Seal of Approval

on Monday, 23 July 2018. Posted in Archives

Archives are regarded, quite rightly, as vital sources of information about past lives and times, and are pored over for the fascinating details that they offer. However, in the quest for knowledge it is easy to overlook the format and appearance of the documents, which are also informative, but are worthy of consideration and appreciation for their style and artistic achievement. A good example of this is seals, which were used to validate or authenticate documents, much as we might provide a signature or enter a PIN.  A soft material made of beeswax with tree resin and pigment that was pressed into a metal matrix onto which image and text was engraved, to make an impression. Usually the seal would have writing around its edge (known as the legend) which was often in Latin. They might identify the owner, or be relevant to the image. One of my favourites, in The National Archives, appears on the seal of a lady, ‘Love me and Lyve’.

Why are they important and so deserving of such attention? Because they are examples of the skill of the engravers who made the moulds or matrices, which produced exquisite miniature works of art. This small scale medieval sculpture complements the work of masons, carvers, painters and other craftsmen in buildings, statues, paintings and devotional and personal objects that survive from the Middle Ages.

The choice of motif was a matter of personal taste surviving from a time when people had few personal items. They are revealing about the owner: their social status, indicated by the use of heraldic symbols, emphasising his or her power and authority: their occupation, by an image of the tools of their trade: or their personality and mindset, by devotional motifs indicating their piety, or amusing images suggesting a sense of humour. Wit, sentimentality, and popular devotion, all appear in the designs the seals of individuals below the elites. Delight in the absurd and the burlesque, such a hare blowing a horn while riding on the back of a dog and humorous punning designs and pictograms were commonly displayed. Images of saints with their emblems, such as St Catherine and the wheel on which she was tortured, a pelican in its piety, pecking their breasts to feed their young, were also popular designs. 

I will be giving an illustrated talk on this subject, entitled Good Impressions: Seals from the 13th-20th centuries, at the History Centre on Thursday 9 August at 10.30. Tickets £4.00.

No the History Centre is not trying to compete with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, also based in Chippenham, and taken on a wider brief in the preservation of the Natural World. This is about the seals, archival not mammalian; the lumps of beeswax impressed with intricate and elaborate designs that authenticated legal documents. Relevant in a time when only the few could read or write their names, the conservative nature of the law means that they continue in use today; if reduced to the ignominy of a self-adhesive red circle stuck alongside the signatures on deeds.

An American once asked me, looking at the large bundle of deeds I was carrying, ‘Gee what are those stones?’ And I could understand his attempt to describe them in layman’s terms.  Attached by parchment tags they dangle below the text of the document and are vulnerable to careless handling. However, as a result of a project 1800 seals have been indentified and given protection with padded bags skilfully made by Conservation assistant Rachel Gough.

Also included in the survey were examples of the Great Seals from 13th to 19th centuries attached to royal documents. These range in size between 10 cm and 17.5cm, and are thereby particularly vulnerable. In fact in some examples from the late 16th century they are larger than the document to which they are attached. The monarch appears on both sides, in majesty with the symbols of authority on the obverse, and on horseback as military leader on the reverse. The designs are vigorous and have depth and detail, were regarded as important images of royalty. They are in sharp contrast to the rather sterile and flat great seal of our present Queen (as seen recently on the grant of royal status to Wootton Bassett).

So it is with no little satisfaction and considerable relief that I can report that our seals are safe.

Steve Hobbs, Archivist


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