How to look for Seals
How can I view the records covered in this guide?
1. Why use this guide?
Use this guide if you are researching seals, particularly from the medieval and early modern periods.
2. Essential information
2.1 What are they?
The term seal is usually applied to the impression produced when an engraved metal die or ‘matrix’ (also known as a ‘seal’) has been pressed into a material such as wax.
Often bearing their owner’s portrait, device or coat of arms they were used to authenticate documents (such as charters, letters, writs) in much the same way as we use signatures today.
Seals were also used literally to ‘seal’ documents, fulfilling the same role today as gum on an envelope. They could either be attached to a document by a tag, tongue, cord, or placed directly on the face of the document.
2.2 What kind of seals do we hold?
We hold roughly over a quarter of a million seals which date from the 11th to the 20th century. They include a number of significant royal, government and colonial seals. We hold very few matrices.
2.3 Why are they useful?
Seals not only speak of authority and legitimacy but the iconography and legend (around the seal circumference) can tell us much about a seal owner.
A seal might also help identity and date the document to which it is attached.
Seals are of great interest not only to historians but also to those interested in:
- social status
- gender studies
3. How do I search for seals online?
3. 1 Search our catalogue for seals in DL 25 and DL 26
Use the search box below to locate over 3,000 digitised images of 2,500 seals from the 12th to the 18th century in DL 25 and DL 26.
The search box allows you to search Discovery, our catalogue by relevant keyword, such as ‘lion’.
Your results will show all instances of the term(s) you searched for within our catalogue descriptions for these records.
- ‘AND’ to find more than one term in the descriptions of seals and
- “double quotation marks” to find exact terms
You can also refine your initial search results by date.
For more guidance on how to search our catalogue, read Discovery search help.
If you wish to start a new search return to the search box.
The seals from DL 25 and DL 26 are mostly personal seals. Although they also cover seals which are:
- monastic seals
- ecclesiastical seals
- official seals
- local seals
3.2 Search our catalogue for the digitised card indexes of seals in QFA 1
The card index of seals in The National Archives has been digitised and can be searched online by category in our catalogue, but not initially by name of owner. It does not list all of our seals. See 4.1 for more information about the card indexes.
For example, to find the great seal of William II enter the search terms, ‘England’ and ‘Sovereign’ in the ‘Find words’ search field and enter the record series QFA 1 (Kew Finding Aids) in ‘search for or within reference’ search field in the advanced search function in our catalogue. You can download the card images (for free) and look for William II in the sequence of reigns.
4. How do I locate records of seals using finding aids?
4.1 Original card index of seals at The National Archives
Use the original card index (see 3.2 for the digitised versions of the card indexes of seals online) located in the Map and Large Document Reading Room at The National Archives to locate detailed descriptions of many of our seals. It is divided into:
- England and Wales: Ecclesiastical, Monastic, Local, Private Corporate (Oxbridge colleges)
- England and Wales: Royal: Great and Deputed, and Departmental and Official (both drawers include seals for Scotland and Ireland)
- Official and Corporate seals of Scotland, Ireland, Channel Islands, British Colonies and Dependencies (including many early US seals), France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Low Countries, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Scandinavia, USA
- Personal: Armorial, Non-Armorial: Men and Women: Equestrian
- if you are looking for the seal of a churchman or abbess or prioress look under their bishopric, abbey etc., rather than under their family name
- for laymen search under Non-armorial, Armorial, and, especially if noble, Equestrian. Also look under any offices they may have held (e.g., keeper of the wardrobe)
- for laywomen look under Women: Personal: Armorial, Non-armorial, and (though rare) Equestrian
- titled nobility are indexed under their family name, for example, under ‘Percy’ for the Percys, earls of Northumberland
- when you find the seal of an individual ensure they do not have a second or third seal in the same or another category. Sovereigns used a host of different seals, so check all the sub-categories listed under Royal. This also applies to queen consorts, princes, and other members of the royal family
Information provided on the card index of seals
- name of the seal owner
- the date of the document to which the seal is attached
- colour, shape and size of seal
- device (subject)
- legend (name and title of owner round seal border) of the seal
- additional remarks
It also provides:
- a cross reference to the British Museum’s Catalogue of Seals (but note that these seals are held by the British Library)
- document references to any further (and sometimes clearer) impressions of the same seal
- references to ‘Wyon’ refer to AB. and Allan Wyon, The Great Seals of England (1887)
4.2 Printed finding aids
Use these three volumes which are indexed, give the document references, and contain photographic reproductions of the seals:
- Roger H Ellis, Catalogue of Seals in the Public Record Office
- Personal Seals, vols I and II (1978 and 1981)
- Monastic Seals, vol I (1986)
Use the typescript Catalogue of Seals compiled by PDA Harvey which includes all the seals that are online (DL 25 and DL 26) as well as :
Consult the name and place index to locate relevant records. You can also search our catalogue to locate records.
5. Online sources
- SIGILLVM – The Network for Researching Seals and Sealing
- the section on medieval seals created by the Medieval Institute Library at Notre Dame University
6. Records held elsewhere
Find other major seal collections at:
A collection of plaster casts are held by the Society of Antiquaries of London.
7. Appendix 1: glossary of terms
|Anonymous seals||Ready-made ‘anonymous seals’ were common amongst men of sub-knightly rank in the Middle Ages. The legends of such seals often consisted of a simple phrase or motto; no owner’s name would appear. Thus, if two individuals are found to be using two identical seals this could mean either one has borrowed from the other or they both own identical seals.|
|Armorial||Design shows shield of arms or shield plus crest (on a helmet) and/or supporters (either side of shield, e.g. the lion and unicorn).|
|Borrowed seals||Seals were often borrowed to authenticate documents. Check the sealing clause in the text of the document to which the seal is attached since the borrowing may be mentioned and the owner of the borrowed seal identified.|
|Counterseal||A smaller (often more personal) seal impressed into the back of another.|
|Departmental||Small official seals used by departments of the central government.|
|Deputed Great Seals||Seals very similar in size and design to the great seal. Used to authenticate documents which had been, or would be, authenticated by the great seal of England.|
|Equestrian||Portrait of person (usually in armour) on horseback.|
|Great Seal||Every sovereign of England (and later Great Britain) since Edward the Confessor has used a large double-sided great seal nearly always depicting him/her on one side enthroned (in majesty) and on the other on horseback (equestrian).|
|In Majesty||The sovereign enthroned usually holding sceptre, sword, orb etc.|
|Legend||The name and title of the seal owner, usually beginning with SIGILLUM, ‘seal of …,’ which runs round the circumference of the seal rather like the words on a coin. Personal titles in legends help date seals.|
|Obverse and Reverse||The two sides of a double-sided seal. Both sides are the same size, like a coin. Referred to in seal catalogues as O and R.|
|Paper Seals||As paper became more common in the 15th century the practice arose of laying paper over the wax which was then pressed with a small matrix.|
|Privy Seal (and Signet)||As well as the great seal kept in the Chancery sovereigns also had a private or privy seal for more personal use. By 1312 this was no longer in the monarch’s control but stayed in the new privy seal office. However, they still needed a private seal of their own, hence the new secret seal or signet.|
|Wafer Seals||In the 19th century wafer seals made of coloured paper embossed with the seal design and then attached to the face of the document appeared.|
8. Further reading
Use our library catalogue to find a recommended book list.