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Rare English Gold Sovereign of Queen Mary I

Coin Rarities and Related Topics by Greg Reynolds

News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #143 …..

During the morning of Thursday, Dec. 13 on Madison Avenue in New York, Bonhams auctioned a noteworthy collection of English and British gold and silver coins dating from 1300s to the 1800s, with many coins from the 1600s. The star of this collection was a Gold Sovereign coin dating from 1553, which realized $84,240. This was a very strong, though very much understandable price. This coin is among the better survivors of a very rare and historically important issue under the reign of Mary I. Also, it scores highly in the category of originality.

This Gold Sovereign coin was issued under the authority of the first Queen Regnant of England, Mary Tudor (Mary I), daughter of Henry VIII. The Tudors are of much greater historical importance than most other royal families, in England or elsewhere. During the Tudor era, from 1485 to 1603, England rose to become a world power and a leader in several areas. Indeed, England became associated with advances in technology, science, and the arts. Also, England became a center or at least a focal point for debates about religion and the role of religion in society.

In addition to being true coins, Gold Sovereigns were public relations pieces for monarchs of the Tudor family, an aggressive group. In my view, these have greater historical significance than other English coins from the same time period. Double Sovereigns are really patterns, not coins, and Gold Half-Sovereign coins just did not have the same political or emotional impact.

Because much of the appeal of a Gold Sovereign relates to history, Gold Sovereigns of Mary I are very rare, and Mary’s reign is much more historically important than the respective reigns of most English monarchs, I discuss the historical setting at length herein. Before doing so, I provide an introduction to the Gold Sovereign coin denomination, which seasoned collectors of English coins may wish to skip. Next, I focus on the quality of this specific coin, while comparing it to the Mary I Sovereign in the Millennia Collection.

I. Introduction to the Gold Sovereign

Sovereigns are large, thin gold coins that feature imposing portraits of the respective monarch, usually seated on a throne, along with assertions, in words and symbols, relating to legitimacy and power. I recently analyzed an exceptional English gold Sovereign of Henry VIII. (Clickable links are in blue.)

This Mary I Sovereign is around 1.73 inches (44 mm) in diameter, according to the Bonhams catalogue. It weighs more than half a standard ounce. In the U.S. and the U.K. (Great Britain), gold and silver are typically measured in troy ounces, not standard ounces. Although a Mary I Sovereign was supposed to have weighed one half a troy ounce (240 grains) when struck, the Bonhams catalogue suggests that it weighs a little less than a half of a troy ounce now, “15.15 grams,” partly or entirely due to slight wear. There is no way to know exactly how much this coin weighed the moment after it was minted.

In 1817 and later, the term Sovereign was re-used to name other forms of British gold coins. These later Sovereigns are dramatically different from the gold Sovereigns that were issued from the 1480s to the very early 1600s.

Classic Sovereign gold coins were issued under the reigns of the Tudor Royal family: King Henry VII, King Henry VIII (son of Henry VII), King Edward VI (son of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour), Mary I (daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon), and Elizabeth I (daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn). There were also Half-Sovereigns, which weighed half as much as gold Sovereigns.

In this Bonhams auction, there was a Gold Sovereign of Henry VIII, dating from his third coinage, 1544-47 and a Gold Half-Sovereign from the fourth coinage. These two Henry VIII pieces are appealing, better than average for their respective issues, though not gradable, because of light tampering. People who collect coins from the 1500s expect most of them to have problems of one sort or another. They are still fun to collect.

This Henry VIII Sovereign, which has the sharpness of a Very Fine to Extremely Fine grade coin, sold for $35,100. Considering the quality of the coin, this is a strong price. I discuss some other auction results in my piece on another Henry VIII Sovereign.

This Henry VIII Half-Sovereign is not particularly rare. It would not be too difficult to find a better one. It brought $3276, another strong price.

This collection also contained a Gold Sovereign and a Half-Sovereign of Edward VI. This Edward VI Sovereign is a really neat piece. Though extensively lightly cleaned, it is very original for the most part and has no serious problems. Some of the missing detail is due to weakly struck areas. This coin grades EF-45 or higher, in my view. It sold for $18,720, a modest price. It is an excellent coin.

