet the weight of each Sovereign was substantially reduced from 240 grains (0.5 troy ounce) to 200 grains (0.42 troy ounce = 12.96 grams). Moreover, the fineness was reduced as well, from 99.48% gold to 95.83% gold (23 carets). Therefore, the net amount of gold in each Sovereign was reduced from 0.4974 troy ounce (15.47g) to 0.3993 troy ounce (12.42 g), quite a drop.

Some coin experts have asserted that the gold content of Sovereigns was further reduced after the beginning of third coinage. More research would be needed for a thorough documentation of all varieties of Sovereigns, including elemental analysis of many of the coins to determine their precise fineness, respectively.

The general rule is to refer to a third coinage as dating from 1544 to 1547. Most collectors of early English gold coins seek just one sovereign of Henry VIII. A few collectors have sought one of each of the three coinage periods during his reign. It is not practical to discuss varieties of Sovereigns here, and even less practical to collect them by variety. These are typically collected as type coins.

III. Recently Offered Sovereigns

It is extremely rare for Sovereigns of Henry VIII to be offered at auction in the United States. Even offerings in England are not frequent, though several have been auctioned by Spink over the last seven years, and one Bonhams auction contained four!

Heritage and also the Goldbergs have offered Half-Sovereigns of Henry VIII. This smaller denomination is not nearly as rare or as historically important as the full Sovereign. In Feb. 2011, the Goldbergs offered a Sovereign of the second coinage, from “The Lieber Collection.” This coin is probably not gradable. It seems to have the sharpness of a VF-30 grade coin. It did not sell.

In May 2005, in London, Spink auctioned three Sovereigns of Henry VIII as parts of the Samuel King Collection, an extraordinary collection of English gold coins. The Samuel King Collection contained two from the second coinage and one from the third.

Regarding one of these Sovereigns, “a most handsome piece, unusually well struck on a full flan, good very fine, very rare thus,” said the cataloguer at Spink. It could be true that this coin would grade EF-40 or higher by U.S. standards. It could also be true that it is not gradable. Interestingly, its pedigree is detailed, a Stack’s auction in 1944, the Hird collection auctioned by Glendining in May 1961, and the Dupree Collection, which was purchased privately by Spink in 1989.

The next lot in the sale of the Samuel King Collection, another Sovereign from the second coinage, is inferior to the last, though could be a sharp, appealing coin. Earlier, it was offered by Spink in 2002.

As for the Samuel King Collection Sovereign from the third coinage, it may be around average quality, or a little less than average, for a surviving Sovereign of Henry VIII. It seems that it is not gradable, probably with the sharpness of a VF grade.

In March 2012, Spink auctioned another Sovereign from the third coinage. It was also earlier in the Dupree Collection. It has the sharpness of a Fine-15 grade coin. As to whether it is gradable, I have no idea. It sold for £13,000, more than US$20,600. In terms of quality, it is not in the same league as the coin that Heritage will auction this week.

In Dec. 2010, Spink auctioned a Sovereign of the second coinage that is possibly in the same league as the one that will be offered this week. It may not be as lustrous and it may not be as sharp. It would be great if Spink added high resolution images to their online archives. In any event, this coin sold for £62,000, nearly $100,000!

In Dec. 2011, Spink auctioned another piece of the second coinage, maybe deserving of a numerical Very Fine grade, for £24,500, around $39,000. A somewhat detailed pedigree is given, which dates this coin to the “Oswald Fitch” collection, which Spink bought privately ‘circa 1918.’

Notably, in March 2006, in London, Bonhams auctioned four Sovereigns of the third coinage, in various states of preservation. At least one of these was earlier in the epic J. G. Murdoch Collection, and was auctioned by Sotheby’s in 1904. This same Bonhams auction featured a Sovereign of the first coinage as well. From the online Bonhams archive, it is not clear how many of these five Sovereigns, of Henry VIII, were from the same consignment.

The one that Heritage will offer this week is certainly one of the highest quality Sovereigns of Henry VIII to be auctioned in a long time. Due its cool denomination, its exceptional quality and the general history of Henry VIII, it is a very exciting coin.

©2012 Greg Reynolds

Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds has carefully examined a majority of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest classic U.S. type coins. He personally attended sales of the Eliasberg, Pittman, Newman, and Gardner Collections, among other landmark events. Greg has also covered major auctions of world coins, including the sale of the Millennia Collection. In addition to more than four hundred analytical columns for CoinWeek and at least 50 articles for CoinLink, Reynolds has contributed hundreds of articles to Numismatic News newspaper and related publications. Greg is also a multi-year winner of the ‘Best All-Around Portfolio’ award from the NLG, as well as awards for individual articles, a series of articles on the Eric Newman Collection, and for best column published on a web site.

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