Research guide - the lost charter project

Great seals of England by Paul Bailey

There now follows a sequence researched by Paul Bailey. Paul took a particular interest in the great seals attached to charters by the various monarchs by whom they have been issued, and he contributed this fascinating insight into their origins….  

Great seals of England

By Paul Bailey

Since the time of Edward, the Confessor, the kings, and queens of England have used impressions of their great seals to mark their assent to documents such as charters, letters, and writs.

They were used to authenticate documents as well as a sign of power and authority. Often bearing their owners portrait, coat of arms, or symbol, seals were used on documents as far back as 5000 years ago in Babylon, and middle eastern countries from then on, in different shapes and sizes.

The first recorded square seal was from China circa 544BC. Very few exist in England from pre-Norman times, but it seems possible that they may have used them.

Nowadays we are used to signing important documents ourselves, but in the middle ages most people couldn't read or write. So, scribes were used to write the document, and then the seal was attached to authenticate who the sender was. A thread of silver, silk, or wool (depending on the importance) was passed through or around the document and both ends of the thread were then sealed together. The documents would be put in a pouch for despatch to the recipient. The Lord High Chancellor normally held the Great Seal, but for less important documents, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal held it.

Signet rings were used as a seal by important people to prove their authority, and who sent it, (hence the word signature today). Later, all the people who signed the death warrant of King Charles I also put their own signet seal by each of their signatures. The authority of the signet ring was shown when visiting dignitaries bowed and kissed the hand that had the ring on it.

The seal ingredients contained tree resin, wax, and in the case of the red colour, cinnabar. This red powder is part of the mercury sulphide ore, which has been mined in Almaden in the southwest of Spain since Roman times.

Other countries mine this mineral, but this seems to be the most likely source for proximity and the period. It is a very dangerous metal to deal with, and capital criminals were used in the mine because of the toxicity of the mercury. The soot from burning tree resin was used to colour seal's black. A clay seal was used in ancient times on any sealed merchandise to prove the contents had not been tampered with.

Paul Baily 2023