This blog was written by Katherine Emery and Alicia de la Serna Saenz. Katherine explores the history and imagery of wax seals and Alicia describes the current conservation work being carried out to preserve the wax seals for future generations.
Written by Katherine Emery, Assistant Archives Officer
The Parliamentary Archives has a large collection of documents signed with wax seals. Most often wax seals were used as a type of signature and proof of identity. The wax seals usually have the coat of arms of the owner, but also may have a miniature portrait, or include symbols and iconography of significance to them.
As seen in the images below, wax seals can be attached to the document like the hanging seals in the Lichfield petition. Documents like this were made of parchment, made from prepared animal skins and so were stronger than paper. This meant that the parchment was strong and flexible enough to support these hanging seals without breaking or ripping. Or the wax seal could simply be stamped straight on to the document.
The below Articles of Union between England and Scotland were signed and sealed by Commissioners appointed by Queen Anne. Even the way the document is signed and sealed can be of importance. In this case the English Commissioners signed in the left-hand columns and the Scottish in the right-hand columns. The first two seals at the bottom of the first page are those of Thomas Tenison the Archbishop of Canterbury on the left and Lord Seafield the Scottish Chancellor on the right.
Royal seals are different from these regular wax seals, most notably by size. They are always attached to the document like the hanging seals on the Lichfield petition, never stamped on to a document. This is because a royal seal is two-sided and is produced with a matrix. The matrix is a metal mould, used to make the impression of the design into the wax. Each monarch has their own unique design for their seal but do generally follow a similar pattern. One side of the seal will depict the monarch sitting in state with the orb and sceptre, whilst the other side is more military with the monarch usually wearing armour and on horseback.
Only one royal seal exists at any one time and for most monarchs they only ever had one royal seal. This was to reduce the possibility of tampering with or forging the royal seal or any official documents. The punishment for anyone illegally copying the Royal Seal was death. After a King or Queen died their original metal matrix, which produced the Great Seal, was destroyed. Although the previous monarch’s matrix was sometimes used by the new monarch until they had a new matrix of their own designed and ready to use. For longer reigning monarchs such as Queen Victoria, over time the matrix for the seal lost definition from use and so eventually had to be replaced.
The prorogation document in the image above officially marks the end of the parliamentary session until the official state opening of parliament which begins the next session. You can see that the Royal Commission is signed by Elizabeth at the top in addition to the Royal Seal. Two ways of showing royal approval for both the literate and illiterate.
The Royal Seal was a great visual representation of the monarch’s approval of the attached document, even for the illiterate. The custodian of the physical seal matrix, the Keeper of the Great Seal or the Lord Chancellor, was a title and role of great importance. At the time of Queen Elizabeth I, when this Royal Commission was signed and sealed, Sir Nicholas Bacon (father of Sir Francis Bacon) was the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. This role is now known as the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery, who is the head of the Crown Office.
The image above is from a peerage patent signed and sealed by George VI on 7th January 1952 only a month before his death on 6th February 1952. This peerage patent elevated Brendan Bracken, who was a Conservative MP 1929-1951 and Minister of Information 1941-45, to Viscount Bracken of Christchurch, Southampton. However, this did not last long as Viscount Bracken died 6 years later in 1958, and the title became extinct. The tradition of royal seals is still important and carries on to this day. Queen Elizabeth II has had 2 royal seals during her reign, the first designed in 1953 and the second designed in 2001.
Unlike the general image of red wax seals like those in the previous document, this George VI seal is dark green. Not all royal seals are red, there are several colours depending on the type of document. The dark green is for patents elevating individuals to peerage, like Brendan Bracken. Rarer blue seals are for documents relating to a close member of the Royal Family. The most common scarlet red seal is for appointing a bishop and most other patents. Green and blue royal seals have a very particular purpose, whereas red royal seals have a more general, catch-all purpose and will be the most common, and so is colour we most associate with wax seals.
The Conservation of Royal Seals
Written by Alicia de la Serna Saenz, Collection Care Assistant
The conservation of wax seals lies between the realm of paper and object conservation. Their value derives from the document they accompany, but their main ingredient is very different from any other that you would traditionally find in a library or archive: wax. Royal seals come with a skippet (or box) that can be made of metal, cardboard or wood.
The seal was often made of beeswax, which is hydrophobic, malleable and sensitive to solvents (Angelova, L. 2019). Over time it can become hard, brittle and develop a white bloom, it sort of looks like mould and it is caused by changes in the crystal structure of the beeswax or dryness disease (Gramtorp, D. et al. 2015). Their manufacturing process can cause wax seals to develop flaking and delamination over the years.
As previously mentioned, the Parliamentary Archives holds a collection of royal seals that is currently being prepared to move out of the Victoria Tower as part of the Archives Relocation Programme. Objects in the Parliamentary Archives collection are being secured for transit by the Pack and Track Project. We thus face three issues with three different ways of addressing them:
- Broken wax seal in a steel skippet (BBW/1): The first case is green wax seal that is broken and has a light white bloom on the surface. The metallic skippet is bigger than the seal, which probably led to it breaking due to some past collision. For the aim of stabilising for transport, the skippet was padded with Plastazote® until the seal’s movement was completely restricted when the skippet was closed. This should avoid further damage during transport.
- Wax seal without skippet (CC/8/1): somehow this wax seal has survived in pristine condition without a skippet. My objective was to maintain that condition. To achieve that, I created a new housing for the seal with archival corrugated board, using as an example the skippet from BBW/1. I then padded the interior with Plastazote®, again to avoid any movement that could cause damage in case of an accidental collision during transport.
- Broken wax seal with cord in a skippet (SAM/F/1): the wax seal has a cord going through the middle of the body and is housed on a skippet of bigger dimensions. This skippet is a bit particular: it has a small opening in each side for the cord to leave the skippet.
As in the case of BBW/1, the seal is too big for the skippet that led to its breakage during an impact. In the seal, small pieces have detached but big parts are still gently held by the cord. Every time the seal is taken out, this gentle attachment weakens. It was necessary, not only to pad the interior to avoid movement, but also to create a tray to minimise the constant weakening of the seal when taken out.
I created a tray with archival corrugated board with Plastazote ® padding and a rim that holds the seal in place, as well as two cotton handles that can be rested on the skippet side openings used for the cord. The seal is now safely lifted using the tray and the movement is restricted.
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- Angelova, L., (2019) Adhesives and consolidants for wax and wax-like materials: a review. Wax Modelling Congress 2017 Proceedings, pp 169-180
- Gramtorp, D., Botfeldt, K., Glastrup, J., Pilkjær Simonsen L., (2015). Investigation and conservation of Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen's wax models, Studies in Conservation, 60(2), pp. 97-10
- The National Archives: The Royal Seal https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documents/education/great-seal.pdf
- The Royal Household: The Great Seal of the Realm https://www.royal.uk/great-seal-realm