It’s not business, it’s strictly personal

More on the personal seals in the Archives.

Following a blog published in July 2015, this is a more detailed look at the value and importance of personal seals from the point-of-view of their history, usage, ownership and designs.

Most of the wax seals in the St George’s Chapel Archives remain attached to their original documents. The best represented period is between the 13th and 17th centuries: five hundred years of seals being used throughout the United Kingdom for the first time. During that time seals (and, of course the matrices from which they took their impression) reduced in size and shape, becoming mostly circular, with an average diameter of 18mm.

Personal seals are those used by an individual in a private capacity as a means of authentication and validation. They were attached at the bottom of a handwritten deed or covenant by a parchment tag or tongue, or plaited strings or cord, or applied directly onto the deed itself by pressing a seal matrix into soft wax on the parchment. Once attached, the seal helped to maintain the integrity of the document as it had to be placed by the owner of the matrix and could not be reused. In the case of important transactions or agreements the seals of all parties to the arrangement, including witnesses, might be attached to the document.

During the 13th century the use of seals spread to all but the lowest levels of society in England and Wales. This is usually attributed to a developing land market and an increase in trade and the subsequent use of documentation: individuals demanded written proof of transactions and agreements. Because such proofs represented finalisation of the transactions the records were stored away and moved infrequently and thus have been little disturbed, unlike medieval books. Now, however, the documents are used for study and this provides an opportunity to clean the seals of centuries of dirt and grime to reveal wonders of art and design.

A particularly lovely non-stamped seal in the Chapel Archives bears a remarkably preserved ash tree leaf set onto a red wax seal and attached by a parchment tag to a document appointing a man to a canonry in the deanery of Wolverhampton.

It is fascinating how many different designs and meanings are represented on wax seals and the collection in the Chapel Archives is no exception. From equestrian noblemen shown hunting, surrounded by a legend, to simple flowers with no legend, and many categories in between. Some feature a merchant’s mark, unique to each merchant – sometimes still in use today as a trademark or company logo. The meanings of some designs are lost to the mists of time, such as a fox and a goose attached to a lease of 1555.

Seals showing family coats of arms are fairly common, with a legend surrounding the design often commencing with the letter S or the full SIGILLVM (Latin for seal) followed by the bearer’s name and title. Sometimes the designs are puns on the owner’s name, such as a figure with a bow and arrow for a man called Archer. This is known as a rebus.

If a seal has a legend on the obverse or reverse, or both, and it is intact and clear enough to read this is a great help identifying ownership or meaning.  One of my favourites is a thirteenth century seal which reads ECCE AGNUS DEI EST AMOR MEUS ‘Behold the Lamb of God is my love’.

Peter Eley, Archives volunteer

I am indebted to Dr Elizabeth New’s work ‘Seals and Sealing Practices’. 2010 British Records Association for additional information.

The Queen's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.