Seals are very fragile and must be handled with great care. Many are kept in the Safe Room and can only be viewed by special arrangement.
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. As personal possessions often bearing their owner's portrait, device or coat of arms they were used to authenticate documents (charters, letters, writs etc) in much the same way as today a banker's card with its unique number, name and signature guarantees accompanying cheque transactions. Seals were also used literally to 'seal' documents, fulfilling the same role today as gum on an envelope.
As the number of written records, including charters, increased from the 12th century onwards seals filtered their way down through society so that even bondsmen possessed their own seals. Corporations, towns, guilds, hospitals, abbeys, institutions followed. Medieval noblewomen and ecclesiastics often used vesica (pointed oval) shaped seals. The courts of the King's Bench and Common Pleas, the Exchequer, the Palatinates of Chester and Lancaster, and France, Scotland, Ireland, and some of the colonies amongst others possessed their own deputed great seals authenticating documents which either had been, or would be, authenticated by the great seal of England. Departments of central government, e.g. the Receipt of the Exchequer, Admiralty, Privy Council, and the Commissioners of Customs in America used smaller official departmental seals. As paper became more common in the 15th century the practice arose of laying paper over the wax which was then pressed with a small matrix to produce a paper seal. From the 16th century small personal seals produced from signet rings became fashionable among the higher echelons of society. In the 19th century wafer seals appeared. These were made of coloured paper embossed with the seal design and then attached to the document.
2. Online seals
The National Archives has over 3,000 digitised images of some 2,500 seals dating from the 12th to the 18th century. You can search and download the images for free in Discovery, our catalogue. The seals are from the record series DL 25 and DL 26 and are mostly personal seals, although there are also some monastic, ecclesiastical, official and local seals.
If you wish to search for these images in our catalogue, use the Online collections tab and put into the Search box:
'seal AND whatever keyword you wish to search for (lion, for example)'
You can refine your search by collection (DL) to limit it to only those records with seal images attached. You can also refine your search by date.
Although rare, forgeries should be considered. Particularly for the seals of the Anglo-Norman kings.
4. Borrowed seals
Seals were often borrowed to authenticate documents. Check the sealing clause in the text of the document to which the seal is attached since the borrowing may be mentioned and the owner of the borrowed seal identified.
5. 'Anonymous' seals
Ready-made anonymous seals were common amongst men of sub-knightly rank in the Middle Ages. The legends of such seals often consisted of a simple phrase or motto or even decoration; no owner's name would appear. Thus, if two individuals are found to be using two such identical seals this could mean either one has borrowed from the other or that they both possessed identical seals.
Moulds have been made for many seals held in The National Archives, and these are recorded on the back of the index cards. Contact the Conservation Seal Department for further information.
The National Archives is able to photograph seals. Contact The National Archives' Image Library.
8. Means of reference
There are three means of reference for seals in The National Archives.
8.1 Card index
By far the largest (c.12,000 seals) is the card index, though it is far from complete. Each card gives the name of the seal owner, the date of the document, the colour, shape, size, device (subject) and legend (name and title of owner round seal border) of the seal, additional remarks, The National Archives reference of the document to which the seal belongs, a cross reference to the British Museum's Catalogue of Seals (available on the open shelves), and document references to any further (and sometimes clearer) impressions of the same seal. Moulds of seals are recorded on the backs of cards. In the describing the seals the obverse and reverse are simply the two sides of the seal (front and back), whilst a counterseal is a small seal pressed into the back of a larger seal. Most seal legends begin: 'S[IGILLUM]...' i.e., 'Seal [of] ...'. Green cards refer to bibliographical material, often kept in the Library. The drawers are:
|England and Wales:Ecclesiastical, Monastic, Local, Private Corporate (Oxbridge colleges)||England and Wales:Royal: Great and Deputed (contains seals for Ireland and Scotland, particularly the Irish courts)||England and Wales:Royal: Departmental and Official(contains seals for Ireland and Scotland, particularly the Irish courts)||Official and Corporate: Scotland, Ireland, Channel Islands; British Colonies and Dependencies|
|Spain||Switzerland||Scandinavia||United States of America|
|Personal: Armorial||Personal: Non-Armorial||Personal: Men and Women||Personal: Equestrian (owner on horseback);|
|E101||WARD 2||HCA 32||SP 108|
Some tips on using the card index
- If you are looking for the seal of an ecclesiastic, look under their bishopric, abbey etc (e.g., Durham for Anthony Bek) in the Ecclesiastical drawers for England and Wales, and in the ecclesiastical and monastic sections of the drawers for other countries, rather than under the family name (such as Bek).
- For laymen search under Non-armorial and, especially if they were noble, Armorial and Equestrian. Remember also to look under any offices they may have held (e.g. keeper of the wardrobe, herald) in the Royal: Departmental and Official drawer.
- For women look under Personal: Armorial, Non-armorial, and (very rare) Equestrian.
- Members of the nobility are indexed under their family name, e.g. under Percy for the Percy earls of Northumberland.
- When you find the seal of an individual ensure they do not have a second or third seal in the same category (e.g. two armorial seals), and then check the other drawers for individuals: Personal: Armorial, Non-armorial, and Equestrian for further seals. Remember to look under all their offices and titles.
- Sovereigns used a host of different seals, so check all the sub-categories listed under Royal. For example, Edward III used numerous great seals, seven privy seals, a 'griffin' seal, a signet seal, a personal exchequer seal, and several deputed and departmental seals all displaying his portrait, arms or some other device. This applies equally to queen consorts, princes and other members of the royal family.
- References to 'Wyon' refer to A.B. and Allan Wyon, The Great Seals of England (1887), a copy of which is in the Library.
8.2 The printed catalogues
This consists of the three volumes: Roger H. Ellis, Catalogue of Seals in the Public Record Office, Personal Seals, vols I and II (1978 and 1981), and Monastic Seals, vol. I (1986). These are indexed, give the document reference, and contain excellent photographic reproductions of the seals.
8.3 The typescript catalogues
The third means of reference is the typescript Catalogue of Seals compiled by P D A Harvey and available on the open shelves. At present it includes all the seals in LR 14, LR 15, DL 25 and DL 26. It includes a name and place index.
9. Further reading
R H Ellis, A Catalogue of Seals in the Public Record Office: Personal Seals I and II (H.M.S.O., 1978 and 1981)
R H Ellis, A Catalogue of Seals in the Public Record Office: Monastic Seals (H.M.S.O., 1986)
P D A Harvey and A McGuiness, A Guide to British Medieval Seals (British Library, 1996)
Hilary Jenkinson, A Guide to Seals in the Public Record Office (H.M.S.O., 1968)