Ceremonial And Commemorative British Coins

Ceremonial and commemorative coins of Great Britain

The History Of The British Pound
Chapter Thirteen

Story Highlights:

This chapter concentrates on the coins which the Royal Mint produces and which aren’t intended for general circulation with information about:

  • Sovereigns – Their early history
  • Sovereigns in the 20th century – Whether to invest in sovereigns
  • Gold and silver Britannia coins
  • Why Britannia was chosen as a symbol
  • The history of the crown
  • Are the £5 crowns legal tender?
  • Ceremonial coins: Maundy money
  • The origins of the Maundy ceremony
  • What Maundy money is and what it looks like

Collectables and ceremonial British coins

Apart from the commemorative coins of 50-piece, £1 and £2 which are released into general circulation, the Royal Mint produces a number of collectables and ceremonial coins. In this chapter, let’s look at the different coins you can buy: gold sovereigns and half-sovereigns, the gold and silver Britannia coins as well as £5 coins (formerly known as crowns). Next, we’ll talk about ceremonial money; explain the origins and traditions of Maundy money, how the recipients are chosen and what they receive.

Early history of the sovereign (1489-1817)

The sovereign was first issued in 1489 by Henry VII. There was probably no need for a gold coin of such monetary value but it could be seen as a modern-day propaganda stunt. Not only to increase the King’s dignity (because of his spurious claim to the throne) but also to give a political message of stability and inspire trust in the coinage of England.

The sovereign continued to be produced until the reign of James I in the early 17th century. It was revived during the 1817 coinage reform but was minted at half the weight and diameter of the original gold 20-shilling coin. The reverse picture of St. George & the Dragon was designed by the Italian designer Benedetto Pistrucci (1784-1855), who also designed the Waterloo Medal. He reputedly received a fee of 100 guineas for his design.

A picture of a sovereign coin

Why choose St. George as the reverse design?

Since Greco-Roman times, the mounted hero or victor with a lance has often been depicted on coins as a sign of Imperial power. Although now well-known as the Patron Saint of England, Saint George was actually born in Cappadocia in Asia Minor and didn’t become popular until the First Crusade when there was a vision of him seen aiding the crusaders during the Battle of Antioch (1098).

The original 1817 design of the saint also included the Latin inscription ‘HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE’ ( meaning ‘Evil unto him who thinks evil of it’), which is also on the Royal Coat of Arms and the Order of the Garter. In 1821 the wording was removed and St. George’s broken lance was replaced by a sword.

The rise and fall of the sovereign

In 1825, the picture of St. George was replaced by the Royal Arms and wasn’t used again until 1871 when both pictorial reverse designs were minted. In 1893 the saint also appeared on the back of the half-sovereign. In the Victorian era, sovereigns were the most popular coins. However, this doesn’t mean you can expect to come across them; when they became worn, they were melted down and re-struck.

During the 1st World War, the Prime Minister Lloyd George encouraged the public to turn in their sovereigns and half-sovereigns, which would be exchanged for Treasury notes. The gold collected was used to pay off Britain’s international debts, support the Bank of England’s gold reserves and fund the war effort. The emphasis on helping in the war against the Kaiser was pursued quite aggressively so that those who hoarded their sovereigns were accused of aiding the enemy.

The methods worked in that it’s estimated £100,000,000 worth of gold was collected in this way. As a result of the debts from the 1st World War, Britain never successfully returned to the gold standard and sovereigns were no longer minted for general circulation.

Approximately 206 million sovereigns were struck during the Victorian era

The gold sovereign in 20th century

In the period after the 1st World War, some sovereigns were minted abroad in places like Pretoria while in 1949-51, ‘back-dated’ coins were produced with the portrait of King George V and dated 1925.

Since the 20th century, the gold sovereign has always been produced with a picture of St. George apart from special occasions such as the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002 (when the saint was replaced by the Shield of the Royal Arms) or 1989 (when the design was the Tudor rose in commemoration of the coin’s 500th anniversary).


Sovereigns were minted from 1489-1619 and were re-issued during the coinage reform of 1817 as coins for general circulation.

Apart from some years when the reverse design was the Royal Coat of Arms, by far the most enduring design on the back of the sovereign has been a mounted St. George slaying the dragon.

During the 1st World War, sovereigns were recalled to finance the war efforts and in return, customers were given Treasury notes.

After the failure to return to the gold standard (1925-31), sovereigns were no longer released into general circulation.

What’s the difference between bullion and proof sovereigns?

Bullion sovereigns are coins which are sold at or close to gold’s intrinsic metal value. They are usually struck only once and are often bought for investment purposes. However, proof sovereigns are struck 3-7 times to give a sharper definition of the design on the coin and are more of the kind of coins to interest numismatists.

Proof sovereigns are struck 3-7 times to give a sharper definition of the design on the coin.

From 1957-1982 the Royal Mint produced only bullion sovereigns but for the following 7 years, they minted only proof sovereigns. Since 2000, they have produced quantities of both.