It is unfortunate that this collection lacked a coin from the reign of Henry VII. He started the Tudor dynasty.

In a way, “Sovereigns” were also struck under the regime of James I, of the Stuart Royal family. The “Sovereigns” of James I were, in my view, really a different denomination, though the differences are a topic for a future discussion. There was one in this auction, from his first coinage, 1603-04. It is not gradable. The fields have been harmed and it has other problems. It is, though, an extremely rare issue and this piece is truly uncirculated. Undoubtedly, many collectors would desire it. This James I Sovereign sold for $40,950 at the auction, a very strong price. It is rare and it may be hard to find a better one.

Curiously, James I is related to the Tudors. His great-grandmother was Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII. King Henry VII was thus his great-great-grandfather.

In 1485, Henry VII became king after the brutal “Wars of the Roses” had divided the nation and many citizens of England did not recognize him as their legitimate ruler. From the onset, Henry VII was determined to assert himself as the one true King of England and to persuade those who thought otherwise.

The English coin denomination known as the Gold Sovereign was designed to serve more of a political purpose than an economic one. Though it was easily used for savings and relatively large transactions, the main original purpose of the Sovereign coins was to contribute to efforts by Henry VII to firmly establish himself as king. The first Gold Sovereign coins show a large, recognizable picture of Henry VII himself sitting on a throne, clearly as king.

Other English gold denominations, especially Angels and Nobles, were in line with evolved, unwritten international monetary standards. There was not a strong reason to introduce a new denomination for merchants to use, especially one that had a large diameter and was thin.

From 1312 to 1526, English gold coins were specified to contain around 99% pure gold. (It would be difficult to explain the literal specifications.) From the onset, the intention was for Sovereigns to fit into a long established monetary system. The rules, at first, required each gold Sovereign to weight 240 grains, precisely one-half a troy ounce. The regimes of King Henry VIII and of his son, King Edward VI, however, debased gold coinage, reducing the total weight and/or percentage of gold content, at various times.

Queen Mary restored the old policy, in terms of technical specifications for gold coins. (She did not restore the traditional silver to gold ratio.) From the late 1480s until 1526, and again in 1553, each Gold Sovereign was specified to weigh one half of a troy ounce, 240 grains.

“The Story of British Coinage,” a classic reference by Gertrude Rawlings was first published in 1898. For “coining purposes,” Rawling states, “one standard only of gold” was employed “from the reign of Edward III to that of Henry VII, inclusive. This was the old standard, by which the gold contains 23 carets 3½ grains [of] pure gold to a half grain of alloy.”

I do not find this standard to be clear, as a caret refers to a ratio, x out of 24, and, in the past, to a weight as well. One carat equals (or equaled) about 3.086 grains. No matter how this “old standard” was applied or is now interpreted, it must mean that such gold coins were planned to be approximately 99% gold. I do not know how much of a deviation from the standard was ‘legally’ or practically tolerated during the 1400s and 1500s.

Gold Sovereigns were not just ‘for show.’ They were of weights and fineness that conformed to a monetary system. I wonder if many of them have been subject to elemental analysis to determine their precise fineness and the presence of trace metals.

II. Quality of this Coin

The two best gold Sovereign coins of Mary I (Tudor) that I have ever seen are this one and the coin in the Millennia Collection, which the Goldbergs auctioned on May 26, 2008. While this piece is clearly not uncirculated, and the piece in the Millennia Collection is uncirculated, this one scores higher in the category of originality. Furthermore, it is more sharply struck than the Millennia piece. Moreover, it was struck on an excellent planchet (prepared blank). The Millennia piece was struck on a wavy planchet that has substantial and annoying imperfections in the rims and edge.

In past centuries, the quality of the planchets for any single coin issue often varied to a large extent. The planchet used for this Mary I Gold Sovereign was exceptional. It is more round than usual, has minimal surface imperfections, is relatively flat, and seems to have been was properly heated (annealed) before being struck.

On pre-1800 coins, especially on pre-1600 coins struck ‘by hand’ (hammered), rather than by machine, imperfections in the planchet and imperfections arising during the striking of each coin are not unusual. Such imperfections are taken into consideration when a coin is graded and otherwise evaluated. Mint caused imperfections relating to the rims and edge of a coin do not usually prevent a hammered coin from being gradable.

