The method by which the Sovereigns of England, from the time of Edward the Confessor, if not from an earlier period, have signified their Royal assent to public documents, has been by the affixing to them impressions of their Great or Broad Seals.
It is proposed in the following pages to give detailed descriptions of the various Seals, which have from time to time been thus employed, so that impressions found attached to documents may be easily recognized, and the date of the documents readily ascertained. The necessity of acquaintance with these Seals in the reading of Ancient Charters will be at once perceived when it is stated that until the reign of Henry VIII. no King added a numeral after his name to show which Sovereign it was, where there was more than one of the same name. Thus even where the document is perfect, there is no word on the face of it if granted by a King of the name of Henry, at once to declare which one of seven kings of the same name it was who has granted this particular document. The same remark applies to Charters granted by a William, a Richard, or an Edward.
Something may of course be gleaned, in some cases, from the length of the reign as testified by the regnal year mentioned at the end of the Charter. But many Charters from some cause or other are not perfect, and the parts bearing the dates have often perished. In all such cases, whether the document is wholly legible or only partially so, if the Seal is still attached its date can be approximately determined, and that, as is frequently the case, when only a small portion of the Seal itself is left. It is the object in the following pages to record the dates at which the Seals came into and passed out of use, and in the great majority of cases it will be found that this has been ascertained with perfect accuracy. The importance of this to the historical student will be seen when it is remembered that the monks of the Middle Ages, especially those of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, frequently made most skilful copies of earlier Charters, sometimes altering the sense of particular clauses as well as the wording of the original. To these they appended impressions of the Seals of the Sovereigns originally granting the Charters, but these not being impressions of the Seal in use by the King in the particular year given in the document proclaim at once the untrustworthy character of the deed.
In assigning dates to the early Seals which are found attached to Charters in which no date is given, the date has been approximately ascertained by the names of the witnesses given in the document. In later documents, where the regnal year is stated, there has still been a difficulty in some cases in identifying the particular King who has granted the Charter, because the same Seal was sometimes used by two or three Sovereigns of the same name. In such cases the date has been ascertained by a careful comparison of the names of the Clerks of the Council, which appear close to the attestation clause.
In computing the time during which Seals have been in use, one is obliged to suppose that the Seal was actually in use on the particular days stated in the document; but this principle must not be pressed with too close an insistence in all cases, as examples have been met with showing that documents were sometimes sealed with Seals not approved by the Sovereign until after the date mentioned in the document: thus at Gloucester there is a Charter bearing a Seal which was not passed in Council until the day following that stated in the document itself.
The Great Seal is by the Sovereign delivered into the custody of the Lord High Chancellor, who by thus receiving it is admitted into his high office and at once becomes responsible for the use of the Seal. The Chancellor continues in office until he resigns the Seal to the Sovereign. In former times another high officer of State used also frequently to have the custody of the Seal : he was designated the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. What his duties precisely were does not appear. According to the late Sir Thomas D. Hardy, he " performed few of the functions of the Chancellor, unless he were thereto expressly delegated. He frequently had the custody of the Great Seal committed to him by the Chancellor, without the power of using it: and, although the Seal was often placed in his hands, either by the King himself, or by his written command, yet he had only the power to seal instruments of a particular class, and he was obliged to close it up every day, after using it, under his own seal and those of other persons expressly appointed for that purpose." In the reign of Queen Elizabeth an Act was passed "declaring the authority of the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal and the Lord Chancellor to be one" in which, notwithstanding the facts briefly mentioned above, it was stated "that the two offices were, ever had been and ever should be, the same." As a curious commentary upon this, it may be stated that even since the passing of this Act, persons after holding the Seals as Lord Keepers, have been constituted Chancellors by a separate deed.
The importance of guarding against the improper use of the Seal was early recognized, and documents had to pass through other offices before being submitted in the Lord Chancellor's office to receive the Great Seal. In the reign of Henry VIII. (A.D. 1535) by an Act of Parliament it was required that all writings to be passed under the Great Seal should be first approved of in the Offices of the Signet or Privy Seal.