Should I invest in sovereigns?

Sovereigns are exempt from Capital Gains Tax but the value of the sovereigns you buy can vary considerably in their re-sell value and this ultimately depends on the price of gold. The other thing to remember is that the value of any coin depends on its rarity. The higher the mintage, the less the coin is worth. Therefore, limited editions make a much better investment although your grandchildren might be the ones to cash in rather than you.

Gold and silver Britannia coins

Compared to other coins not in general circulation, Britannia coins are very new. Gold Britannia coins have been minted every year since 1987 while the silver versions have been produced since 1997.

The gold coins contain 1 troy ounce of gold with a face value of £100 although they can also be purchased in fractional sizes of ½, ¼ and 1/10th (and since 2013, 5oz and 1/20th sizes have also been available). Silver Britannia coins are available in the same sizes but are priced at £2 for 1 troy ounce. The gold coins are minted in 24-carat gold (with a silver alloy) while the silver Britannia coins used to be made with 95.8% silver and are now minted with 99.9% (since 2013). Before 2013, Britannia coins were produced in limited numbers but since then, they’ve been produced according to demand (which can ultimately affect their re-sell value).

Why choose Britannia as the symbol?

Britannia has been the personification of the British Isles since Roman times and has been on the coinage continuously since the 17th century as well as being the logo for the Bank of England.

The statue of Britannia, who has been a symbol of Britain since Roman times

What is most interesting about the symbol of Britannia is how her image has been adapted to match the times. She can be the Warrior Queen (with helmet and shield), the Queen of the Seas (carrying a trident and seated near the sea), the peacemaker (holding out a olive branch) or the Defender of the Realm (with an upright warrior pose but looking back towards the Britain she’s protecting).

The Royal Mint has recognised the complexity of Britannia’s image by minting Britannia coins with a different design commissioned by different artists in odd-numbered years. As part of a public relations exercise to publicise the coins, the Royal Mint carried out research to see how many Britons could recognise this iconoclastic figure. Would you believe that 1 in 4 adults didn’t recognise her?


There are 2 different types of sovereign: bullion and proof.

How much sovereigns are an investment depends on the price of gold; whether they’re bullion or proof and their scarcity value.

Britannia gold and silver coins are new coins, minted in different values and portray a picture of Britannia on them.

The image of Britannia has featured on British coins for centuries although the way she’s portrayed changes with the historical period.

The history of the crown

The silver crown was originally a large sterling silver coin struck for general circulation and in the 16th and 17th centuries, gold crowns were also minted. Because of its large size, crowns weren’t popular in the 19th century but tended to be minted in commemorative editions on special occasions such as the year of a royal coronation.

In 1920, the sterling silver content of the crown (92.5%) was reduced to 50% and the manganese alloy used with it had a tendency to make the coins tarnish easily. After the 2nd World War, silver was no longer used for coins and was replaced by cupro-nickel and from 1951, ‘5 shillings’ was written on the coins instead of the name ‘crown’. Various commemorative versions were produced such as for the Festival of Britain (1951) and the funeral of Winston Churchill (1965).

After WWII, silver was replaced by cupro-nickel for the making of coins

At decimalisation in 1971 crowns ceased to be legal tender but were still minted at special occasions as a keep-sake such as the silver wedding anniversary of the Queen in 1972 and the marriage of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981. Although crowns were originally priced at 25p, in 1990 the price was raised to £5 to take account of inflation. In some years, special proof editions in silver and gold were also offered for sale.

Are crowns legal tender?

Currently worth £5, crowns are legal tender but this doesn’t mean that retailers and banks are obliged to accept them. The Royal Mint point out on their website that although all their coins have to be legal tender, their commemorative issues are intended to be used as collectables, gifts and/or mementos of special occasions or anniversaries and won’t be treated the same as circulating coinage. The only business which is most likely to accept your £5 coins is the post office.

The present £2 coin was also minted as a commemorative coin before it entered general circulation in 1999 and before then used to be in the same position – legal tender but not accepted by shops.

Are crowns valuable investments?

Unless you’ve bought crowns/£5 coins in precious metals, then it’s very unlikely that they’ll increase in value in the coming century. One of the problems is that these coins are made of cupro-nickel, which isn’t worth very much. The other problem is that these coins are mass-produced. Let’s go back to 1977 – did you or your family buy a commemorative crown (then worth 25p) for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee? Would you believe 37 million coins were minted to commemorate the occasion? As a result, they’re far from rare and this affects their price.

Unless you’ve bought crowns in precious metals, it’s very unlikely that they’ll increase in value in the coming century.

The only time that ordinary cupro-nickel coins are worth more is when they are ‘mules’. This means that during the production process, the Royal Mint made an error. For example, with the date or design.

Ceremonial coins – Maundy Money

Now that we’ve considered the commemorative coins that are issued by the Royal Mint, it’s time to look at the ceremonial money produced by the Mint – Maundy Money. However, before we describe what the coins are like, we should begin by explaining the origins of the ceremony, who receives the money and what recipients are given by the Queen.

