Rare & Historically Important English Gold Sovereigns of King Henry VII
Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community, column #184……….
A CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds ………..
The Gold Sovereigns of King Henry VII are legendary rarities and are of great historical importance. Henry VII ruled England from 1485 to 1509. He was the father of Henry VIII and the grandfather of the first two female monarchs in England, Queens Mary I and Elizabeth I. Henry VII Gold Sovereigns are extremely rare. Incredibly, the collection of the late “Thos. H. Law” featured representatives of four of the five types. These brought very healthy prices when Law’s collection of British gold coins was sold by Stack’s-Bowers on Aug. 13 near Chicago, as part of the official auction of the summer ANA Convention.
The first of these four Henry VII Sovereigns in this sale sold for $499,375. I am aware of just one British or English coin having sold for a higher amount. A record was set in 2006 when Spink auctioned a florin of 1344 that is known as the “Double Leopard” of King Edward III. The Baldwin firm purchased this “Double Leopard” coin for £460,000, which currently amounts to 714,886 U.S. Dollars, though the average exchange rate during the month of June 2006 suggests a value then of around 850,000 U.S. Dollars.
The portraits of the King on a throne and background devices vary among the types of Gold Sovereigns. The Tudor Rose and shield on the back (reverse) of each varies as well. Devices that are specific to issues, like small flowers or dragons, are termed mintmarks, though all Gold Sovereigns of Henry VII were produced at the same mint in London.
The Law Collection, Type Three Gold Sovereign sold for $58750. The Type Four coin brought $223,250 and the Type Five realized $49,938. Near the end of my discussion here, I provide more information about these, including comments on their respective qualities.
I have already covered U.S. gold rarities and some silver coins that were offered in the Stack’s-Bowers auction extravaganza at the ANA convention, including a famous 1878-S Liberty Seated Half Dollar. (Clickable links are in blue throughout the text.) An announcement by Stack’s-Bowers declared that the whole event totaled more than $46 million. The Law Collection alone realized more than $5.5 million, an astounding total for a collection of British coins. Rare U.S. coins tend to be worth far more than somewhat corresponding rare British coins. Indeed, there are a large number of U.S. coins that have sold at auction for more than $1 million each (= £642,797).
The Law Collection contained British gold coins ranging from the reign of King Edward III, which began in 1327, to Gold Proof Sets issued in 1992, under the reign of the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. More than five hundred British gold coins in this collection were offered in one session on Aug. 13. Herein, the focus is on the rarest and earliest Gold Sovereign that was sold.
Although England was independent for centuries before the Kingdom of Great Britain was formed in 1707, most collectors in the U.S. tend to think of pre-1700 English coins as “British” coins and to think of “English” as a language rather than as a word that can be used to describe historical items of the nation of England. Besides, England has always been central to the British Isles and a relevant concept of Britain had considerable meaning long before 1707. Therefore, I often use the term British to refer to “English” coins.
In terms of the history of Europe and of Western Civilization, the Tudors are one of the most influential royal families. Henry VII was the patriarch of the Tudors and the founder of a dynasty. During the Tudor era, from 1485 to 1603, England rose to become a world power and a leader in several areas of human endeavor. Furthermore, England became a center of or at least a focal point for the challenge to Catholicism by Protestants and for debates about the role of religion in society. Essentially, under the rule of the Tudors, England rose from being a second-rate power that was torn by civil conflict to being a unified superpower that was characterized by a rich culture that had developed greatly.
In addition to being real coins that were used in commerce and as components of wealth, Gold Sovereigns were pioneering and effective public relations pieces for monarchs of the Tudor family, a bold and path breaking group. During the era, there were gold pieces that were heavier than Gold Sovereigns, though those are really patterns, not coins. Gold Half-Sovereign coins are similar though these are smaller and just did not have the same political or emotional impact as full Sovereign coins, which were much heavier than any British coins that had been produced in earlier eras. Considering that much of the appeal of a Gold Sovereign relates to history, some historical background is provided.
I. Historical Background
The 1400s were a violent period for the people of England. Early in the century, the regime of King Henry IV battled rebellions by several lords. His son, Henry V, was King of England from 1413 to 1422. His reign was characterized by intense battles with France. During the reign of the son of Henry V, King Henry VI, war with France continued for about three more decades.
Around the time that the war with France was settled in a manner that was disappointing to the people of England, the Duke of York began to challenge the policies of King Henry VI. For the rest of the century, there was an ongoing conflict between two ‘families,’ really political factions. Both competitors were led by descendants of King Edward III. He was a legendary monarch who ruled for around a half-century, from 1327 to 1377. Edward III presided over a period of national growth and economic success.
