Britain’s conversion to a decimal coinage in 1971 had no impact on its minting of gold, as this metal had long since ceased to be a circulating medium. A relatively recent development, the absence of glorious gold in the channels of commerce dated only from World War I (1914-18). Until that time, this most mighty of metals was a familiar sight to bankers, though the man or woman in the street may have had few opportunities to handle such wealth.
The death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658 and the downfall of his Parliamentary Commonwealth led to the restoration of the Stuart Monarchy in the person of King Charles II. Ascending the throne in 1660, his reign lasted until 1685 and coincided with the complete adoption of milled coinage, though a number of hand-struck, hammered pieces were produced during its first two years. The first issue of milled gold coins consisted of guineas dated 1663. Initially valued at 20 shillings (240 pence) and later raised to 21 shillings, this coin derived its name from the source of much of the gold used in its minting. The Africa Company (whose Elephant and Castle emblem appears on many of these pieces) imported this metal from the coastal land of Guinea. This coin was supplemented in 1664 with another valued at two guineas. The five-guinea and half-guinea pieces followed in 1668 and 1669, respectively. All of these coins were struck with regularity.
The short and ill-fated reign of James II (1685-88) saw the same denominations coined, though far fewer dates are represented. As with the coinage of Charles II, the reverse of each piece features the heraldic shields of England, Scotland, Ireland and France. These shields are separated by a cruciform arrangement of royal scepters.
The Bloodless Revolution of 1688 brought William of Orange to the throne in joint rule with his wife Mary, eldest daughter of James II, a partnership which lasted until her premature death of smallpox in 1694. Both monarchs appear on the gold coinage, their busts overlapping. The four denominations issued during the previous reign were continued beginning in 1689, though again coinage was not complete for each year. The reverses for this dual reign featured the arms of England, Scotland, Ireland and France forming the quarters of a shield, with the rampant lion of the House of Orange superimposed as an escutcheon.
William III continued to rule alone until he too succumbed from pneumonia in 1702 following a fall from his horse. The coins bearing his portrait are collected as a separate series altogether, while the reverse design reverted to that of Charles II and James II.
With no direct heir, succession of the throne went to Anne (1702-14), younger daughter of James II and Anne Hyde. Her reign witnessed the unification of England and Scotland as the United Kingdom in 1707, and this change is reflected in her coinage. The same gold denominations were again issued, but their common reverse was altered following the Union. The rose at the center was replaced with the star of the Order of the Garter, and the shields were reconfigured to emphasize the higher status of Scotland.
Anne, too, expired without an heir. The prospect of civil war loomed, as Stuart proponents sought to make Prince James Francis Edward the new king. By the 1701 Act of Settlement, however, the English throne was to pass to the reigning Prince Elector of Hanover in Germany, a purely political arrangement with little popular support. As a result, the new ruler of Great Britain was George I (1714-27), who showed little interest in this foreign country. His gold coinage continued the same denominations, and a new quarter guinea was coined in 1718 alone. The common reverse type is similar to that of the previous reign, though the arms of the Duchy of Brunswick and Luneberg and the King’s German titles are included.
The reign of his son and successor, George II (1727-60), resulted in only occasional minting of the five-guineas and two-guineas coins between 1729 and 1753, though the guinea and half-guinea pieces were produced almost annually. Their common reverse featured the King’s extensive British and German titles, as well as an ornate shield quartered with the requisite arms and surmounted by a crown.
Easily the most famous of the Hanoverian kings of Great Britain was George III (1760-1820). This long reign witnessed his descent into madness and Britain’s first great territorial loss, the 13 American colonies. The grandson of George II, he was the first of the Hanoverians to be born in Britain, and he thought of himself as English. The two-guineas and five-guineas pieces were struck only as patterns. The guinea and half guinea were issued with some regularity, though the former was suspended in 1799. The reverse type followed that of George II, until the ornate shield was superseded by a spade-shaped one in 1787. The shield was then placed within a round garter beginning in 1801. A one-third guinea was coined 1797-1813 and a one-quarter guinea in 1762 only.
The coinage reform of 1816 made gold the only standard. The guinea of 21 shillings was superseded by the sovereign of 20 shillings, though the former survived as a money of account until decimalization in 1971. Valued at one pound and at 10 shillings respectively, the sovereign and its fraction, the half sovereign, thereafter became the basic units of Britain’s gold coinage. Pieces valued at two pounds and five pounds were largely confined to infrequent pattern and commemorative issues. In the few years which remained for George III, all four denominations were struck. All but the half sovereign featured a new reverse by Benedetto Pistrucci which depicted St. George slaying the dragon.
George IV succeeded his father officially in 1820, though because of the latter’s insanity he had served as regent since 1811. Sovereigns were coined with the Pistrucci reverse and later with an ornately garnished shield surmounted by a crown. The half sovereigns, as well as the single five-pounds issue, bore the shield design alone, while the two-pounds coins displayed St. George and the dragon.
George’s brother succeeded him in 1830 and ruled as William IV (1830-37). His gold coinage consisted of sovereigns and half sovereigns, both bearing the shield and crown motif. The two-pounds denomination was struck only for the proof set of 1831.
The reign of Victoria (1837-1901), niece of William IV, was long enough to prompt three distinctive portraits. These depicted her as the young woman of 18 on her ascension to the throne, as a mourning widow on her golden jubilee in 1887 and as an elderly empress in 1893. The initial reverse type for gold coins was the shield and crown motif, supplemented on the sovereign with a heraldic wreath. This was succeeded in 1871 by the scene of St. George slaying the dragon, though the half sovereign continued to display the nation’s arms until 1893, when it too acquired the St. George motif. The two-pounds piece was coined only in 1887 and 1893, both times with the St. George reverse. In each instance, it was accompanied by a five-pounds piece of similar design. The 1839 five-pounds issue, struck only as a proof, depicted Una and the lion and is perhaps Britain’s most highly desired coin.
Edward VII (1901-10) succeeded his mother when he was already quite advanced in years. The sovereign and half sovereign were hereafter standardized with the scene of St. George slaying the dragon. Commemorative two-pounds and five-pounds coins were struck with this design in 1902 only.
The second son of Edward VII, George V (1910-36), was an enormously popular ruler. His gold coinage followed the pattern set by his father’s reign in that sovereigns and half sovereigns were coined for circulation, while the two larger gold pieces were struck only in 1911 as coronation commemoratives.
The financial crisis of World War I (1914-18) prompted the suspension of gold coinage in Britain after 1917, though her commonwealth nations continued striking gold as late as 1932. Sovereigns were produced again by the London Mint in 1925 alone, but these were not for domestic circulation. The coining of sovereigns since that time has been performed exclusively for sale at a premium to collectors or for the purpose of international payments. Additional gold coins have been struck for non-circulating, commemorative purposes, but these carry a hefty premium over their legal value. Gold as a circulating medium has not been seen in Great Britain since 1915.