Impressions of Power

Legitimate rule depended on royal blood, but the kingdom’s confidence in the succession was another vital factor. Personal image was used as a means of communicating power, with portraits, coinage and official seals carrying the image of the ruler throughout the realm.

In centuries where few people could read or write, the monarch’s seal provided a pictorial expression of royal approval which all could understand, and the circulation of these wax impressions ensured that the monarch’s image would be conveyed to their subjects.

The practice of using a Great Seal dates back to the eleventh century and the reign of Edward the Confessor, where a double-sided seal matrix with an image of the sovereign was used to make a wax impression for attachment by ribbon or cord to royal documents. The great seal has changed many times throughout the centuries, with a new matrix engraved at the beginning of each new monarch’s reign, but the overall design of the Great Seal has remained unchanged. 

In today’s constitutional monarchy, the sovereign acts on the advice of the government of the day, but the seal remains an important symbol of the sovereign’s role as Head of State.

Great Seal of Henry VIII

Original wax impression of 3rd Great Seal, 136mm (diameter), with plaited silk cord in the Tudor livery colours green and white. Designed by Morgan Wolff, 1542-1547. The obverse shows the standard engraving of monarch seated in majesty holding sceptre and orb (representing sovereignty and justice) while the reverse shows the monarch mounted on horseback (representing the warrior king as protector of the realm).

The seal legend is notable for containing the title Fidei Defensor – Defender of the Realm – granted to Henry by Pope Leo X in 1521 – following its revocation and Henry’s excommunication by Pope Paul III in 1538, following the Reformation and subsequent split from Catholic Rome. The title was adapted to refer to Henry’s defence of the new, Anglican faith, and reflects a desire for his status as a symbol of regal power and a protector, as invested by God, to be spread over the realm.

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Licence by Letters Patent for George Goring

A licence by letters patent to George Goring to alienate lands in Wynfryth (Winfrith Newburgh) and West Lulworth, Dorset, to Edward Richards; 2 April 1597. The seal is the second great seal of Elizabeth I. This document allows Goring to sell his manor, which was a right granted by the monarch to a private individual.

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Great Seal of the Commonwealth

2nd Great Seal of the Commonwealth of England, seal cast, green sulphide, 145mm (diameter), engraved 1651 by Thomas Simon, with the cast likely from the late 19th century. The legend is in English and not Latin as in royal seals, reading, ‘THE GREAT SEALE OF ENGLAND 1651’ on obverse & ‘IN THE THIRD YEARE OF FREEDOME BY GODS BLESSING RESTORED’ on reverse.

The obverse (above left) shows a map of England, Wales, Ireland, Isle of Man and Channel Islands, and the arms of England (St. George’s Cross within an oval shield) and Ireland (the harp), representing the breadth of the Commonwealth’s rule, while the reverse (above right) shows the House of Commons in session, reflecting a keenness to show a working Parliament and the continuation of government following a period of upheaval.

The very deliberate adoption of distinct images shows a desire to disassociate from the monarchy and the previous depictions used by kings and queens in Great Seals, while keeping up the impression of law and order over the country. This seal is a symbol of re-appropriation and a manifestation of power struggles, while also representing the re-conquest and subjugation of Ireland and the establishment of a new legal authority over the territories shown.

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Great Seal of Victoria

The queen is shown seated on the throne, holding a sceptre and an orb. The legend reads, VICTORIA DEI GRATIA BRITANNIARUM REGINA FIDEI DEFENSOR – ‘Victoria, by the Grace of God, Queen of Great Britain, Defender of the Realm’.

The standard form of Great Seal – the queen seated in majesty on obverse, and mounted on horseback on reverse – remains, while the title Fidei Defensor first used by Henry VIII is in the legend. The monarch has changed numerous times but the general form of the Great Seal has remained consistent, showing the continuation of royal symbolism over a millennium, to this day.

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