For simplicity, I refer to the York family and their allies, “The House of York,” as white roses and to the Lancaster family and their associates, “The House of Lancaster,” as red roses. The ‘wars of the roses’ included violent and non-violent conflicts between these two families and their respective supporters. During the second half of the 15th century (1400s), there were a variety of battles, conspiracies to harm opponents, alliances, and espionage activities stemming from the competition between the roses for the throne. Many citizens were killed or harmed in other ways.
Indeed, a vast amount of resources was devoted to the conflict between the white roses and the red roses. Wars are expensive and instability is harmful to any economy. Moreover, people who would otherwise be producing goods and services in an economic sense were devoting much of their time and energy to this civil conflict. Most English citizens suffered as consequence of this civil conflict.
King Henry VII was Henry Tudor before he became king, a red rose. Although he did not have nearly as strong a claim to the throne as more than a few other descendants of English kings, he was incredibly persistent and he proved to be a brilliant strategist and chief executive. He spent many years planning his challenge. Henry Tudor persuaded influential people in England and on the European Continent to support his quest. His diplomatic skills and leadership ability were excellent.
The Lancaster clan, red roses, had ruled England from 1399 to 1461, and then the York clan, white roses, overthrew King Henry VI. Edward, Duke of York, a white rose, became King Edward IV. Henry VI made somewhat of a comeback and was briefly king again in 1470 and 1471.
The second reign of King Edward IV lasted from 1471 to the day he died in 1483. Most relevant historians suspect that King Edward IV had former King Henry VI murdered while Henry VI was in prison and was in poor health. He did not then pose much of a threat to King Edward IV. His brother, Richard III, effectively became king when Edward IV died.
In 1483, Henry Tudor was the last remaining red rose with a plausible claim to the English throne. Henry Tudor’s father and King Henry VI were half-brothers. More importantly, King Edward III was Henry Tudor’s great-great-grandfather. In 1485, Henry Tudor led the red roses and attacked the forces of King Richard III. The red roses won and Henry Tudor became King Henry VII.
Henry Tudor could not have had much of an affinity for King Edward IV or for the York family in general. Yet, Henry Tudor, as King Henry VII, married Elizabeth, the oldest daughter of King Edward IV. King Richard III, who Elizabeth York despised, was her uncle.
The marriage of a Lancaster and a York, a red rose and a white rose, was one of the most fortunate events in the history of England. On coins and on flags, the symbol of the “House of Tudor” was a combination of a white rose and a red rose. This image of combined roses appears on the backs (reverses) of the Gold Sovereigns of Henry VII and was very important to the people of England, who were weary of uprisings and violent conflicts.
Some Yorks by birth, or by alliance, thought of Elizabeth as a traitor and continued to oppose Henry’s rule. Before 1500, he had to carefully strategize to prevent other, viable rebellions against his regime from succeeding. He did so skillfully. He established a framework for a society that was governed by peaceful succession and law, for the most part.
The “House of Tudor” ruled England until 1603. Gold Sovereigns were issued by Henry’s son, King Henry VIII, his grandson, King Edward VI, and by his grand-daughters, Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I. With the exception of one or two issues under King James I, this denomination is really unique to the Tudors. The “Rose-Ryal” (Spink 2613) issued by James I in 1605 and/or 1606 is extremely similar to a Tudor Gold Sovereign and could be regarded as being in the same series.
Although King James I of England was primarily a member of the Stuart family and was King of Scotland, as James VI, before he became King of England, both of the parents of King James were great-grandchildren of King Henry VII. The ‘Gold Sovereigns’ issued by later monarchs are different concepts.
An English monarch was not again overthrown via civil war until the 1640s. By then, England had become one of the great powers in the history of the world, with a society that was vastly more advanced than it was when the forces of Henry Tudor overthrew the “House of York” in 1485.
King Henry VII deserves an immense amount of credit for putting an end to a decades of conflicts and for additional achievements. To a considerable extent, he modernized the English courts and justice system. Judges were entrusted with considerable power, with the idea that powerful individuals would be less able to bend the laws in their own favor.
David Hume, the legendary philosopher and scholar, wrote, in the mid 1700s, that “the reign of Henry VII was, in the main, fortunate for his people at home, and honourable abroad. He put an end to the civil wars with which the nation had long been harassed, he maintained peace and order in the state, he depressed the former exorbitant power of the nobility, and, together with the friendship of some foreign princes, [King Henry VII] acquired the consideration and regard of all. He loved peace without fearing war,” Hume emphasizes (David Hume, The History of England, 3:XXVI, 1778).
