of Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester and Hertford, c. 1218–1230
There is a direct line of descent from the seals used in the ancient world, to those used in medieval and post-medieval Europe, and so to those used in legal contexts in the western world to the present day. Seals were historically most often impressed in sealing wax (often simply described as "wax"): in the Middle Ages, this generally comprised a compound of about two-thirds beeswax to one-third of some kind of resin, but in the post-medieval period the resin (and other ingredients) came to dominate. During the early Middle Ages seals of lead, or more properly "bullae" (from the Latin), were in common use both in East and West, but with the notable exception of documents ("bulls") issued by the Papal Chancery these leaden authentications fell out of favour in western Christendom. Byzantine Emperors sometimes issued documents with gold seals, known as Golden Bulls.
During the early Byzantine period these rings were used for sealing personal documents and validating wills and testaments. 6th century, silver.
The Walters Art Museum.
Wax seals were being used on a fairly regular basis by most western royal chanceries by about the end of the 10th century. In England, few wax seals have survived of earlier date than the Norman Conquest, although some earlier matrices are known, recovered from archaeological contexts: the earliest is a gold double-sided matrix found near Postwick, Norfolk, and dated to the late 7th century; the next oldest is a mid-9th-century matrix of a Bishop Ethilwald (probably Æthelwold, Bishop of East Anglia). The practice of sealing in wax gradually moved down the social hierarchy from monarchs and bishops to great magnates, to petty knights by the end of the 12th century, and to ordinary freemen by the middle of the 13th century. They also came to be used by a variety of corporate bodies, including cathedral chapters, municipalities, monasteries etc., to validate the acts executed in their name.
Traditional wax seals continue to be used on certain high-status and ceremonial documents, but in the 20th century they were gradually superseded in many other contexts by inked or dry embossed seals and by rubber stamps.
While many instruments formerly required seals for validity (e.g. deeds or covenants) it is now unusual in most countries in the west for private citizens to use seals. In Central and Eastern Europe, however, as in East Asia, a signature alone is considered insufficient to authenticate a document of any kind in business, and all managers, as well as many book-keepers and other employees, have personal seals , normally just containing text, with their name and their position. These are applied to all letters, invoices issued, and similar documents. In Europe these are today plastic self-inking stamps.
An embossed notary seal, formerly valid in the State of New York
Notaries also still use seals on a daily basis. At least in Britain, each registered notary has an individual personal seal, registered with the authorities, which includes his or her name and a pictorial emblem, often an animal—the same combination found in many seals from ancient Greece.
An applied wax seal on an envelope
Seals are used primarily to authenticate documents, specifically those which carry some legal import. There are two main ways in which a seal may be attached to a document. It may be applied directly to the face of the paper or parchment (an applied seal); or it may hang loose from it (a pendent seal). A pendent seal may be attached to cords or ribbons (sometimes in the owner's livery colors), or to the two ends of a strip (or tag) of parchment, threaded through holes or slots cut in the lower edge of the document: the document is often folded double at this point (a plica) to provide extra strength. Alternatively, the seal may be attached to a narrow strip of the material of the document (again, in this case, usually parchment), sliced and folded down, as a tail or tongue, but not detached. The object in all cases is to help ensure authenticity by maintaining the integrity of the relationship between document and seal, and to prevent the seal's reuse. If a forger tries to remove an applied seal from its document, it will almost certainly break. A pendent seal is easily detached by cutting the cords or strips of parchment, but the forger would then have great difficulty in attaching it to another document (not least because the cords or parchment are normally knotted inside the seal), and would again almost certainly break it.
In the Middle Ages, the majority of seals were pendent. They were attached both to legal instruments and to letters patent (i.e. open letters) conferring rights or privileges, which were intended to be available for all to view. In the case of important transactions or agreements, the seals of all parties to the arrangement as well as of witnesses might be attached to the document, and so once executed it would carry several seals. Most governments still attach pendent seals to letters patent.
Hand-folded letter sealed with wax and stamped with capital letter "A". If a letter is folded and sealed correctly, a wax seal can eliminate the need for an envelope as demonstrated in the above picture.
An applied seal on a letter from Loudoun Castle, Galston, Scotland.
