It’s now well over two-hundred years since the first modern sovereign appeared, with St George slaying the dragon as its motif. In 1821, Benedetto Pistrucci’s classical depiction first appeared and it is remarkable that this design still appears on gold sovereigns produced today.
The tale of St George vanquishing his foe has an enduring relationship with gold sovereign coins and one that is anchored in over two centuries of tradition. Here, we will be exploring ten of the most significant St George and the Dragon gold coins as mentioned by coin specialist Peter Hutchison.
The financial turmoil that accompanied the Napoleonic Wars led King George III’s government to decide on a reform of the gold coinage; the new coin would be called the ‘sovereign’. First struck in 1817, this featured a portrait of King George III by the acclaimed designer Benedetto Pistrucci. On the reverse side of the coin, it was decided that a new design was needed to make the sovereign visually distinct from the gold guineas which had preceded it, therefore, a depiction of St George slaying the dragon by the talented Italian designer Benedetto Pistrucci was chosen.
This was the first version of a design that is now synonymous with the British sovereign coin itself – and the George III sovereign was the very first coin upon which this design appeared. King George III’s death in 1820 means that just four dates were minted of this first type: 1817, 1818, 1819 (which is extremely rare and only a handful of examples are known) and 1820. This first design of St George was used again in 2017 to mark the 200th anniversary of the modern sovereign and appears on the Proof quality coins of that year.
The King George IV 1821 Sovereign
The accession of King George IV, upon his father’s death in 1820, saw the gold sovereign continue from 1821. The design of both sides was the work of Benedetto Pistrucci. Pistrucci took the opportunity of King George IV’s accession to modify the design he created in 1817, making St George the focal point of the design, much larger and without a surrounding garter, with only the date below the battle scene; the first classical depiction. This first appearance of the design in the name of King George IV was only struck on five occasions, in 1821, 1822, 1823, 1824, and 1825.
However, since this time it has been used on the coins of Queen Victoria (from 1871-1901), King Edward VII (1902-1910), King George V (1911-1932), King George VI (on his only sovereigns of 1937) and Queen Elizabeth II (on all her sovereigns except a handful of commemorative issues 1957 to present). This design is now synonymous with the British gold sovereign itself and the coins of King George IV are the starting point of that fine tradition.
The King George IV 1823 Double Sovereign
The legislation that authorised the modern sovereign coinage of 1817 also provided for two larger sized coins – the double sovereign and five pound piece. In 1823, it was proposed that the double sovereign be minted, so the king took the opportunity to insist that a different portrait of him was prepared. This new portrait, by Johann Baptiste Merlen, was a refreshingly modern interpretation, and omitted the laurel wreath. This is the only coin upon which this portrait ever appeared, and it is the only obverse portrait Merlen ever designed.
Pistrucci’s very popular depiction of St George adorned the reverse side, much larger and slightly better proportioned than on the smaller sovereign. The legend reads DECUS ET TUTAMEN ANNO REGNI IV, which translates to ‘An ornament and a safeguard, fourth year of our king’. This refers to the fact that any detail around the edge of the coin protected it from having gold shaved, or clipped, from the outside by unscrupulous individuals. This was the only double sovereign of this monarch’s reign and in fact it was also the only double sovereign for over sixty years, the next one not being minted until the year 1887.
In 1887, as part of the celebrations for the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign, this huge five pound coin was produced as circulating coinage. Pistrucci’s classical depiction of St George slaying the dragon was chosen for the reverse side. A new portrait of the Queen was created for the coinage, which become known as the ‘Jubilee Head’ or ‘Jubilee Portrait’. It was adapted from a model prepared by the Austrian-born sculptor Joseph Edgar Boehm. The portrait met with considerable disfavour and was replaced in 1893, meaning that the Queen Victoria ‘Jubilee Head’ was one of the shortest-lived portraits in the history of British coinage.
With the introduction of a new portrait, the Royal Mint was uncertain how the gold coinage would look so they decided to soften the gold by replacing the 1.25% of copper to the alloy with silver. By replacing the copper with silver, the natural golden colour was enhanced. This produced a more ‘yellow’ colour to the gold, and the British gold coins of 1887 are the only gold five pounds in British history to be struck from this alloy. This was only ever carried out in one year, however, as tests with the usual alloy proved acceptable.
The Queen Victoria 1893 Half Sovereign
The Royal Proclamation of 1817 that introduced the modern sovereign coinage had made allowance for four different coins, and the half sovereign was the last to be graced with the design of St George. For the first seventy-five years of its existence, the half sovereign featured the Shield of Arms, in a handful of different variants. In 1893 a new portrait of Queen Victoria was introduced and the Royal Mint took the opportunity to change the half sovereign to depict St George and the dragon on the reverse.
