The sovereign is a gold coin of the United Kingdom, with a nominal value of one pound sterling. Prior to 1932 it was a fully circulating coin within Britain's then Gold Standard currency.
Sovereigns have been minted in the United Kingdom from 1817 to 1917, in 1925, and from 1957 to the present. In the past Australia, Canada, and South Africa all occasionally minted the coins.
In Victorian times it was the practice of the Bank of England to remove worn sovereigns and half sovereigns from circulation and to have them recoined. Consequently, although a billion sovereigns have been minted in total, that figure includes gold that has been coined and recoined a number of times. In addition, when coins were sent to places such as the United States for international payments between governments, they were frequently melted down into gold bars because of the Federal regulations then in force. When gold coins were finally withdrawn from circulation in 1933 in the US, many thousands of British gold sovereigns were consigned to the melting pot in this way.
It is estimated that in circulation a sovereign could have a lifespan of up to 15 years before it fell below the "least current weight", that is, the minimum amount of gold below which it ceased to be legal tender.
English law allows a sovereign to be legal tender so long as it weighs 7.93787 g (0.280000 oz), or more; and the difference between this and the full standard weight of 7.98805 g (0.281770 oz) (approx. 0.6%) represents the margin allowed for abrasion.
It was actually the half-sovereign that had the most circulation in Victorian Britain. Many sovereigns languished in bank vaults for most of their lives. In 1889 and 1890 Orders in Council were made permitting members of the general public to hand in any gold coins that were underweight and have them replaced by full-weight coins. A proclamation was subsequently issued in November 1890 that any gold coin struck before 1837 would cease to be legal tender with effect from 28 February 1891. This recycled gold was subsequently reminted into 13,680,486 half sovereigns in 1892 and 10,846,741 sovereigns in 1900. (Both figures are for the London branch of the Royal Mint.)
Sovereign obverse (heads) dies were also used in the nineteenth century to create farthings once they had become worn. (An obverse die could typically produce 100,000 coins.)
Composition: 0.9167 gold, 0.0833 copper.