How to look for Seals
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
1. Why use this guide?
Use this guide if you are researching seals, particularly from the medieval and early modern periods.
2. Essential information
2.1 What are they?
The term seal is usually applied to the impression produced when an engraved metal die or ‘matrix’ has been pressed into some soft material such as wax.
Often bearing their owner’s portrait, device or coat of arms they were used to authenticate documents (such as charters, letters, writs) in much the same way as we use signatures today.
Seals were also used literally to ‘seal’ documents, fulfilling the same role today as gum on an envelope. They could either be attached to a document by a tag, tongue, cord, or placed directly on the face of the document.
2.2 What kind of seals do we hold?
We hold roughly over a quarter of a million seals which date from the 11th to the 20th century. They include a number of significant royal, government and colonial seals.
2.3 Why are they useful?
Seals not only speak of authority and legitimacy but the iconography and legend (around the seal circumference) can tell us much about a seal owner.
A seal might also help identity and date the document to which it is attached.
Seals are of great interest not only to historians but also to those interested in:
- social status
- gender studies
3. How do I search for seals online?
Use the search box below to locate over 3,000 digitised images of 2,500 seals from 12th to the 18th century in DL 25 and DL 26.
The search box allows you to search Discovery, our catalogue by using relevant keywords, such as ‘lion AND seal’.
Your results will show all instances of the term(s) you searched for within our catalogue descriptions for these records.
- ‘AND’ to find more than one term in the descriptions of seals and
- “double quotation marks” to find exact terms
You can also refine your initial search results by date.
For more guidance on how to search our catalogue, read Discovery search help.
If you wish to start a new search return to the search box.
The seals from DL 25 and DL 26 are mostly personal seals. Although they also cover seals which are:
- monastic seals
- ecclesiastical seals
- official seals
- local seals
4. How do I locate records of seals which are not online?
4.1 Card index
Use the card index located in the Map and Large document reading room at The National Archives to locate references to documents where seals are attached.
Each card provides:
- name of the seal owner
- the date of the document
- colour, shape and size of seal
- device (subject)
- legend (name and title of owner round seal border) of the seal
- additional remarks
It also provides:
- a cross reference to the British Museum’s Catalogue of Seals (but note that these seals are held by the British Library)
- document references to any further (and sometimes clearer) impressions of the same seal
- references to ‘Wyon’ refer to AB. and Allan Wyon, The Great Seals of England (1887)
4.2 Printed finding aids
Use these three volumes which are indexed, give the document references, and contain photographic reproductions of the seals:
- Roger H Ellis, Catalogue of Seals in the Public Record Office
- Personal Seals, vols I and II (1978 and 1981)
- Monastic Seals, vol I (1986)
Use the typescript Catalogue of Seals compiled by PDA Harvey which includes all the seals that are online (DL 25 and DL 26) as well as :
Consult the name and place index to locate relevant records. You can also search our catalogue to locate records.
5. Online sources
- SIGILLVM – The Network for Researching Seals and Sealing
- the section on medieval seals created by the Medieval Institute Library at Notre Dame University
6. Records held elsewhere
Find other major seal collections at:
A collection of plaster casts are held by the Society of Antiquaries of London.
7. Further reading
Use our library catalogue to find a recommended book list.