Tails - Designs on the Reverse of British Sovereigns

Author: Lawrence Chard - Director and Expert Numismatist

Published: 16 Feb 2018

Last Updated: 17 Jan 2020

Synopsis 

Perhaps Britians favourite coin, the gold sovereign has featured many designs, depictions and engravings since its inception. The reverse is the secondary side of the coin opposite from the head or obverse. It is commonly called the "tail" side. We always wonder whether people who call the obverse the front side also call the reverse the back side! We will attempt to describe and picture the reverses of all the different sovereigns.

2020 gold full sovereign proof benedetto pistrucci st george and the dragon royal mint london

Henry VII

The reverse of the first gold sovereign, introduced for Henry VII, featured a shield bearing the royal arms superimposed on a large Tudor rose. Our picture shows a the reverse of a sovereign of Elizabeth I

Henry VII first gold full sovereign coin

Charles I - Unite

The 20 shilling gold coin issued under King Charles I was called a unite. We have cheated a little here and shown the reverse of a triple unite dated 1643. It shows an abbreviated form of the famous declaration made by Charles to uphold the protestant religion and the laws of England.

Charles ! 20 shilling gold coin unite full sovereign

Oliver Cromwell - The Broad

The gold broad of Oliver Cromwell featured a crowned shield. The Latin motto translates as "Peace is sought by war".

Oliver Cromwell The Broad crowned Shield

1817 -  Saint George Slaying the Dragon

1817 saw the introduction of the modern gold sovereign during the great revision of the coinage under George III. A great Italian artist and engraver, Benedetto Pistrucci was employed by the Royal Mint as an engraver. His most famous work is the George & Dragon which was used on sovereigns and crowns.
Saint George, the patron Saint of England, is shown on horseback slaying a dragon.
On the sovereigns of George III, St. George appears within a garter bearing the motto "Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense", from the Order of the Garter.

1817 George III gold sovereign st george and the dragon benedetto pistrucci

1821 - Saint George & Dragon Without Garter

On the first type sovereigns of George IV, issued from 1821 to 1825, the garter was omitted from the Saint George & Dragon reverse, creating the definitive reverse design which has appeared on most gold sovereigns since, and still appears on today's sovereigns, with a few slight variations.

1821 George IV gold full sovereign st george and the dragon benedetto pistrucci

1825 - Shield Design Introduced For George IV

On the second type sovereigns of George IV, issued from 1825 to 1830, a crowned shield was used as the reverse design.

1825 George IV gold full sovereign crowned shield jean baptiste merlen

1831 - Different King - Different Shield

The shield reverse design was continued for William IV, from 1831 to 1837, although the size and shape of the shield was modified, and most of the lettering removed.

1831 William IV gold full sovereign garnished crowned shield

1838 - Victoria Shield Reverse

The first reverse design for Queen Victoria was a crowned shield, which was used on sovereigns from 1838 to 1887 inclusive. It was refined and modified a number of times during this period. We intend to feature all the different varieties in good time.

1838 Queen Victoria Crowned Shield

1871 - Victoria Young Head With Saint George Reverse

In 1871, a "type 2" version of the young head sovereign was introduced, engraved by William Wyon, with Pistrucci's famous Saint George and the Dragon reverse design.This same design is still used on gold sovereigns today.

1871 Queen Victoria Young Head St George and the Dragon reverse Benedetto Pistrucci

1929 - Redesigned Saint George Reverse for George V

A smaller, and re-engraved version of St. George and the Dragon reverse design was adopted for George V sovereigns from 1929 to 1932. We have shown larger images of the two types on their own page George V Reverse Comparisons.

1929 George V gold full sovereign benedetto pistrucci st george

1989 - Elizabeth II 500th Anniversary of the Sovereign

In 1989, a special design was used on the gold sovereigns, and also the other gold sovereign multiples and fractions of that year. This was to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the issue of the first gold sovereign in 1489 for Henry VII. The reverse shows a crowned shield bearing the current Royal Arms superimposed on a Tudor Rose, in a reproduction of the style used 500 years previously. As Her Majesty the Queen is also the Duke of Lancaster, it would be reasonable to claim that the rose is a red rose, the emblem of Lancashire. Our neighbours across the border in Yorkshire may wish to dispute this!

1989 Elizabeth II 500th Anniversary of the Sovereign

2001 - Saint George Lives On

First introduced in 1917, our picture shows the George and Dragon reverse design on a 2001 proof sovereign, virtually unchanged since the Garter was removed on the sovereign of 1821.The dragon has still not been slain.

2001 gold sovereign benedetto pistrucci st george and the dragon

2002 - Shield Revisited

For the Golden Jubilee of Elizabeth II in 2002, a revised version of the shield design, last used in 1893 has been recalled for just one year.

2002 gold full sovereign QEII crowned shield

2005 - New St. George

In 2005, a new version of St. George and the dragon was used just for the one year. Designed by Timothy Noad

2005 gold  full sovereign coin st george and the dragon Timothy Noad

2012 - Modern St George

To mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, the reverse design changed again in 2012. It was desigined by Paul Day and appeareed on the coin only in 2012.

2012 Paul Day st george and the dragon full gold sovereign

Further Reading

If you would like to know more about the most prominent and influential designs of British coinage then we recommend the following:

Sculptors Artists & Engravers of British Coins

Sir Thomas Brock Engraver of Queen Victoria

Mary Gillick Designer of Queen Elizabeth II First Portrait

A Brief History of Coinage in Britain

A Brief History of the Scottish Coinage

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