The earliest example which remains of the use of a Seal by an English King is found in a charter of OFFA, King of mercia (757 to 796), preserved in the Archives Nationales, Paris dated at Tamworth, in the year of our Lord's Incarnation 790, and in the 33rd year of Offa's reign. The charter is the confirmation of a grant of land in Sussex, made two years previously by Berhtwald, Duke of the South Saxons, to the Abbey of St. Denis which original grant was also sealed with a seal, as described by Doublet, in his Histoire de l'Abbaye de St. Denis (1625), thus :--"Cette charte scellè d'un scel de cire sain et critter, auquel est emprainte l'effigie, de relief, du dit Prince Berthauld, apres le naturel." It is unfortunate that the charter of Duke Berhtwald, which is the earliest instance which can be traced of the use of a Seal by an Anglo-Saxon prince, has since been destroyed. The Seal of King Offa, however, remains. It is affixed "en placard," that is, attached to the face of the charter itself, and not appended. It is about 1¼ inch in height by 1⅛ inch in width (No. 1, see plate I.), bearing the portrait of the King in profile to the right, the head slightly stooping, the hair bound by a narrow fillet or wreath with a few small leaves of laurel or olive. The neck and a portion of the bust are shown without any drapery. Although the execution is rude, the features are of a noble if somewhat pensive and melancholy cast, not unworthy of the Sovereign who did so much to consolidate the Heptarchy into a Monarchy, and who was widely respected on the Continent as the friend of Charlemagne and Alcuin. As the late Sir Frederick Madden remarks, the expression of the features might fairly bear out the description of Offa's anonymous biographer, "elegans corpore, eloquens sermone, acie perspicax oculorum." The word REX is legible in front of the King's face. The name OFFA probably was in the space behind the King's head, but is not traceable.
The original leaden bulla of a Seal of COENWULF, Kin, of Mercia (circ. 800-810),
remains in the British Museum, Department of British Antiquities.
Its diameter is 1½, inch. (Nos. 2 and 3, see plate I.)
The design consists merely of rude lettering surrounding a kind of quatrefoil or cross moline in the centre.
On the Obverse + COENVVLFI REGIS.
And on the Counterseal + MERCIORUM.
The next Seal of which any example remains, is that of EADGAR, King of England (959-975), attached "en placard " to a charter also preserved in the Archives Nationales, Paris,' dated A.D. 960, in the second year of his reign.
It is 13⁄8 inch in height by 13⁄16 inch in width (No. 4, see plate I.). The centre is the impression of an antique oval Roman intaglio gem, representing a bust in profile, turned to the right, very similar to those used by Louis le Debonnaire and Charles the Simple. This gem was, no doubt, set within a rim of precious metal (as was usual in France), on which was inscribed a legend. The impression is not sufficiently sharp or well preserved to enable us to distinguish the letters.
The examples above mentioned are sufficient to prove that the use of Seals for important documents was not unknown to the Anglo-Saxon kings. But we find no trace of a regular or continuous use of a Great Seal, or of its custody by an officer appointed for the purpose, until the reign of Edward the Confessor.
During his long exile in Normandy, Edward contracted a taste for the French language and usages, and it is from his reign, which commenced in 1042, that we trace a regular succession of Great Seals with which all royal charters, grants, and treaties executed by the Sovereigns of England have been sealed.
From the reign of Edward the Confessor, the Great Seal of England has always had two sides, on one of which the Sovereign is represented enthroned, as the sole supreme dispenser of justice and authority within the realm. On the other side (with the exception of the Seals of Edward the Confessor and the second Seal of Queen Anne), the Sovereign appears on horseback, nearly always armed, as the head of the military (or naval) forces of the kingdom and as the representative of England to the outer world.
A circumscription or legend, usually on each side, states the royal style and titles. The series of these legends, varying from time to time with the changing fortunes and successions of the Sovereigns, forms in itself an epitome of English history.
The Royal Arms, which first appear in the Great Seals of Richard Coeur de
Lion, also change from time to time in the subsequent Seals, and furnish an
heraldic illustration of, and commentary on, the progress of English history.
The Great Seals will also be found to supply a most valuable history of arms,
armour and regal costume from the time of William the Conqueror.
The circumstances of the use of these Great Seals, of the change of one Great Seal for another, and the dates and attestations of the documents to which their impressions are appended, will also be found in numerous instances to throw a new and striking light on interesting passages of English history.