Gold sovereigns were first issued in 1489 for Henry VII, generally with a value of one pound. The name "sovereign" related to the majestic and impressive size and portraiture of the coin, the earliest of which showed the king facing, seated on a throne, while the reverse shows the Royal coat of arms on a shield surrounded by a Tudor double rose. These original sovereigns were 23 carat (96%) gold and weighed 240 grains or one-half of a troy ounce (15.6 g). Henry VIII reduced the purity to 22 carats (92%), which eventually became the standard; the weight of the sovereign was repeatedly lowered until when it was revived after the Great Recoinage law of 1816, the gold content was fixed at the present 113 grains (7.32 g). Sovereigns were discontinued after 1604, being replaced by Unites, and later by Laurels, and then guineas.
Production of sovereigns restarted in 1817, their reverse design being a portrayal of Saint George killing a dragon, engraved by Benedetto Pistrucci. This same design is still in use on British gold sovereigns, although different reverse designs have been used during the reigns of William IV, Victoria, George IV, and Elizabeth II. Sovereigns were produced in large quantities until World War I, at which time the UK came off the gold standard. From then until 1932, sovereigns were produced only at branch mints at Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Bombay, and Pretoria (except for some in 1925 produced in London). The last regular issue was in 1932 (at Pretoria).
Production resumed in 1957, obstensibly to prevent the coin being counterfeited in Beirut and Italy. Subsequent publication of treasury papers appear to indicate that sovereigns were widely used in pursuance of British foreign policy in the middle east, and it was felt that the coin could not be allowed to fall into disrepute - as many individuals were receiving payments in the form of sovereigns for services rendered to the British government. Sovereigns were produced most years as bullion until 1982. From there to 1999, proof only versions were produced, but since 2000, bullion sovereigns have been minted. Modern sovereigns are minted at the Royal Mint in Pontyclun, Mid-Glamorgan, Wales. The coins are produced in the precious metal unit which is sealed off from the rest of the Mint, the Mint itself being protected by Ministry of Defence police. Employees are not allowed to use any coins within the Mint - plastic tokens replacing coin of the realm for the staff canteen!
Current sovereigns (2000 onwards) are struck from a combination of 99.99% pure gold and pure copper. Each coin contains 11/12 gold and 1/12 copper. This alloy is known as Crown Gold. The only time there has been a deviation from this composition was in the production of early Australian sovereigns, which used silver as part of the alloy and in London sovereigns dated 1887, when an extra 1.25% silver was added in order to make the blanks softer for new Joseph Boehm effigy of Queen Victoria. Consequently, 1887 London Mint sovereigns are more yellow in appearance than other London produced sovereigns.
In summary, sovereigns were produced as follows: