1902 Encyclopedia > Seals


SEALS (Gr. _____ ; Lat. sigillum). During the mediaeval period the importance of seals was very great, as they were considered the main proofs of the authenticity of all sorts of documents, both public and private. That is much less the case now, the written signature being thought a safer guarantee of genuineness. In order to make illicit use or imitation of a seal difficult, the seal itself was usually locked up and guarded with special care, and in the case of royal personages or corporate bodies was often made a very complicated work of art, which it would have been almost impossible to copy exactly. One very curious precaution that was adopted is still in use with the corporate seal of the monastcriss of Mount Athos. The circular matrix is divided into four quarters, each of which is kept by one of the four epistatai or ruling monks; the four pieces are joined by a key-handle, which remains in the custody of the secretary. Thus it is only when all five guardians of the various parts of the matrix meet together that the complete seal can be stamped on any document. The device on the Mount Athos seal is a half-length figure of the Madonna and Child, and the imprint is made by blackening the matrix in the flame of a lamp and then pressing it on the paper or vellum itself. Mediaeval seals were applied in two different ways : in one the stamp was impressed in wax run on the surface of the document (Fr. plaque or en placard); in the other the wax impression was suspended by cord or strips of parchment (Fr. pendant). The latter method was neces-sarily used with metal seals or bullx (see below).

For the sake of greater security in the case of plaque seals, it was a common practice from the 12th century onwards, or even earlier, to make a cross cut in the vellum of the document, the corners of which were then turned back, thus forming a square opening, over which the wax seal was stamped; the turned-up corners helped to hold the wax in its place, and the aperture allowed a second matrix to be applied at the back. This was usually a smaller private seal called a secretum. Thus, for example, an abbot would use on the front of a document the large corporate seal of his community, and on the back would stamp his personal seal as a secretum.

Till the 12th century pure white bseswax was generally used, after that wax coloured green or red. The use of shellac or other harder materials, such as modern sealing-wax, is of recent date. Thus it was usual to protect the soft wax seals by some sort of "fender," often a wreath of rushes or plaited strips of paper twisted round it; another method much employed in the 15th century was to cover the seal with leaves of oak, bay, or beech. Pendant seals were often encased in boxes of wood or cuir bouilli, which in some cases are very richly decorated. From the 13th to the 15th century original royal documents are usually on fine vellum and have green seals hung by many-coloured silk and gold thread, while office copies are on coarser vellum and have white seals hung by parchment strips. In England an important official, called the clerk of the chafe-wax, an office which still exists, was entrusted with the duty of softening the wax for state seals over a chafing-brazier. Two different methods of sealing documents, either closed or open for inspection, are recorded in the legal terms "letters secret" and "letters patent."

and the object that makes the impress. More correctly the latter is called the " matrix," and only the impression is called the " seal."

Owing to the enormous number of mediaeval seals which still exist, and their frequently great historical and artistic importance, it is necessary to adopt some method of classification, especially for large collections, such as that of the British Museum, which contains about 25,000 specimens, and the very important one of the Society of Antiquaries, The chief classes are these:—(1) Ecclesi-astical.—(a) Seals belonging to offices, such as those of popes, bishops, abbots, deans, &c.; (b) common seals of corporate bodies, such as chapters, religious colleges, monas-teries, and the like; (c) official seals without the name of the officer; (d) personal seals, with or without a name. (2) Lay.—(a) Royal seals, including those of queens and royal princes; (b) official seals in the name of the sovereign or a state official; (c) common seals of corporate bodies, such as towns, universities, guilds, schools, hospi-tals, &c.; (d) personal seals (not being royal) with effigies, heraldry, merchants' marks, or other devices, with or with-out a name, or with name only, or with legend only.

French Royal Seals. —The earliest and most complete series of seals is that of the French kings. The Carlo-vingian and Merovingian monarchs mostly used antique gems or pastes,—portrait heads being selected and a legend added in the metal setting of the matrix. Charlemagne used a head of Jupiter Serapis, Pippin the Short that of the Indian Dionysus. The British Museum pos-sesses a seal of Odo or Eudes, king of France (888-898), impressed from a fine Greek gem of the 3d century B.C., with a portrait of Seleucus IV. The oldest existing matrix is that of Lothaire I. (c. 817), now preserved at Aix-la-Chapelle, attached to an altar-cross. It is an oval intaglio in rock crystal, with a laureated portrait and the legend

«J« XPE . ADIWA . HLOTHARIVM . REG. ; it IS not an antique,

but is of contemporary Byzantino-Rhenish work. Till the time of Louis VI. (1108-1137) these seals were 'plaque, but he introduced pendant seals about 1108 ; and counter-seals at the back were first used by Louis VII. (1137-80). The grand series of round seals with an enthroned figure of the king begins with the Capet Henry I. (1031-60). The king holds a sceptre in one hand and a flower in the other. Those of the queens are frequently of a pointed oval form, with a standing portrait figure holding a flower in each hand. In the 13th and 14th centuries the French royal seals were elaborate works of art, with a finely draped figure of the king seated under a rich canopy on a throne, decorated with lions' or eagles' heads; the king holds a sceptre in each hand. The queens' seals, of a round or pointed oval form, are also very beautiful, with a graceful figure standing between two shields under a rich canopy. After the 15th century there was a rapid decadence in the royal seals, and in the 17th and 18th centuries they were of the most tasteless style, far worse than those used in England at the same date.

English Royal Seals.—This, which is on the whole the most beautiful of all royal series, begins with the seal of Edward the Confessor (see fig. I). The great seal of Will-iam the Norman and his successors was not plaque, like the earlier ones, but pendant; it has on one side an enthroned figure of a king copied from contemporary French seals, and on the re-verse the king on horseback armed with spear and shield. These two ways of representing the sovereign have been used on all the royal seals of England down to the present day. By degrees greater elaboration of ornament was introduced into the throne and its canopy. In Edward III.'s time niches with minute statuettes of saints were added at the sides of the obverse. The climax of magnificence was reached in the reign of Henry V. On the obverse of his seal the king sits holding the orb and sceptre; the gorgeous canopy contains statuettes of the Virgin and two saints, and at each side are three rows of statuettes in minute canopied niches, each row two tiers high; about fifteen minute figures of saints and angels are introduced into the design. On the reverse is the king on horseback, bearing a sword and shield; the horse, going at full speed, is clothed with richly embroidered heraldic drapery, and on its head and on the king's is a lion crest. After Henry V. the seals began to decrease in magnificence, and in the reign of Henry VII. the new taste of the Renaissance began to supplant the pure Gothic of the earlier seals. In the time of Philip and Mary both sovereigns appear together, seated under canopies, or riding side by side. The great seal of the Commonwealth is a marvel of ugliness. On the obverse is a perspective view of the interior of the

the House of Commons, and on the reverse a map of Great Britain and Ireland. Cromwell's seal has an equestrian portrait of himself, and its reverse the arms of the Commonwealth between a lion and a dragon as supporters. Little is noticeable about the seals of succeeding sovereigns; that of Victoria is minutely cut, but is very poor as a work of art.

Other English Seals.—Gilt bronze was the commonest material for large seals, but other metals were used, such as gold, silver, and lead, also jet and ivory, especially before the Norman Conquest. Rock crystal, carnelian, and sard were the favourites among the hard stones cut for matrices. Large seals were usually either round or of a pointed oval form (as in figs. 2 and 3); the small secreta were sometimes square, triangular, or hexagonal, as well as round or oval. The most elaborate and beautiful of all were those of religious corporations, such as the chapter seals of monasteries. These are among the most exquisite works of art that the Middle Ages produced, especially during the 14th century, and exceed in delicacy of work-manship and elaboration of design the finest seals of all other classes, not excepting those of the sovereigns. Fig. 2 shows the common seal of Boxgrove priory (Sussex), the matrix of which is now in the British Museum. On one side is a figure of the Virgin enthroned, and on the reverse a representation of the west front of the priory church, with open , tracery and niches contain-ing minute statuettes. This elaborate matrix is made' up of four distinct pieces of gilt bronze, and to form the perfect seal must have been a work requiring con-siderable skill and patience. The reverse was formed by two stamps used on two separate plaques of softened FIG. 2.—Fourteenth-century seal of wax : one of these formed Boxgrove priory; reverse.