Many large classic coins that have survived over centuries were mounted at one time or another, for various reasons, often in display cases in homes. Gold Sovereigns were often kept by members of the nobility and by influential businessmen. Some found their way into museums or historical societies.

When a coin is mounted, it is usually harmed. The extent of the harm, however, varies.

My impression is that this Mary I Gold Sovereign, like most pre-1700 large gold coins, has been mounted. In my view, the few, minor rim and edge nicks that resulted from a mounting result in a slight reduction in grade and do not prevent this coin from being gradable, by prevailing standards in the U.S. Experts at the PCGS or the NGC would, or at least should, assign a numerical grade to this coin, if it was submitted. Indeed, I predict that they would be willing to grade it, rather than place it in a ‘Genuine’ or ‘Details’ holder.

The Millennia piece is NGC graded MS-62 and it sold for $52,900 on May 26, 2008. (Please read my six part series on the Millennia Collection.) As much as I like it, the Millennia piece has been moderately dipped. Furthermore, it has some light friction,which is probably the main reason why this coin was just graded MS-62, not 63 or 64. The Millennia Collection Sovereign of Mary Tudor is attractive to very attractive and has minimal contact marks.

Although I am partial to this piece, I am also enthusiastic about the Millennia piece. Most of the surviving gold Sovereigns of Mary Tudor have marked wear and a variety of imperfections, which are sometimes very serious. Indeed, I estimate that more than a third of them are clearly not gradable because of serious problems, like being polished, repairs, deep scratches, edge gashes and/or a severe cleaning.

These two, the Millennia piece and the one that Bonhams auctioned on Dec. 13th, are exemplary. They are both really neat coins, which are of tremendous importance. I theorize that fewer than 150 Sovereigns of Mary I exist, including those in all states of preservation. These two must be much better than most of them.

Regarding the one that Bonhams just auctioned, it has a very appealing, ‘original look’! I like its nice pale green color and russet peripheral toning. The obverse (front) is a little subdued, though is very pleasing. The reverse (back or tail) is somewhat brilliant. Not only are there no serious problems, this coin has minimal marks and just a few minor hairlines, which are trivial for a coin with so much surface area.

The obverse is attractive to very attractive. The reverse is certainly very attractive, in my view. This coin is almost uncirculated. The obverse, by itself, grades AU-53 and the reverse, AU-55+. Because of the rim and edge nicks, the whole coin grades AU-50+ to AU-53 overall, in my view.

It is more desirable than most other pre-1600 English gold coins that grade from AU-50 to MS-62. The numerical grade does not reflect all the physical attributes of a coin and relates to widely accepted grading criteria, which change over time. A coin that has been moderately to heavily dipped and has been moderately cleaned could grade AU-53, or even MS-63!

I would rather own this coin than a higher grade one that has been very apparently dipped. I really prefer coins that score highly in the category of originality. (Please see my three part series on appreciating naturally toned coins.)

I realize, of course, that many collectors, especially of coins from past centuries, are more interested in history than in the physical characteristics of the coins. This coin scores highly in both the category of quality and in the category of historical interest. This is an excellent representative of the most important coin issue during the reign of Mary I. Besides, the life of Mary Tudor was extraordinary and will always be particularly interesting.

III. First Female Monarch

Mary Tudor was the first Queen Regnant of England and among the first in Europe. In terms of royalty, there are two kinds of queens. The wife of a king is a queen, a queen consort, who may or may not wield substantial power. The formal role of a queen consort was very limited. In contrast, when a female becomes queen on her own (not through marriage) and becomes the primary ruler, she then becomes a ruling monarch, a ‘queen regnant.’

Historically, in most all cases, a new monarch was a relatively close relative ‘by blood’ of a deceased monarch in the same society. The children of a king were usually in the line of succession. Throughout the history of Europe, younger siblings, nephews, grand-children and even cousins have succeeded kings and become monarchs.