On the obverse was the new portrait by Sir Thomas Brock, which featured Queen Victoria in a widow’s veil. By now Queen Victoria was truly the matriarch of the Empire and this portrait of her with crown and veil with the Star of the Garter emphasised her formidable position, also adding the abbreviation IND. IMP (Empress of India) into the legend. This final portrait of Queen Victoria, and the first St George design half sovereign, was a short-lived issue: first minted in 1893 it was only produced for nine years as Queen Victoria died in 1901.
The Queen Elizabeth II 2005 Sovereign series
Accomplished heraldic artist Timothy Noad was commissioned for a new interpretation of St George and the dragon for the 2005 sovereign series. In a bold break with tradition, the Royal Mint commissioned a new depiction of the battle between St George and Dragon and this modern version of a classic motif was issued for one year only. This is only the second different depiction of St George and the dragon in the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.
Another would be introduced in 2012, to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee. Noad’s design was minted onto all four denominations in the gold sovereign series in 2005 – half sovereign, sovereign, double sovereign and five pounds. It was used for both the Proof quality and Uncirculated coins, although the double sovereign was only minted in Proof quality, thus severely restricting the possible number of complete sets of all four coins.
The Queen Elizabeth II 2009 Quarter Sovereign
With the rising price of gold in the latter half of the first decade of the 21st century, sovereigns and half sovereigns had risen considerably in price. To ensure gold remained affordable for as many people as possible, the Royal Mint released a new denomination, the Quarter Sovereign, for the very first time in the year 2009. This coin is the first new sovereign coin since the reign of Queen Victoria. Interestingly, it is an idea that had been proposed in Queen Victoria’s reign but it never went into production.
The first issue of the coin features Pistrucci’s classical depiction and it is a testament to the quality of that design that it looks appropriate whether on the five pounds of 36mm diameter, or the quarter sovereign at 13.5mm. The first type was produced in just six years: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014 and 2015. The obverse portrait changed in 2015, creating a second type.
Only two monarchs in British history have celebrated Diamond Jubilees – Queen Victoria in 1897 and Queen Elizabeth II in 2012. As part of the celebrations for the Diamond Jubilee in 2012 a new interpretation of the tale of St George was designed for the gold sovereign issues of that year. Struck for one year only, the design by Paul Day features a Gothic style interpretation of St George slaying the Dragon. This romantic adaptation shows St George as a medieval knight of Arthurian style, with a dragon of more threatening attitude and size, its wings have a harp-like quality in contrast to the realism of the knight and horse.
This is only the fourth time St George has been redesigned. The design was minted onto all five denominations in the gold sovereign series in 2012 – quarter sovereign (introduced just three years earlier), half sovereign, sovereign, double sovereign and five pounds. It was used for both the Proof quality and Uncirculated coins, although the double sovereign in 2012 was only minted in Proof quality, thus severely restricting the possible number of complete sets of all four coins.
The 200th anniversary of Pistrucci’s Classical depiction of St George and the dragon in 2021 was marked by the creation of an exciting new rendition of the legendary battle. The design appeared on the gold one-eighth sovereign of Alderney, the first coin of its kind to feature St George. The new portrayal was by the renowned British artist Jody Clark, designer of the current coinage portrait of Her Majesty The Queen. The last time in history the same designer created St George on a sovereign and also the monarch’s portrait was the 1821 original being celebrated by this commemorative issue.
The one-eighth sovereign was first minted in 2020, the newest addition to the gold sovereign ‘family’. In many ways it is a sign of the rising price of gold: it had increased so much in 2020 that the previous smallest gold sovereign coin – the quarter sovereign – was now too expensive and not accessible to many people. The design of this coin is a major link with history, a first in the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, and gives this coin great appeal.
We’re already familiar with bi-metallic coins in circulation (Britain’s £1 and £2 circulation coins are both bi-metallic) but this technically demanding form of striking has never before been attempted for a gold sovereign issue. With an outer ring of solid 22 carat rose gold containing the coin legend, and an inner section containing the main design in solid 22 carat yellow gold, these sovereign coins are the first of their kind. They are being produced only in 2022, The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee year.
St George was selected as the subject for the design, as previous important events have been celebrated with new adaptations of his story. Since 1817, a select handful of designers have been invited to create their own interpretations. These coins of 2022 have been designed by artist Jody Clark, whose portrait of The Queen is used on Britain’s current coinage. His re-imagining of the mythical tale of the battle between St George and his foe appears on this first bi-metallic sovereign coin series.