the background with the various statuettes, and the second was used to stamp the open tracery work of the front of the church; the latter when hard was fitted on to the

impression of the background, and thus a sort of miniature model of the church was made, with its statues and the inner planes of the facade seen through the open tracery work,—the effect being extremely rich and delicate. When the finished obverse and reverse had been fitted together, the legend was added on their edges by means of the fourth piece of the matrix,—a strip of bronze with letters cut into it on both its edges; first one side and then the other of this strip was pressed against the rim of the wax seal, which thus received the im-pression of the complete legend all round its edge. The seal of South-wark priory, also of the 14th cen-tury, is even more elaborate, as both sides have open tracery separately applied, and thus the matrix consists of five distinct pieces. Many of the bishops' seals, though less com-plicated in design, are of equal beauty to those of the chapters. The common design has a standing figure under a richly decorated canopy. Fig. 3 shows a very beautiful example, the seal of Richard, bishop of Dur-ham. The standing figure of the bishop in mass vest-ments is modelled with wonderful skill and shows ex-treme taste in the treatment of the drapery; the legend is


great variety of sacred subjects occur on ecclesiastical seals

often added. Fig. 4 shows one of the most magnificent of this class, with, in the centre, a figure of the Virgin in glory, between St Nicholas and Henry VI., each under a very rich canopy ; at the sides are shields charged with England and France, and France (modern) alone, held by two monks. This very beautiful work of art dates about the year 1443. In the 15th century the ecclesiastical seals began to fall off in richness and beauty, and after the Reformation were of little artistic value. Very hand-some seals were used by lay corporations, especially the municipalities of towns. These last frequently have a careful representation of the town itself, with its circuit of walls or that of its chief castle or cathedral, and thus often afford valuable evidence as to the form of its de-fences and principal
buildings. Fig. 5 shows a fine example, 3 inches in diameter, —the corporate seal of Rochester, made in the 13th century; it has a minute re-presentation of the keep of Rochester Castle, surrounded by an outer circuit wall and a moat. On one of the turrets of the gateway is a

sentinel blowin& a —Corporate seal of Rochester,
signal horn; legend,

SIGILLVM . CIVIVM . ROFENSIS. The reverse has the same legend repeated round the scene of the Crucifixion of St Andrew. Other corporation seals are covered with small figures under elaborate canopy work, much like those of the ecclesiastical foundations.
Seals of hospitals are often designed in a similar way, with a representation of the hospital building very minutely treated. In the 15th century seals began to be designed in a rather pictorial style, which, though very graceful, is inferior to the earlier and more architect-onic class. Very magnificent seals were used by state officials : those of the lord high ad-miral of England are especially fine, from the beautiful form of \ the ship on the ob-verse. Fig. 6 shows that of the earl of Huntingdon, who was lord high ad-miral in the reign of Henry VIII. In design it resembles those of the admirals of the previous century. On the sails are embroidered the royal arms of England.

Among private seals those of powerful barons are often large and very beautifully cut. Fig. 7 shows a silver matrix, now in the British Museum, which is remarkable for the great beauty of its workmanship. Its legend is SIGILLVM . ROBERTI . FiLii . WALTERI. On it an armed knight, of the time of Henry III., is riding over a dragon, whose tail ends in a scroll of very beautiful conventional foliage, modelled with the greatest spirit and delicacy.

in addition to single figures of patron saints; the most frequent were perhaps the Crucifixion, the Annunciation, the Coronation of the Virgin, and the Virgin enthroned in Heaven; small figures of kneeling worshippers were

A common and graceful form of private seal in the 13th and 14th centuries has simply a shield with the owner's arms on a diapered background, the whole enclosed with-in many-cusped tra-cery. Fig. 8 shows an example of a fine Grseco-Roman gem, —a carnelian engraved with a female head, full face. The 14th-century owner of this has added a metal setting with the words CAPVT .

to give it a sacred meaning. The le-gends of private seals or secreta were often chosen in allu-sion to their use; common phrases are " clausa secreta tego," or "lecta lege, tecta tege." Many ingenious devices were practised to enable the same matrix to give two or more dif-ferent varieties of impression. In some cases the border with the legend was so contrived as to slide up the handle, so that the seal could be made either with pIG. "sT^Antique or without an inscription. Others had gem used as a the border made to revolve on a swivel, private seal, so as to supply two different legends; and the magnificent monastic seals (as that shown in fig. 2) were arranged so as to give a perfect seal without the use of the ela-borate open tracery. In the 15th and 16th centuries mer-chants and handicraftsmen frequently employed devices connected with their trade—either some tool or badge or an arbitrary sign used as a trade-mark; or a rebus of the owner's name was used, such as a bolt and a tun (cask) for the name Bolton. The use of seals by the humbler classes was more common in England than abroad; even bonds-men sometimes had seals, both before and after the Nor-man Conquest. Seals of other countries mostly followed

England, though of course varying in design and workmanship with each country. On the whole, the English seals were superior during their best period (the 14th century) to those of any other country, though matrices of great beauty were produced in both Germany and France. In Italy less care and skill were usually spent on seals, partly owing to the greater use of metal bullae for important charters.