The kings and queens of the past should not be confused with the kings and queens in Europe in the present. Current kings and queens in Europe hold largely ceremonial posts, and have little political power. For most of the history of Europe, however, the political chief executive officer of a society was a king or, much less often, a queen. In some cases, the monarch was an absolute dictator. In most societies in Europe, a monarch was, in effect, the ‘president for life,’ with powers that were limited in important ways.

While the powers of the English monarch started to become substantially limited during the era of King John, who ruled from 1199 to 1216, the monarch was clearly the chief executive officer of the government, unless the monarch was a child or was mentally incompetent. Over time, the political power of the monarchs of England declined, yet remained great as late as the 1700s.

The current Queen of England and of the U.K., Elizabeth II, primarily plays a ceremonial role and is not particularly involved in the operations of the government. Before the 1700s, each English monarch typically had a great deal of power.

While it could be argued that Matilda was briefly queen regnant in 1141 and that Jane Grey was for nine days in 1553, Mary Tudor was the first female to consolidate power and hold it, be crowned as queen regnant, and be widely recognized as the English monarch. She was a pioneer in a sense and she was under enormous stress for several reasons.

IV. Mary’s Background

Born in 1516, Mary Tudor suffered emotionally when the marriage of her parents fell apart in the 1520s, and, in effect, the division of her parents became the first public divorce case in England. The pope and other high level officials of the Catholic Church became involved in this divorce case.

Although I do not know if anyone then publicly employed the term ‘divorce,’ the matter clearly was a divorce case, which went on for years. As the whole concept of the ending of a marriage, for any reason, was then extremely controversial and emotionally loaded, it was terrifying for the young princess, who also suffered as a consequence of her mother’s painful social and political situation.

In my view, Queen Catherine should have accepted one of the deals that was offered to her, or asked the Spanish Ambassador to negotiate a better deal. Queen Catherine could have easily negotiated a settlement. Various options were suggested. Her defiance and refusal to end her marriage, while unsurprising, worsened her situation and that of her daughter, Mary Tudor.

Mary’s mother was Catherine of Aragon. Queen Catherine was a daughter of Isabella, Queen of Castile, and Ferdinand, King of Aragon. The union of Isabella and Ferdinand was both a marriage and the beginning of a merger of two kingdoms, Castile and Aragon, which formed the nation of Spain. Over time, a large percentage of the Iberian peninsula became united as one nation.

In the 1500s, Spain was the most powerful nation in the world, by far. Henry VII credited himself with a great accomplishment when he arranged for his oldest son, Crown Prince Arthur, to marry Catherine of Aragon. Arthur died at a very young age and then King Henry VII arranged for his other son, Prince Henry (who was later King Henry VIII), to marry the same woman. Although the fact that Catherine never gave birth to a boy who survived is often cited by historians, the reality is that the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine had many problems.

Issues relating to Catherine are a contributing factor, though not the main reason, as to why protestantism took hold in England. As I emphasized when I wrote about Henry VIII in September, protests against Catholicism had been brewing in Europe, especially in Northern Europe, for some time. Henry VIII was a contemporary of Martin Luther and other protestant leaders, who were ‘fighting’ an intellectual and philosophical revolution against the Catholic Church. There were a variety of forces, not just Henry’s pursuit of a divorce from Queen Catherine, that were responsible for England severing ties with the Catholic Church and starting a national religion, the Church of England.

Young Mary was a victim of circumstance. Mary felt isolated and was sometimes mistreated.

Her father, King Henry VIII, feared that Spain may intervene in England as a consequence of his seeking a divorce from and limiting the activities of Queen Catherine. To an extent, such fears were rational. So, Queen Catherine and Princess Mary were neither physically nor emotionally free in their own nation. It is unsurprising that they would both have felt a deep attachment to Spain and to the Catholic Church, especially since Europeans in the 1500s tended, on average, to be extremely religious.

By the time that Henry VIII died in 1547, a non-catholic and only partly protestant Church of England had gained much traction in England. This ‘church’ was, and to some extent still is, a hybrid of catholicism and protestantism. Since it is independent and self-governing, however, the Church of England cannot be catholic in the sense that the Catholic Church defines catholicism.

King Henry VIII made clear that the English monarch was the head of the Church of England and that the leaders of the Catholic Church no longer had a formal role in English society. The ‘new’ religion was formally established by acts of the English Parliament.

Prince Edward and his other half-sister, Elizabeth, were protestants, while Mary was a fervent catholic. When Edward became king in 1547, England became even more protestant. King Edward VI favored a much stronger version of protestantism than did his father, and his government actively promoted protestantism.

V. The Reign of Mary I

In his will, King Edward VI ignored his half-sisters and named Lady Jane Grey as his successor. Jane Grey was his cousin. Moreover, she was a great-granddaughter of King Henry VII. Lady Jane Grey was then regarded as one of the best educated and most intelligent women in all of England.

In 1553, the Privy Council of England, had at first supported Jane and then later changed direction by supporting Mary. The Act of Succession that was passed by the English Parliament in 1544 had clearly placed Mary as next in the line of succession to the English throne.

Mary Tudor became Queen of England in August 1553. She was the sole ruler for less than twelve months. On July 25, 1554, she married Philip II of Spain. From 1554 to 1558, Philip was her co-ruler of England, though she had the ultimate authority. In England, she was the boss. Did Philip steer England’s foreign policy?

Philip was the only son of Charles V, who was both King of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor. This “Empire” was a federation of nations, city-states and other entities in Europe, including many German speaking societies.

Over time, Philip II held the title of ‘king’ of several societies. From 1558 to 1598, Philip II was King of Spain.

The marriage between Mary and Philip was not the result of courtship; it related to England and Spain forming an alliance. Mary’s ties to Spain started when she was a little girl. She had been friends with a longtime Spanish Ambassador to England. When she felt that she or her mother were being treated unfairly, after her parent’s marriage fell apart, she would appeal to the Spanish government for assistance. After all, she was closely connected, by blood, to the Spanish Royal family.

As queen, Mary attempted to re-establish the Catholic Church in England. She demanded that the people of England give allegiance to the pope and to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. She attempted to rapidly undo the religious transformation of England that had occurred during the long reign of her father, King Henry VIII, and was somewhat radicalized during the administration of her half-brother, King Edward VI.

Her government ended a protestant rebellion in early 1554. Zealous protestants made a terrible mistake by revolting, as Mary clearly was the legitimate monarch, by tradition and by explicit law. Neutral or otherwise disinterested citizens were horrified by an armed rebellion. Very few people really wanted to fight a civil war. So, Queen Mary had more support after the rebellion. She then became willing and able to terrorize protestant activists.

During Mary’s reign, England lost Calais to France, a small society on the European continent that had been part of England since 1347. Mary had ordered English forces to side with the Holy Roman Empire in a conflict with France that need not have concerned England.

Calais was of tremendous strategic importance. English troops in Calais had been considered to be central to deterring the French from considering an invasion of England.

The very first lot in this Bonhams auction, part of the collection that includes this Mary I Sovereign coin, was struck at the English Branch Mint in Calais. It is a Gold Noble of Richard II, who was king from 1377 to 1399. It sold for $4914. A large number of English coins were struck in Calais.

The unnecessary loss of Calais was symbolic of Mary’s aggressive policies that did more harm than good, even in terms of her own objectives. Mary’s reign of around five years was characterized by internal conflict, religious strife, an illogical alliance with Spain, losses in battles, and a curtailment of liberties. For England, it was a very sad and troubled era.

Mary was born in 1516 and died in 1558. The extremely unusual nature and trauma of Mary’s life during the late 1520s and early 1530s, caused her to regard herself as a persecuted foreigner in her own country. The emotional scars never really healed. She felt compelled to hyper-aggressively combat protestantism, to accommodate the elders of the Catholic Church, and to attach her regime to Spain.

Mary’s half sister, Elizabeth, perhaps personified, in Mary’s mind, all that Mary thought was terribly wrong about Mary’s own life, the Tudor family and England. Mary probably could have prevented Elizabeth from becoming queen. Yet, she permitted Elizabeth to succeed her. In the future, I will discuss the Gold Sovereigns and the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

©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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  1. Hi, really interesting read! I potentially have a Mary I gold sovereign; (not getting my hopes up but…) who do I need to contact to consider its authenticity? Thanks!


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