The law has also been careful to make any attempt to counterfeit the King's Great Seal a high crime. In the reign of Edward Ill. this was declared to be high treason, and in the time of the Commonwealth as soon as the Parliament had provided itself with a Great Seal for the Republic the forging of its Great Seal was also made high treason. This severe view continued in force until the more lenient legislation of modern times; reduced the crime from high treason to felony. Another matter of some importance has also been provided for by Act of Parliament. On the death of a Sovereign, one of the first orders made at the first assembling of the Privy Council of the new King directed that the Great Seal of the late Sovereign should remain in force and be used as the Great Seal of the new Sovereign until further notice. But in the reign of Queen Anne, by Section IX. of the Act of Succession, it was provided that the Great Seal in use at the time of the demise of any Sovereign shall continue and be made use of as the Great Seal of the successor until such successor shall give order to the contrary.
It may be of interest to some to know that the Great Seals have generally been made of Silver, but sometimes Gold has been employed, and sometimes base metal.
When a Seal is first brought into use it is laid on the table at a meeting of the Privy Council, and when approved is touched by the Sovereign, who directs the Lord Chancellor to take the custody of it. At the same time the former Seal is defaced. In olden times the Seal, as will be seen in the following pages, was generally broken into several pieces, but in later times the practice has been to make small punctures on the face of the Seal, generally in such parts as do not injure the artistic part of the engraving, and to hand the Seal so defaced to the Lord Chancellor.
When England and Scotland were united under one government the Act of Union provided that from and after the Union there should be one Great Seal for the United Kingdom of Great Britain, which was to be different from the Great Seal previously in use in either kingdom. Since then the Great Seal of England has continued to be the Great Seal of the United Kingdom. By a recent Act by far the larger number of documents which formerly were passed under the Great Seal, are directed to be passed under a smaller Seal, called the Wafer Great Seal.
In consequence of this arrangement the use of the Great Seal proper is restricted to documents of the highest importance, such as treaties with foreign Governments, the credentials of Ambassadors to Foreign Sovereigns and States, appointments of Colonial Governors, patents of Nobility, and the like. It may be well to take this opportunity to call attention to the quality of the wax used in the actual Seals attached to the documents. These waxes in past times have been of various colours, red, green, white, and yellow, and even brown and chocolate. Their durability has also been almost as variable. Many Seals made in the time of the Plantagenets are still as perfect and good as at the time they were first impressed. The same may be said of many of the Seals issued (during the reign of George II., but since his reign the material used has been of a very inferior quality. In some cases the wax used has been too soft, so that the impression that it has received from the Seals has been speedily altogether lost. In other cases rosin and other substances appear to have been added to the wax, which has prevented a good impression being taken from the Seals and has left the impression so very brittle, that it has speedily broken into pieces and begun to crumble away. Until the introduction of the Wafer Great Seal there may have been some reason for using such a mixture on account of the vast number of documents requiring to be sealed every year; an estimate of which may be formed from the fact that four hundredweight (avoirdupois) of wax per month used to be consumed by the Seal. But now that the Seal is so much less used there appears to be no reason why attention should not be given to have the impressions taken in a more enduring material.
A curious practice appears to have been used during the times of the Stuarts, of Sealing precepts to Sheriffs and other legal documents not with full-sized impressions of the Great Seal, but with little dabs of wax not larger than crown pieces on their surfaces on each of which the impression of the King's head appeared.
The mode of fastening the Seals to the documents has also undergone various changes. In the earliest Charters we find that towards the bottom of the parchment a knife was inserted near the left-hand corner and drawn along to the right, causing a piece of the parchment to hang as a kind of strap, pendent from the left corner; upon this the Seal was affixed. In medieval times the Seal was attached to silk cords, passed through the lower folds of the Charter, which were drawn together and plaited, and this mode of fastening continued in use until about a hundred years ago, when fine cords of Silver and Gold thread were also employed. The practice now is to employ Silver-thread cords for documents of the very highest rank, Silk cords for those of the second order, and Woollen cords for the common run of documents.