Applied seals, by contrast, were originally used to seal a document closed: that is to say, the document would be folded and the seal applied in such a way that the item could not be opened without the seal being broken. Applied seals were used on letters close (letters intended only for the recipient) and parcels to indicate whether or not the item had been opened or tampered with since it had left the sender, as well as providing evidence that the item was actually from the sender and not a forgery. In the post-medieval period, seals came to be commonly used in this way for private letters. A letter writer would fold the completed letter, pour wax over the joint formed by the top of the page, and then impress a ring or other seal matrix. Governments sometimes sent letters to citizens under the governmental seal for their eyes only, known as letters secret. Wax seals might also be used with letterlocking techniques to ensure that only the intended recipient would read the message. In general, seals are no longer used in these ways except for ceremonial purposes. However, applied seals also came to be used on legal instruments applied directly to the face of the document, so that there was no need to break them, and this use continues.
The Great Seal of the State of Montana
Historically, the majority of seals were circular in design, although ovals, triangles, shield-shapes and other patterns are also known. The design generally comprised a graphic emblem (sometimes, but not always, incorporating heraldic devices), surrounded by a text (the legend) running around the perimeter. The legend most often consisted merely of the words "The seal of [the name of the owner]", either in Latin or in the local vernacular language: the Latin word Sigillum was frequently abbreviated to a simple S:. Occasionally, the legend took the form of a motto.
In the Middle Ages it became customary for the seals of women and of ecclesiastics to be given a vesica (pointed oval) shape. The central emblem was often a standing figure of the owner, or (in the case of ecclesiastical seals) of a saint. Medieval townspeople used a wide variety of different emblems but some had seals that included an image relating to their work.
Sealing wax was naturally yellowish or pale brownish in tone, but could also be artificially colored red or green (with many intermediary variations). In some medieval royal chanceries, different colours of wax were customarily used for different functions or departments of state, or to distinguish grants and decrees made in perpetuity from more ephemeral documents.
The matrices for pendent seals were sometimes accompanied by a smaller counter-seal, which would be used to impress a small emblem on the reverse of the impression. In some cases the seal and counter-seal would be kept by two different individuals, in order to provide an element of double-checking to the process of authentication. Sometimes, a large official seal, which might be in the custody of chancery officials, would need to be counter-sealed by the individual in whose name it had been applied (the monarch, or the mayor of a town): such a counter-seal might be carried on the person (perhaps secured by a chain or cord), or later, take the form of a signet-ring, and so would be necessarily smaller. Other pendent seals were double-sided, with elaborate and equally-sized obverses and reverses. The impression would be formed by pressing a "sandwich" of matrices and wax firmly together by means of rollers or, later, a lever-press or a screw press. Certain medieval seals were more complex still, involving two levels of impression on each side of the wax which would be used to create a scene of three-dimensional depth.
On the death of a seal-holder, as a sign of continuity, a son and heir might commission a new seal employing the same symbols and design-elements as those used by his father. It is likely that this practice was a factor in the emergence of hereditary heraldry in western Europe in the 12th century.
The use of a seal by men of wealth and position was common before the Christian era, but high functionaries of the Church adopted the habit. An incidental allusion in one of St. Augustine's letters (217 to Victorinus) indicates that he used a seal. The practice spread, and it seems to be taken for granted by King Clovis I at the very beginning of the Merovingian dynasty.
Later ecclesiastical synods require that letters under the bishop's seal should be given to priests when for some reason they lawfully quit their own proper diocese. Such a ruling was enacted at Chalon-sur-Saône in 813. Pope Nicholas I in the same century complained that the bishops of Dôle and Reims had, "contra morem" (contrary to custom), sent their letters to him unsealed. The custom of bishops possessing seals may from this date be assumed to have been pretty general.
In the British Museum collection the earliest bishop's seals preserved are those of William de St-Calais, Bishop of Durham (1081–96) and of St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury (1093–1109).
Architects, surveyors and professional engineers
Seals are also affixed on architectural or engineering construction documents, or land survey drawings, to certify the identity of the licensed professional who supervised the development. Depending on the authority having jurisdiction for the project, these seals may be embossed and signed, stamped and signed, or in certain situations a computer generated facsimile of the original seal validated by a digital certificate owned by the professional may be attached to a security protected computer file. The identities on the professional seals determine legal responsibility for any errors or omissions, and in some cases financial responsibility for their correction as well as the territory of their responsibility, e.g: "State of Minnesota".
In some jurisdictions, especially in Canada, it is a legal requirement for a professional engineer to seal documents in accordance with the Engineering Profession Act and Regulations. Professional engineers may also be legally entitled to seal any document they prepare. The seal identifies work performed by, or under the direct supervision of, a licensed professional engineer, and assures the document’s recipient that the work meets the standards expected of experienced professionals who take personal responsibility for their judgments and decisions.
Destruction of seals
The importance of the seal as a means of authentication necessitated that when authority passed into new hands the old seal should be destroyed and a new one made. When the pope dies it is the first duty of the Cardinal Camerlengo to obtain possession of the Ring of the Fisherman, the papal signet, and to see that it is broken up. A similar practice prevailed in the Middle Ages and it is often alluded to by historians, as it seems to have been a matter of some ceremony. For example, on the death of Robert of Holy Island, Bishop of Durham, in 1283, the chronicler Robert Greystones reports: "After his burial, his seal was publicly broken up in the presence of all by Master Robert Avenel." Matthew Paris gives a similar description of the breaking of the seal of William of Trumpington, Abbot of St Albans, in 1235.
The practice is less widely attested in the case of medieval laypeople, but certainly occurred on occasion, particularly in the 13th and 14th centuries. Silver seal matrices have been found in the graves of some of the 12th-century queens of France. These were probably deliberately buried as a means of cancelling them.
When King James II of England was dethroned in the Glorious Revolution of 1688/9, he is supposed to have thrown the Great Seal of the Realm into the River Thames before his flight to France in order to ensure that the machinery of government would cease to function. It is unclear how much truth there is to this story, but certainly the seal was recovered: James's successors, William III and Mary used the same Great Seal matrix, fairly crudely adapted – possibly quite deliberately, in order to demonstrate the continuity of government.
A related practice of destruction is found among blacksmiths: their touchmark (a stamp used on the hot metal to show who made it) is destroyed upon their death.
signet ring bearing the arms of the Baronnet family; goldsmith: Jean-Pierre Gautheron, Paris
Golden ring, with cartouche and hieroglyphic name of Tutankhamun
: 'Perfect God, Lord of the Two Lands' ('Ntr-Nfr, Neb-taui'; right to left columns)—Musée du Louvre
Signet rings have a flat bezel, usually wider than the rest of the hoop, which is decorated, normally in intaglio, so that it will leave a raised (relief) impression of the design when the ring is pressed onto soft sealing wax or a similar material. They have been used since ancient times as the personal seal of an individual. In recent times the design is generally a crest, made by engraving, either in metal or engraved gems (generally semiprecious). Agate is a frequent material, especially carnelian or banded agate like sardonyx; the banding makes the impression contrast with the ground. Most smaller classical engraved gems were probably originally worn as signet rings, or as seals on a necklace. Metal signet rings can also be cast, which may be cheaper but yields a weaker material.
The wearing of signet rings (from Latin "signum" meaning sign) goes back to ancient Egypt; the distinctive personal signature was not developed in antiquity and most documents needed a seal. A seal of Pharaoh is mentioned in the Book of Genesis. Genesis 41:42: "Removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph's hand; he arrayed him in garments of fine linen, and put a gold chain around his neck."
Although less common today, and very rarely actually used for their intended purpose as seals, signet rings are still worn, especially among the armigerous, in European and some other cultures.
Because it is used to attest the authority of its bearer, the ring has also been seen as a symbol of his power, which is one explanation for its inclusion in the regalia of certain monarchies. After the death of a Pope, the destruction of his signet ring is a prescribed act clearing the way for the sede vacante and subsequent election of a new Pope.
Signet rings are also used as souvenir or membership attribute, e.g., class ring (typically bear the coat of arms or crest of the school), as an alternative to one with a stone. One may also have their initials engraved as a sign of their personal stature.
The less noble classes began wearing and using signet rings as early as the 13th century. In the 17th century, signet rings fell out of favor in the upper levels of society, replaced by other means for mounting and carrying the signet. In the 18th century, though, signet rings again became popular, and by the 19th century, men of all classes wore them.
Since at least the 16th century there have also been pseudo-signet rings where the engraving is not reversed (mirror image), as it should be if the impression is to read correctly.
Rings have been used since antiquity as spy identification and in espionage. During World War II, US Air Force personnel would privately purchase signet rings with a hidden compartment that would hold small compass or hidden message. MI9 purchased a number of signet rings from Regent Street jewelers that were used to conceal compasses.