Origins of the Maundy ceremony

The Maundy Day ceremony takes place on the day before Good Friday (or Maundy Thursday). It has its roots in the commandment that Christ gave his disciples that they should wash another’s feet in remembrance/imitation of how he’d washed their feet (Gospel of John, Chapter 13). Also called the ‘mandatum’, this command is where the word ‘maundy’ is derived from. The ceremony of washing the feet of the poor and distributing gifts of money, food and/or clothes dates back to the 4th century. It was carried out by nobles, clergymen and royalty as a sign of Christian humility.

Although the foot-washing (or ‘pedilavium’) was no longer done by monarchs after the 18th century, certain elements of the ceremony reflect its beginnings. For instance, the Queen is presented with a nosegay (originally to cover up the smell) and some of those officiating still carry linen towels. In fact, before it was stopped, the poor would have had their feet washed 3 times beforehand to save the monarch from having to face the smell!

A picture of a man pouring water into a tray preparing for a foot wash, which a tradition dating back to the 4th century


The crown was originally a large silver coin; after 1947 it was minted in cupro-nickel while commemorative editions were also produced.

The value of crowns changed from 5 shillings (up to 1971) to 25 pence (after decimalisation) and is now worth £5 (since 1990).

Although crowns are legal tender, it doesn’t mean that they have to be accepted as payment while cupro-nickel versions aren’t a good investment.

The Maundy Day ceremony has its origins in the traditional foot-washing of the poor which was done in emulation of Christ and as a sign of humility.

Who’s invited to receive Maundy Money?

Early accounts of the Maundy ceremony would suggest that any poor in the area would be chosen to take part in the ceremony. Because the gifts included clothing, until 1714 kings would distribute only to men while female monarchs would hand out gifts solely to women.

Henry IV was the first to specify that the number of recipients should be the same number as the age of the monarch (and from his reign it became known as Royal Maundy). Under Queen Elizabeth, one man and one woman are chosen for her every year so in 2017, 182 people received Maundy money.

Nowadays, the recipients of Maundy money are pensioners who are nominated from all denominations for their Christian service to both the church and to their wider community. Although the ceremony used to be held in one of London’s churches, Queen Elizabeth has stipulated that the ceremony can’t be held more than once every decade in the capital so nominations are made from the diocese where the ceremony will take place.

Maundy gifts in the past

The gifts which used to be distributed would be Maundy coins as well as food and clothing. They stopped giving out food and clothes in the 19th century for a number of reasons. One was the poor were discovered to be selling the food at a loss as soon as they left the ceremony and the second was that people were undressing to try on their new clothes and this was felt to be unseemly behaviour for a church. As a result, they were replaced by a money allowance (in addition to the Maundy money) to be spent on food and clothing.

Before 1956, recipients of Maundy money were nominated for life

During the ceremony nowadays, the Maundy gifts are still carried in by the Yeoman of the Guard on trays. This tradition was apparently started to have the gifts held up high so as to stop the poor grabbing them before the ceremony started and to keep away the smell of the fish (a traditional Lenten food).

What is Maundy Money?

Before the reign of Charles II, the money distributed on Maundy Thursday would be silver pennies, which were in general circulation. However, in 1662 Charles II gave out a set of 4 hammered coins worth 1d, 2d, 3d and 4d struck in sterling silver.

When the silver content of coins was changed in 1920 to 50%, Maundy coins also changed in composition. However, after the Coinage Act of 1946 they returned to the sterling silver standard of 92.5%. When decimalisation occurred, the coins were changed from old pennies to new pence.

What does Maundy Money look like?

Unlike the coins in general circulation which have had the Queen’s portrait changed 5 times during her reign, Maundy coins retain the 1953 portrait done by Mary Gillick for the Queen’s coronation.

On the reverse side of the coins, there are large numerals of 1, 2, 3 or 4 surrounded by an oak wreath. This design has remained basically unchanged since the reign of William & Mary (1689-1702).

During the ceremony, the recipients are given 2 small leather string purses. One is red and contains ordinary coinage, which is given in lieu of food and clothing (and in 2017 was just over £5). The other purse, which is white, contains the specially-minted Maundy coins. Their total value is the same age as the monarch given in 1p, 2p, 3p and 4p coins.


Recipients of Maundy money are pensioners who have contributed to their church and/or community and are one man and one woman for every year of the monarch’s life.

In the past gifts of food and clothing used to be distributed but since the 19th century, this has been replaced by a money allowance.

Maundy money consists of sterling silver coins made up exclusively of the denominations: 1p, 2p, 3p and 4p; have the 1953 portrait of Queen Elizabeth II on the obverse and numerals and an oak wreath on the reverse.

Recipients of Maundy money are given 2 bags – one with normal coinage (in place of food/clothing) and one with Maundy coins which total the age of the monarch.


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