From early times care has been taken to preserve the impressions of the Seals. Those in the times of the Plantagenets are often found in curious, richly ornamented pieces of silk, which by some are supposed to have been parts of the King's robes. In later times metal boxes have been used--those enclosing Seals attached to foreign Treaties, the Patents creating Royal Titles etc., used to be made of solid Silver--the Seals attached to documents of less importance were enclosed in boxes made of tin. At present the Seals of documents of the very highest importance arc placed in boxes made of some cheap metal embossed with the Royal Arms and electro-plated.
The Silver Seals themselves are provided with a Purse, and are so carried before the Lord Chancellor when he appears in State. But as the Seals are used as a token of office by the Lord Chancellor, so the Purse by itself comes to be used as a token for the custody of the Seal even when the Seal itself is not there.
The Purse in which the Seal is kept is renewed every year, and is the perquisite of the Lord Chancellor for the time being. When the office is held by one Chancellor for any great length of time the number of these richly embroidered Purses becomes great. It is stated that Lady Eldon, the wife of Lord Eldon, had so many of these Purses that she caused the hangings of her bed to be made of them.
Throughout the following pages frequent reference is made to the artistic merits of the Seals ; and it may be well here to remark that the large series of the Great Seals of England which in unbroken continuity from the time of King Edward the Confessor to that of Queen Victoria is described in the text of this book, will be found to give an admirable reflection of the fine arts in England throughout this long period. The Seals follow and illustrate the progress, culmination, and decadence of the successive styles of English sphragistic art, and are of great interest when examined and compared in this respect with the best specimens treasured up in the cabinets of British coin and medal collectors. For example in the full-size autotype plates with which this work is enriched will be seen (i.) the so-called Byzantine, or GalloByzantine, art represented in the Seals of Edward the Confessor, Nos. 5 and 6, plate I. ; (ii.) the elegantly conceived early native art of the twelfth century exhibited in the second Seal of Richard I., Nos. 37 and 38, plate VI., a Seal, however, which still shows some traces of archaic feeling; and (iii.) the more chaste and pure development of the English style in the two fine thirteenth-century Seals of Henry III., Nos. 41, 42, 43, and 44, plates VI. and VII. To these succeed-in faithful reflection of the progressive development of sigillary and other native arts--(iv.) the Gothic Seals of Edward III., early specimens of a style which culminated in the Silver Seal of that Sovereign, Nos. 63 and 64, plate X., engraved to celebrate the peace of Brétigny, and in the Golden Seal of Henry IV., Nos. 73 and 74, plate XII., engraved for that monarch as a means of further asserting his rightful possession of the throne. The excellence of the Seals in this style then fell away and continued to do so throughout the whole course of the fifteenth century: and the Gothic style itself disappeared in the rein of Henry VIII., in whose second Seal, Nos. 99 and 100, plate XXIII. (v.), a transition of styles may be seen. This was quickly followed by the birth of the (vi.) Italian or Renaissance art, as illustrated in the third Seal of Henry VIII., Nos. 101, and 102, plate XIX. This Seal, however, was speedily succeeded by others of far inferior merit until in the First Seal of Elizabeth, Nos. 111 and 112, plate XXII., the art touched its lowest depths. With the Second Seal of Queen Elizabeth, Nos. 113 and 114, plate XXIII. (vii.), the new or modern style of Seals commenced which may be again divided into two periods (a) that down to the time of Queen Anne, during which the general design of all the Seals (with the exception of those of the Commonwealth and of the Cromwells) was exactly the same, and (b) that from Queen Anne including her Second Seal, Nos. 153 and 154, plate XLI I I.) to the present time, during which the representation of Allegorical figures has been introduced along with that of the Sovereign. Good examples of this later period will be found in the Seal of George IV. (Nos. 169 and 170, plate LI.) and the subsequent Seals.
It is for posterity to assign to this phase of imitative and composite art, adopted by the Sovereigns of the Brunswick dynasty, its true place in comparison with the meritorious purity of some of the preceding styles.