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British RoyalsFeaturesHistoryInsightThe Queen

The Great Seal of the Realm – a piece of history to savour

Great Seal of the Realm, George V
The Great Seal of George V (Marc Baronnet / CC BY-SA Wiki Commons)

The Great Seal of the Realm is a piece of history to savour. We don’t get to see it all that often and when it does make an appearance, it more than packs a punch.For this seal is part of a tradition that goes back to before the Norman Conquest and which, for centuries, has symbolised the very power of the Monarch.

This is the main seal of the Crown and signifies the Monarch’s approval of the most important State documents. It’s the modern practice of an act that came into existence at the court of King Edward the Confessor (reigned 1042 – 1066) and which has continued, unbroken, ever since.

Its development was both practical and PR driven. That first Great Seal was used as a pictorial reminder of the power of the Monarch. At a time when few could read and write, the royal image imprinted in heavy wax was designed to impress but also to tell anyone who couldn’t read the Latin inscribed around its edges that this seal meant the king had put his full power behind the document to which it was attached.

Edward also presided over an ever growing administration and to save the king the time and trouble of signing every document, the seal was used to show his assent. To show that this was the real deal there were very tight rules around its use. The seal was made using a metal mould, or matrix, and only one version of that could ever exist at one time. A fake seal would be easy to spot and production of one carried heavy penalties – Edward III made the offence high treason. The genuine article was closely guarded and for centuries, one of the highest offices in the country was that of its official custodian, the Lord Keeper of the Seal.

That office eventually merged with the role of Lord Chancellor and that’s who is officially in charge of the seal today. However, some things remain the same as they were at the time of Edward the Confessor. There is only ever one matrix for the seal in existence and on the death of a monarch, the new king or queen continues using their predecessor’s matrix until a new design is made. The old moulds used to be broken apart but now they are defaced in small but noticeable ways so that they can be retained as historic artefacts but put out of practical use.

The Great Seal has also got plenty of royal romance and legend around its history. In 1688, King James II tried to destroy it as he fled England during the ‘Glorious Revolution’ led by his son-in-law, the future King William III. James threw his seal into the Thames to try and halt the wheels of royal government but the matrix still existed and his plans came to naught. King Edward VIII didn’t get the chance to approve a new design for his own Great Seal between succeeding his father, George V, in January 1936 and abdicating in December of the same year and only ever used papa’s matrix during his short time on the throne.

The longest reigning monarchs in British history have had the opposite problem. The high temperatures used to melt the wax in the matrix to produce each seal can mean that the original design loses some of its definition over time. Queen Victoria was the first monarch to encounter this problem and had four designs during her 63 year reign. In 2001, the Queen got a new matrix for the Great Seal after the original, produced in 1953 to a design by Gilbert Ledward, began to wear out. The newest version is the one we saw on the Instrument of Consent for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s marriage and it was designed by James Butler.

This new design also highlights another important aspect of the seal for each monarch describes them in unique terms. That very first seal belonging to Edward the Confessor said simply Edwardi Anglorura Basilei which can be translated as Edward, King of the English and which bears striking similarities to the titles used by continental rulers, and particularly the Holy Roman Emperors, on their seals. The wording changes as Britain evolves and the country’s history can be read in the description of those who followed Edward.

The unfortunate Richard II was the first to include reference to his family’s territorial claims to a near neighbour, his seal declaring him Richard, by the Grace of God, King of France and England and Lord of Ireland. The reference to France lasted for centuries and we get another interesting historical insight with the seal of Mary I which reads Mary, by the Grace of God, of England, France and Ireland, Queen, first of that name, Defender of the Faith highlighting her position as the first queen regnant in England’s history. Defender of the Faith had first been used by Mary’s father, King Henry VIII, and it’s appeared on every Great Seal since his reign which ended in 1547. The present seal is that of Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God of the Britains and her other realms Queen, Head of the Commonwealth of Nations, Defender of the Faith. 

Nowadays, those words on that seal are used around 100 times a year (there are separate seals for Scotland and for Northern Ireland) with the sealing taking place in the office of the Clerk of the Crown in the Chancery of the House of Lords. There are different coloured waxes used depending on the type of document being sealed. Dark green pertains to letters patent raising people to the peerage while blue denotes documents relating to the close members of the Royal Family. Red is used for everything else.

It is an ancient symbol of royalty, a link to all those kings and queens that have gone before, a reminder that the Monarchy is part of a millennium of history in a way that changes and yet always stays the same. Edward the Confessor’s regal initiative can still impress all these years later.

About author

Lydia Starbuck is Associate Editor at Royal Central and the main producer and presenter of the Royal Central Podcast and Royal Central Extra. Lydia is also a pen name of June Woolerton, a journalist and writer with over twenty years experience in TV, radio, print and online. June has been a reporter, producer and editor, picking up several awards over the years. She's appeared on outlets including BBC 5 Live, BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Local Radio and has also helped set up a commercial radio station. June is also an accomplished writer with a wide range of material published online and in print. She is the author of two novels, published as e-books. She is also a marriage registrar and ceremony celebrant.