It is reported on the BBC history site that King Henry VII “left a safe throne, a solvent government and a prosperous and reasonably united country.” Although he did impose some counter-productive regulations on private business, almost all governments do so. Generally, England’s international trade increased and the national economy grew during his reign.
King Henry VII very much improved the financial condition of England. When he died in 1509, the English government was in very good financial shape, which is amazing, given the tremendous costs of the civil conflicts that had devastated the nation during the previous century.
II. 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. In Sept. 2012, I analyzed an exceptional English gold Sovereign of Henry VIII. (Again, clickable links are in blue.) In Dec. 2012, I discussed Rare Gold Sovereigns of Mary I.
It is probably true that Gold Sovereigns were intended, at first, to each weigh 240 grains (= 0.5 Troy Ounce =15.552 grams) and to consist of almost entirely pure gold. In reality, some of them weighed less than 240 grains when struck and not all genuine Gold Sovereigns had the same percentage of gold when struck. People of the era accepted some standard deviations relating to the specifications for coins.
The Gold Sovereign of Mary I that I analyzed in Dec. 2012 is around 1.73 inches (44 mm) in diameter (‘width’), and it seems likely that the diameters of the Gold Sovereigns of Henry VII are not much different. ‘Hammered’ coins of the same denomination tend to vary in diameter. To the people of the era, Gold Sovereigns were very large and very imposing coins.
Before Henry VII issued Gold Sovereigns, the Gold Noble was considered a large and majestic gold coin, which was a great source of pride for the people of England. It features a portrait of the king standing on a ship. Plus, the proclamations in Latin and symbols on each Noble were impressive. The Gold Noble coin was introduced during the era of King Edward III, who ruled from 1327 to 1377.
The Noble was a standard denomination and the large gold coin of England for many decades. A Noble coin, however, weighs a little more or a little less than half as much as a Gold Sovereign of the Tudors, depending upon when the Noble was issued.
Originally, during the second coinage of King Edward III, a Gold Noble was specified to weigh 138.5 grains (8.97 grams), though the value of the gold content soon rose above the face value of a Noble. Over time, Gold Nobles ranged in weight from 128.6 grains (8.33 grams) to a little less than 120 grains. While the face value was kept constant, the gold content varied due to fluctuations in the price of gold.
By 1464, rising market values for gold as a metal were such that the eighty pence (“6/8”) Noble was no longer practical. King Edward IV modified the system of coinage and introduced a new large gold denomination. The Ryal is also called a Rose Noble, which was valued at ten shillings (120 pence) and was specified to weigh 120 grains (7.78 grams), around the same weight as the previous Noble.
So, King Henry VII introduced a gold denomination that weighs twice as much as the Ryal (“Rose Noble”), the largest gold coin issued by the leading white rose, King Edward IV. This new coin was much heavier than any gold coin that had been minted earlier in the history of England.
III. Early Gold Sovereign
The most important coin in the collection of “Thos. H. Law” was his Gold Sovereign of Henry VII of an early type, which was struck in the early 1490s. Of the five design types of Gold Sovereigns of Henry VII, coins of the first two types are Great Rarities. All are extremely rare.
In regard to the first two types, there has been some debate among researchers as to which is really the first. The early type Gold Sovereign of Henry VII in this sale has numerous lis in the upper obverse (front) fields and a cross fitchee mintmark on the reverse (back of the coin). The term mintmark in regard to British coins of the distant past has a meaning that is different from its meaning in the U.S. Each mintmark was added to a die for a particular purpose that is usually a mystery now, though a mintmark often now identifies a specific issue.
Lis (or fleurs-de-lis) are heraldic ornaments, the shapes of which have been used on shields, flags, clothes, curtains, and decorative objects for centuries. Most people have seen such shapes without knowing what they are called “lis” in Britain. In other societies, French terms are often used, fleur-de-lis or fleur-de-lys. Such shapes on British coins are often slightly different from the traditional fleur-de-lis.
The first Gold Sovereign in this auction, lot #20047, was catalogued as being a representative of the first type of Gold Sovereigns of Henry VII. At the ANA Convention, Steve Hill of the Baldwin firm brought to my attention the apparent fact that this coin is really a Gold Sovereign of the second type. I note that the Kenyon and Spink references clearly indicate that this coin is of the second type.
