On August 13 Stack’s-Bowers sold the Thomas H. Law collection of English Gold Coins. Assembled over many decades by a Texas resident with a keen interest in English history and coinage, the collection included many gold rarities struck on the British Isles, dating back to the time of Edward III in the fourteenth century. While virtually each and every lot in the sale is worthy of a lengthy write-up, we’ve decided to focus on one result in particular: the first of four offerings of a Henry VII Sovereign (struck at the Tower Mint in London), lot number 20047, with a Cross Fitchée on the reverse, which sold for $499,375 after an estimate of $125,000-$175,000. The other three Henry VII Sovereigns sold for lower amounts, between $49,938 and $223,250, indicating the supreme rarity of the piece presently discussed, one of the earliest sovereigns ever minted.
Dating of this particular piece is difficult. Spink, the main catalog of English coins, claims that the Cross Fitchée (or Fitchy) mintmark can be dated to 1487, while North in the standard reference “English Hammered Coinage” gives the issue a date of 1489. The Stack’s-Bowers catalog gives it a date of 1492-93. While some of the earlier denominations might indeed have been struck with the Cross Fitchée mintmark the earliest that this sovereign could have been struck is late 1489, when the sovereign denomination was first issued, a large gold coin valued at twenty shillings.
Even though Henry VII is not as well known as his son Henry VIII (famous for his many wives) the father was the first Tudor Monarch of England and plays an important role in English history. He seized the crown in 1485 after victory at the Battle of Bosworth Field where King Richard III was killed. It was the last major battle in the Wars of the Roses fought between the houses of York and Lancaster (of which Henry was a descendant) and would eventually lead to the Tudor period in English history, so known for the emblem of two roses combined (a white rose for York, a red rose for Lancaster) which was created after Henry VII married his third cousin Elizabeth of York, combining the two houses and securing his right to the throne. Henry VII would reign until his death of tuberculosis in 1509.
Besides a number of minor design changes, the major change in the coinage during the period of Henry VII was the introduction of the sovereign. Considered by many to be one of the most magnificent coins ever produced on the British Isles they would be struck until 1604, although the name lives on in a smaller denomination up to this day (it would not be introduced until 1816 and is irrelevant to the present discussion). Minted in 23 karat gold, sovereigns weigh approximately half an ounce (240 grains) but are struck on thin planchets making them as large as a silver dollar. The design, with a king seated on a gothic throne on the obverse and a shield on the reverse was based on a coin of similar size called the Réal d’or which was first struck by Maximilian, king of the Romans, in the Southern Netherlands in 1487.
The Law collection featured four of the five types, missing what is commonly identified as the earliest type (with a cinquefoil mintmark, which presumably was the very first sovereign struck and minted for a very short period) which is a major rarity that was missing from virtually all major English collections ever formed. Besides the Cross Fitchée mintmark seen on the coin presently discussed (it is located at the top of the reverse, also called an “initial mark” the Law collection featured examples of the Dragon Mark, Lis/Dragon Mark and lis/Cross Crosslet marks. The latter two feature different marks on both the obverse as well as the reverse in addition to variations in the design.
While English gold coins from the 15th century might not be the specialization of many these enigmatic pieces are true rarities that shed light on the history of the times. All other Tudor Monarchs continued to strike this particular type, but it died soon after the accession of James VI to the throne in 1603, making the English sovereign a denomination that runs parallel with the Tudor monarchs and a turbulent and often discussed period in English history.