St. George’s Day – 23 April 2015
The dramatic depiction of St. George conquering the dragon is an image that has long been associated with The Sovereign – but how did England’s Patron Saint come to span 198 years on The Royal Mint’s flagship gold coin?
St. George has been the Patron Saint of England since Medieval times, and it was towards the end of that period, in 1489, that Henry VII instructed The Royal Mint to produce ‘a new money of gold’ – the original Sovereign – a statement piece, which featured an enthroned portrait of the king himself. Thereafter, The Sovereign was struck in turn by each of the Tudor monarchs, before its issue came to an end under the rule of James I.
The classical image of St. George and the dragon by Benedetto Pistrucci, the Italian-born Royal Mint Engraver, first appeared on coins during the reign of King George III. The Napoleonic Wars had left Britain financially unstable, so the recoinage of 1816 was implemented with the aim of steadying the country’s currency by tying it to the value of gold. Pistrucci’s distinctive St. George design was used on a new 22-carat gold coin valued at 20 shillings, or one pound, which was given the old ‘Sovereign’ name.
St. George’s appearance on The Sovereign was not continuous: it was interrupted in 1825, when his image was replaced by more conventional heraldic designs, but he returned once more to the coin in 1871. This principal gold coin of the United Kingdom went on to become recognised and traded as currency across the globe, referred to as “the chief coin in the world”. By the turn of the century more than 100 million gold Sovereigns were estimated to be in general circulation in the United Kingdom alone.
The Royal Mint continued to strike circulating gold Sovereigns on a decreasing scale until 1917, by which time it had largely disappeared from circulation, as it was in demand for First World War ‘war effort’ funds.
When regular minting of Sovereigns resumed in 1957 there was no thought to replace the classic design, so St. George has appeared on every Proof and bullion Sovereign of The Queen’s current reign, with the exception of just four special occasions (1989 – the 500th anniversary of the original Tudor Sovereign, 2002 -The Queen’s Golden Jubilee year, in 2005, and in 2012 – The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee).
The Sovereign, with its iconic figure of St. George, has progressed from acting almost entirely as a circulating coin to one that is valued globally. It appeals to Bullion Sovereign purchasers because of its unrivaled reputation for accuracy, fineness and purity, whilst Proof and Brilliant Uncirculated Sovereigns are sought after as quality collectable coins, and year-dated gifts for special occasions.
It was Pistrucci’s St. George that was selected to feature on the Silver Proof Crown struck to commemorate the birth of Prince George of Cambridge – the first time that the George and the Dragon design had featured on a silver crown since the beginning of the reign of Edward VII over 100 years ago.
When St. George met his end on 23 April 303 CE at the hands of the pagan Roman Emperor Diocletian, he could not have imagined that almost 1,700 years later, he would not only be the Patron Saint of England, but also the iconic figure who has spanned 198 years on The Sovereign, the world’s oldest surviving coin still in production.
What are Proof coins?
They are the highest quality coin produced by The Royal Mint and ideal for collectors wishing to own coins with the highest levels of craftsmanship and design detail.
The dies used to strike Proof coins are all hand-finished to ensure that all imperfections are removed before they are used to strike a coin. Proof blanks are of a higher quality than Brilliant Uncirculated and Bullion blanks, and each Proof blank is placed into a coin press by hand. Proof coins will be struck up to six times, at a lower speed and with less pressure than other finishes to ensure a smoother, sharper finish and to preserve the finer details of the design.
The dies are cleaned with air between the production of each coin to ensure that no marks or imperfections are caused during striking, and each Proof coin is removed from the press by hand and checked for imperfections after being struck. As a result of the extra care and attention, no more than 50 Proof coins can be struck per hour, whereas Bullion coins are produced at a rate of around 3,000 coins per hour. The Proof dies are regularly re-worked and re-polished to maintain a blemish-free finish when striking and each die may only strike a few hundred coins before it has to be re-polished.
It is not the quality of the finish alone that makes Proof coins so appealing to collectors and gift buyers. Often struck with low mintages, Proof coins are also rarer than other coins.
What are Brilliant Uncirculated (‘BU’, ‘B.U.’, and ‘B.UNC’) coins?
Brilliant Uncirculated coins are a higher standard than circulating and bullion coins, without the extra finishing and detail provided on Proof coins, offering a good level of design detail but with lower definition than Proof coins. They are intended as an entry-level collectable coin or as the perfect affordable gift for someone looking to mark a special year.
Like Proof coins, the dies used to strike Brilliant Uncirculated coins are polished and finished by hand. Unlike Proof blanks, Brilliant Uncirculated blanks are machine-fed and only struck twice so they are produced at a much quicker rate than Proof coins–around 100 coins per hour.
What are Bullion coins?
Bullion coins have a similar standard of finish to circulating coins. They are generally bought for their intrinsic qualities. The production of Bullion coins places an emphasis on efficiency of production and reducing cost.
The finish on Bullion coins is not specifically intended to highlight the detail and artistry of the coin’s design, or the craftsmanship and skill of its minting. However, Royal Mint Bullion coins are renowned for their distinctive and beautifully rendered designs, and the beauty of The Sovereign in particular continues to capture the eye of the beholder in a Bullion finish.