Robert Lloyd Kenyon wrote a book on English coins that was published in the 19th century, “Gold Coins of England” (London: Bernard Quaritch, 1884). There is no doubt that Kenyon would have regarded this coin, later in the Law Collection, as being of the second type. Regarding those of the first type, “there are no ornaments in the field,” Kenyon states, and a cinquefoil (flower) mintmark appears on both the obverse and the reverse.
The Gold Sovereign of an early type, lot #20047, in the sale of the Law Collection does not have a cinquefoil mintmark and does have a cross fitchee mintmark. Kenyon states that Gold Sovereigns of the second type have this cross fitchee mintmark. “The [obverse] field is chequered and covered with lis,” Kenyon says of coins of the second type. The upper fields of the coin in this auction are so covered.
The SBG cataloger identifies this Law Collection, Gold Sovereign with Spink reference number 2172. This is clearly an error. This Law Collection coin is a representative of the issue referenced as S-2173.
The Spink (‘S’) numbers are employed in the “Standard Catalogue of British Coins,” which is also called “Coins of England and the United Kingdom,” to identify specific coin issues. The “48th edition” of this reference book (London: Spink, 2012) clearly refers to Gold Sovereigns with “lis in background” on the obverse (front) and a cross fitchee mintmark on the reverse as being of “Group II,” not of the first type.
As Kenyon said more than a century ago, coins of the first type (“Group I”) have a cinquefoil, which is a type of flower, mintmark on both sides and do not have lis in the background on the obverse. Plus, the shield design is smaller on the reverse of Gold Sovereigns of the second type.
According to Steve Hill of the Baldwin firm, who is a leading expert in British coins, the source of the confusion is likely to be an article by W. J. W. Potter and E. J. Winstanley in the British Numismatic Journal in 1963. A PDF version of this article is easy to find on the Internet. In contrast to the 19th century Kenyon and current Spink references, Potter & Winstanley maintained that the Gold Sovereigns with the Cross Fitchee mintmark are of the first type and were made prior to those with the cinquefoil (flower) mintmark.
Soon after Potter & Winstanley reached their conclusions, these were disputed by Philip Grierson, a leading scholar for decades. Also according to Hill, in a work published in 1976 by the Oxford University Press, it “was proven by Dr. David Metcalf in conjunction with research from Dr. Christopher Challis that the chronology of the Potter and Winstanley types was at fault and in fact” Gold Sovereigns with the cinquefoil mintmark “predated” those with “the mark ‘cross fitchee.’”
I have not yet read Metcalf’s work. It seems that the SBG cataloguer implicitly referred to the sequence established by Potter & Winstanley in 1963, which Grierson and later Metcalf argue is definitely wrong. Metcalf theorizes that this Type Two Gold Sovereign was minted at some point from Nov. 1492 to the spring of 1493, while Gold Sovereigns of the true first type were minted at some points during a period from Oct. 28, 1489 to Nov. 1492.
Multiple sources indicate that the only surviving representative of the true first type (S-2172) of Henry VII Gold Sovereign is in the British Museum. For the Type Two (S-2173) issue, which the SBG cataloguer calls Type One, the Spink reference, “Standard Catalogue,” lists a value of “£250,000” ($388,525) in Very Fine (“VF”) grade, which does not seem high. I wonder how experts at Stack’s-Bowers figured their estimate of “$125,000” to “$175,000.”
Again according to Steve Hill, whether this Law Collection Gold Sovereign is called a Spink Group Two, a Metcalf Class B (=Metcalf’s second type), or a Potter-Winstanley Type One, “it is actually only one of two examples in private ownership. The other is the Schneider coin #548,” Hill indicates. “There are only two [additional] examples known, which are in museums, four in total.”
If it is one of only two privately owned Type Two Gold Sovereigns of Henry VII, as Steve says, and given its historical importance, a half million dollars seems like a reasonable price, from a logical perspective. For a coin from the 1400s, this Gold Sovereign is an admirable condition. Many gold coins from the 1400s have been devastated with chemicals, repaired, smoothed, re-engraved and/or polished.
Yes, it has technical imperfections. There is evidence of a light mounting, especially at 11:00 on the obverse (front). There are some rim nicks in other places.
A large percentage of epic coins that have survived over centuries were mounted at one time or another, for various reasons, sometimes in display cases in homes. Gold Sovereigns were often kept by members of the nobility and by businessmen. Also, some were later mounted for displays at museums or historical societies.