Metal Bullse.—These are necessarily not plaqué but pendant, and are held usually by cords passed through a hole in the seal. Lead was the metal most commonly used, but some sovereigns had bullas struck in silver or gold, either as a mark of their own dignity or to confer special honour on the recipient of a charter. An extant letter from Petrarch to Charles FV. thanks that emperor for a diploma of the rank of count, and especially for the honour shown to him by the attachment of gold bullae to the document. Lead bullae were also used by various ecclesiastical dignitaries, from patriarchs to bishops, but were rarely used by ecclesiastics of lower rank. In some cases, however, especially in Sicily and Byzantium, bullae were used by laymen of very moderate rank. A large num-ber of fine papal bullae exist dating from the 7th century onwards. Since the time of Pope Paschal II. they have borne heads of St Peter and St Paul; previously they had such simple devices as crosses or stars, with the name of the pontiff. Another early series of bullae begins in the 8th century with the bulla? of the patriarchs of Byzantium. Those of the doges of Venice exist in large numbers, bear-ing figures of St Mark and the reigning doge kneeling before him. Existing bullas of Charlemagne have a rude profile portrait crowned with a diadem, and on the reverse the monogram of KAROLVS arranged in the form of a cross.

Further Reading

Consult, in addition to the works named above, Thulemarius, De Bulla Aurea, Frankfort, 1724 ; Rbmar-Biiclmer, Die Siegel der deutsch. Kaiser, Frankfort, 1851 ; Vossberg, Gesch. der preussischen Siegel, Berlin, 1843 ; Melly, Siegel-Kunde des Mittelalters, Vienna, 1846 ; Heineecius, De Sigillis, Frankfort, 1709 ; Lepsius, Sphragistische Aphorismen, Halle, 1842-43 ; Caulfield, Sigilla Ecclesise Ilibernicx, London, 1853 ; and more especially various articles in the Gaz. des Beaux-Arts, Archmologia, Arclimological Journal, and Proceedings of other antiquarian societies. (J. H. M.)


For antique seals, see GEMS, JEWELLERY, and RING.
In some cases, in the presence of witnesses, a seal which did not belong to the signer of a document was used when the right matrix was not at hand. This has naturally caused many archaeological puzzles.
The word " seal " is often used to denote both the impression made
This valuable collection has been arranged and catalogued by Dr C. S. Percival, the best modern authority on English seals.

s The English kings before the Conquest signed usually with a cross only, but a few, such as Offa, Ethelwulf, and Ethelred, occasionally used seals, especially on documents containing grants to St Denis and other French abbeys, on which they followed the French custom of affixing plaque seals.

See Wailly, Éléments de Paléographie, vol. h., pl. A. ; hy varions authors, Trésor de Num. et de Glyptique, vol. i., Paris, 1834 (which contains also plates of English royal seals) ; Douet-d'Arcq, Coll. de Sceaux del'Empire, Paris, 1863-68; Bulletin de la Société de Sphragis-tique, Paris, v.y; ; D'Anisy, Recueil de Sceaux Normands, Caen, 1835.
The monks of Durham also used a gem with a head of Jupiter Serapis, round which was added the legend—CAPVT . SANCTI .
A variety of design is introduced on the reverse of one of Queen
Elizabeth's seals : she is represented standing, holding the orb and sceptre, and wears a dress with enormous hoops. Her other seal has the usual equestrian portrait on the reverse.
As a rule, from the 12th to the 15th century, ecclesiastical seals and those of females were of the pointed oval form, most others being circular ; there are, however, many exceptions to this rule.
6 A special English office for the blessing of seals is printed by Maskell, Mon. Ritualia, 1882, vol. hi.

This class of seal is often a sort of miniature reproduction of some magnificent altar retable, as in fig. 4.

The term " bull" for a papal charter comes from its lead bulla.
See Ficoroni, Piombi AnticM, Rome, 1745.

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