Medieval Writing
Royal Seals

On legal documents and letters, the seal was a ratification of authenticity. On closed up letters, the seal served to ensure that the letter arrived unopened and untampered with. On official documents delivered open, the seal, displayed either on the face of he document or hanging from it on parchment strips or cords, served to verify the agreement of interested parties to the document. The seal served in place of an autograph signature. This practical and legal function did not prevent the seal from becoming an art form in its own right. Seals became exquisitely crafted and in many cases, very elaborate.

A seal was created from a carved matrix which was used to stamp the design into warm sealing wax. This really makes the matrix the authenticating instrument, as all seals from the matrix are identical in design. The matrices could range from a small stamp, as on a signet ring, to a double sided mould operated in a press, necessary to produce such monumental objects as the great seal of England.
seal press
A schoolbook image of the great seal press. Bad King John in the background, of course. At least they don't show him signing Magna Carta.
A similar seal press to the one shown at right, mounted on a hefty oak block, survives in the library of Canterbury Cathedral.
The earliest imperial seals were produced in direct imitation of the image of the emperor on Roman coins.
coin of Hadrian
On the left, a bronze 2nd century Roman coin of the Emperor Hadrian. On the right a seal attached to the face of a diploma of Louis the German, of 856 (St Gall, Stiftsarchiv, Urkunden F.F.1.H.106). (From Steffens 1929)
seal of Louis the German
In the above example the resemblance of Louis the German in profile to the Emperor Hadrian is not coincidental, as the seal was evidently impressed from a Roman carved gemstone bearing the emperor's head. Around the edge is an inscription reading XPE PROTEGE HLVDOICVM REGEM (Christ protect Ludwig the king), thereby appropriating the image to the Germanic cause. These seals were single sided and attached to the face of the document.
The silver seal of Charles le Chauve (843 - 877).
Meanwhile, the other branch of the imperial family combined the Classical imagery with certain features of the papal bulla, with a head on one side and a legend on the other. But they went one better, because the papal seal was of lead but this was of silver. This kind of competition went on for centuries.
Solemn diplomas in Anglo-Saxon England were not ratifed by seal, but by crosses which were drawn beside the names of the witnesses. The earliest examples in England of ratification by seal are writs of Edward the Confessor. Some important and solemn documents after the Norman Conquest have both crosses and seal, but the former was abandoned and the seal became the absolute validating instrument.
Royal and imperial seals steadily became more majestic and complex. The great seal of Edward the Confessor was reportedly derived from the seal of Otto III, showing the monarch seated in majesty. However, Edward went one better and had the seal made double sided so that it was a large and impressive object that hung down from the document, rather than attached to the face of the page in the manner of imperials seals of that date.
The imperial seal of Konrad II, from a diploma of 1031.
Yes, Konrad II came after Otto III, but the pattern had been set and you can see the general design; symbols of authority such as throne, crown, orb and sceptre. You can see that the design on Edward's seal, shown below, is a straight pinch, even to the long nose, narrow face and long pointy beard.
Representations of the two sides of the great seal of Edward the Confessor.
Each side of the seal shows him seated, bearing attributes of kingship. These images are from a lead cast of the seal. It is now known that the very complete versions of the seal are 12th century forgeries, all made from a single matrix, but they coincide with the rather more battered fragments of seals known to be genuine.
The basic form of an appropriate image surrounded by an inscription continued through many elaborations, making the seal a combination of visual imagery and the written word.
seal of Emperor Hnery III The seal of Emperor Henry III, on a diploma of 1053 (Coblenz, Königlich Preussisches Staatsarchiv). (From Steffens 1929)
This seal, a little difficult to make out, shows the emperor in majesty holding a sceptre and a bunch of lilies. It was attached to the face of the document. Later imperial seals were hung, like papal bullae, from the bottom of the document on silk cords.
When the seal was hanging free, a second smaller impression, known as a counterseal, could be made in the back.
Counterseal of the French king Philippe-Auguste, from 1180.
sealof William the Conqueror
The two sides of the great seal of William the Conqueror.
seal of William the Conqueror
The two sides of the great seal of William the Conqueror bore different images, one of the king seated on his throne with attributes of kingship, the other showing him mounted on a horse. The inscription on the equestrian side identifies him as ruler of Normandy and on the other as king of England. It has also been suggested that these represent two aspects of kingship, the dispenser of justice and the leader into battle. Whatever the significance, the basic scheme remained in use for kings of England, and also kings of Scotland, throughout the medieval period.
seal of Robert Bruce The two sides of the seal of Robert Bruce.
In this later Scottish royal seal the throne has become more elaborate, as has the armour and the horse trappings, but the basic imagery is the same.



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