When a coin is mounted, it is usually harmed. The harm, due to mounting, on this particular coin is slight. It seems that other technical issues are minor as well. I did not spend enough time examining it, though, to be completely certain of its grade.
I tentatively conclude that this Gold Sovereign is gradable by U.S. standards. The fact that it has been moderately dipped does not preclude a coin from being gradable. Many U.S. coins that have been moderately to heavily dipped have been assigned high grades by the PCGS or the NGC. Importantly, this coin has hardly any noticeable contact marks. Indeed, this Type Two Gold Sovereign is more than attractive. I tentatively grade it as Extremely Fine-40 or higher.
James Ricks’ evaluation of this coin is consistent with my own. He says that it is “very nice, definitely gradable, Extremely Fine by U.S. standards.” Before recently founding Atlas Numismatics, Ricks was the world coin expert for Northeast Numismatics for fourteen years.
James is based in Brooklyn, New York. More so than most dealers in British coins, Ricks is familiar with the grading criteria employed in the U.S.
Bidding for this coin was intense at the auction. Bidder #220 in a tan shirt started the game at a level below $100,000. From my vantage point, I could not follow all of the bidding paddles that went in the air over the next few seconds. Bidder #281 bid $282,000. He was in the middle of the room, sitting next to the wall, on my left, the auctioneer’s right. I am almost certain that Steve Hill or Ian Goldbart of the Baldwin firm bid $470,000 (=400k +17.5%).
Bidder #281 on the wall came back and captured this Sovereign for $499,375 (=425k +17.5%). For a British coin, $500,000 is an enormous sum, perhaps analogous to $4,000,000 for a U.S. coin. Four days before this auction, a U.S. coin did sell for $3,887,500.
IV. Types Three, Four and Five
Metcalf theorized that Type Three Sovereigns of Henry VII were struck between the spring of 1493 and the autumn of 1495. The Law Collection, Type Three Gold Sovereign, S-2174, lot #20048, is not gradable by U.S. standards. A chemical cleaning, a medium mounting, and other issues prevent it from meriting a numerical grade. As a non-gradable coin, however, I like it.
The greenish tints in the fields and the overall tan-gold color are attractive, even if not entirely natural. This Sovereign has the details of a sharp Very Fine grade coin. Certainly, it is more appealing than most, surviving large gold coins from the 1400s.James Ricks did not like it as much as I did, “Very Fine details, net Fine minus.”
This Type Three Sovereign sold for $58,750. Steve Hill was the underbidder.
Type Four Sovereigns were struck from the autumn of 1502 to the spring of 1504. The Type Four Sovereign in the “Thos. H. Law Collection” is barely gradable, in my view. Certainly, by British standards, it merits the “Very Fine Plus” grade assigned to it by the SBG cataloguer.
I am not sure that experts at the PCGS and the NGC would assign a numerical grade to it, if it was submitted, though they probably would do so. The crease is bothersome. It has nicely retoned after a standard dipping and, in the distant past, some kind of chemical cleaning. Its colorful appearance is mostly original, though not entirely so. Plus, there are rim indentations. It is true that this coin is very well struck.
I enjoyed examining it. James Ricks has a more positive view of this coin than I do, “AU-50 by U.S. standards, British [grade of] Good Very Fin*e, nearly Extremely Fine.”
I was startled by the price realized, $223,250! How rare are Type Four Gold Sovereigns of Henry VII? A British dealer, not of the Baldwin firm, was the successful bidder.
For $49,938, was the Law Collection, Type Five Gold Sovereign a better value? It is probably not gradable, though it has the details of an Extremely Fine grade. This coin has technical issues relating to mounting and to ‘conservation’ in the past. Although its color was affected by a chemical cleaning that occurred long ago, the antique tan-gold colors, with tints of green, are appealing, and are mostly natural. Surely, this coin looks better than most large gold coins from centuries ago. Stephen Fenton was the successful bidder.
“Stack’s-Bowers produced a good catalogue overall, which generated the desired interest,” declares Steve Hill of the Baldwin firm. “I counted eight of our British counterparts in the room that night. Plus, one more came and viewed the coins before the sale,” Hill adds.
It is hard to analyze the prices realized for these Gold Sovereigns of Henry VII as such coins are so infrequently offered. Moreover, they are of much greater historical importance than many other British hammered gold coins of similar rarity. For better or worse, the rise of England and the policies implemented during the Tudor dynasty had a substantial impact on the history of England and of the world. The Gold Sovereigns of the Tudors served important political and monetary purposes.
©2013 Greg Reynolds