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UK History, One Pound Coin at a Time

MaryJane Slaby, special to

Sovereign. Quid. Sterling. Pound.

No matter the name, past or present, the pound has been the United Kingdom currency since Anglo-Saxon times. Yet the coin used today has only been around since 1983.


And this year, the Royal Mint will release two new versions of the coin.

The London and Belfast 2010 £1 coins and the Cardiff and Edinburgh 2011 coins are a limited-edition series of the four UK capital cities.

But as one side of the coin changes, the obverse side with the effigy of Queen Elizabeth II will stay the same as it has been for the last 12 years.

The portrait of the monarch should be one history could easily recognize as well as one people on the street now would recognize, Ian Rank-Broadley, designer of the effigy on the UK and Commonwealth coins said.

In only the fourth portrait of the queen to be used for coins, Elizabeth II wears a tiara and is facing right. That follows the four-hundred-year tradition of having successive monarchs face alternative directions on coins.

Designing a coin of the monarch should include a degree of dignity and grace, Rank-Broadley said. He designed the coin from photos, both official and from the media, because the queen was traveling while he was designing.

And Rank-Broadley wanted the image to be as true to life as possible - even though there was some criticism about the portrait being too realistic and not idealistic enough.

“These small little objects are often all that is left,” Rank-Broadley said of the coins, “They tell an amazing story.”

A Longer Life

A coin can be used for 40 years or more, compared to a banknote’s life of nine months.

The longevity, combined with a decrease in purchasing power and convenience for the growing vending industry, is why the UK government, after talks with multiple groups including retailers and special interest groups announced the switch to the £1 coin from the £1 banknote in 1981.

Seven years later, the £1 banknote with the depiction of Isaac Newton became illegal; four years after it was last issued.

And it was back to using the coin.

Like the first gold sovereign coin issued in 1489 by King Henry VII, the coin is yellow in color, but now made of nickel-brass. It is also the thickest of all the current coins, which makes it easy to spot.

Originally, in Anglo-Saxon times, one pound was the weight of the amount of 92.5 percent pure silver that could produce 240 silver pennies at 22.5 grams each.

But the £1 coin has been historically gold, except for during the reign of Charles I, when it was silver, and when the country used notes.

The Bank of England first issued the £1 banknote in April 1797. At the time, very few coins were in circulation due to hoarding. Without the coins, daily trade was difficult. Also, a drain on gold reserves to fund the war against France, forced the Bank of England to suspend gold payment of its banknotes, and notes were issued. The sovereign came back in 1817 and lasted until World War I.

Writing the £1 Story

The newest £1 coins will tell the story of the four UK capital cities with traditional heraldic shields rounded to mimic the shape of the coin.

Each design has a city’s coat of arms and represents the influence the cities have on each other as well as the world.

“Capital cities have always had an important role to play in nurturing and projecting the identity of a nation and this is why the Royal Mint wanted to represent and celebrate these UK cities in the new £1 UK coin series," Dave Knight, director of commemorative coins at the Royal Mint said in a Royal Mint press release. "As capital cities are so close to the nations’ heart it was really important to create something people identify with."

The capital city coins are the debut UK coins for international coin designer and Goldsmith and Jeweler to the Queen, Stuart Devlin. The London coin will be first in circulation, as demand requires coins that are collected or damaged be replaced.

“I was really excited and privileged to design the new series, particularly as the £1 is such an important symbol in UK coinage,” Devlin said in the press release. “I worked on the principle that the key is to find something that people identify with.”