The Great Seal

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 1, Key stage 2, Key stage 4

Time period: Early modern 1485-1750

Curriculum topics: Changing power of monarchs, Significant individuals, Tudors

Suggested inquiry questions: What can we learn about Elizabeth I from the imagery she used?

Potential activities: Create your own great seal to represent you

What can it tell us?

Seals were used on most documents in the past to ‘close’ them and to prove that the document really was from the person who sent it. Most seals had an image of the owner and a motto or legend around the edge. It would usually show the type of job the owner did and contain information about their family.

However, a Great Seal was special as it belonged to the monarch and was attached to all important documents which specifically came from the monarch. If a document had this seal on it, it had the monarch’s ‘seal of approval’ and reflected their wishes or commands. The seal used in this lesson is the Second Great Seal of Queen Elizabeth I.

The Great Seal can reveal important clues about the way a monarch wished to be seen by their subjects and the responsibilities that they had. Elizabeth I wanted to create an image of herself that would impress her subjects. Find out and see if you think she succeeded.


Look at Source 1 (a)

An extract from a warrant, a document giving a royal command.

  1.  Can you find these words in this part of the document?
    • Great Seale of England
    • much use
    • wearing
    • new
    • made
  2. Now read the transcript:

Forasmuch as our Great Seal of England by much use and wearing waxing unserviceable, we have resolved that a new Great Seal shalbe made…

  1. Why does a second Great Seal need to be made?
  2. Can you put this sentence from the document into your own words?

Look at Source 1 (b)

An extract from a warrant, a document giving a royal command.

  1. Can you spot the following words:
  • ‘paterne made upon parchment by you our servant Hilliard’

The words mention Nicholas Hilliard, the artist who designed the seal.  The document is made from parchment which was thin, dried, animal skin used for writing on.

  1. Have a go at reading whole part of the document. It helps to read the letters ‘y’ for ‘i’, ‘f’ for ‘s’ and ‘c’ as ‘t’. You can also use the transcript.
  2. After reading the document, can you explain the different stages for making the new seal?

Look at Source 2 (a)

Second Great Seal

  1. Can you find:
  • mysterious hands reaching from clouds to hold Elizabeth’s cape
  • an orb and sceptre
  • a ruff
  • coat of arms
  • Tudor Rose
  • background leaves and flowers
  • motto -‘Elizabetha Dei Gracia Anglie Francie Et Hibernie Regina Fidei Defensor’? [‘Elizabeth, by grace of God, Queen of England, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith’.]
  1. What do the ‘mysterious hands’ suggest?
  2. Can you describe Elizabeth’s dress and hairstyle?
  3. Why does she hold an orb and sceptre? Do you know what they mean?
  4. Elizabeth was Head of the Church of England. Which part of the seal tells us this?

Look at Source 2 (b)

Second Great Seal

  1. Can you find :
  • a fleur de lys
  • a harp
  • clouds and rays around the Queen’s head
  • a horse with plaited mane
  • Tudor Rose
  1. The Tudor Rose was the emblem of the Tudor monarchs and stands for England. Why do you think it is on both sides of Elizabeth’s seal?
  2. A fleur-de-lys stands for France, which country does the harp stand for?

Why would she want to include these symbols?

Look at Source 3

An image from a plea roll document which records details of law suits or actions in court.

Which words do you think Elizabeth I would want people to use to describe her?

  • majestic
  • foolish
  • powerful
  • warrior
  • fair
  • cruel
  • unfeminine
  • weak

Now look again at all of the Sources 1-3

  1. What things make Elizabeth I look important?
  2. How can you tell that the seal belongs to a monarch?
  3. Is it clear that Elizabeth I was keen to control how she appeared?

Look at Source 4

This is a picture taken at the Trooping of the Colour between 1948-1950

  • Who is the person in the photograph?
  • How do you think this person creates an image of herself?
  • Write a list of the different ways you can find out information about this person, then think about how you would have found out about Elizabeth I in her day. How do they compare?
  • How difficult do you think it was for Elizabeth I to present herself to her subjects?

Design your own seal for a person of your choice.

  • The seal must tell us something about the person who it belongs to. What is their job? Where do they live? Are they important?
  • Try to use emblems or symbols. If the seal belongs to a film star or an important scientist, how would you show this?
  • You must also think of a motto or words to put on the seal.
  • Remember to make a back and a front.
  • Write about your seal, explaining what you have drawn – and why.


A seal was created by pressing an engraved metal die or matrix into a mixture of resin and beeswax to create an impression to make the seal.

The Great Seal was used by the Chancery, the Tudor Civil service, to show that the document attached was ordered in the Queen’s name. Elizabeth I had her own personal ‘privy’ [private] seals for documents which she personally approved aswell. When a King or Queen died, the matrix was destroyed. The punishment for illegal copying of the Great Seal was death.

The matrix for this seal was produced by the artist Nicholas Hilliard in 1586. It took around two and a half years to produce the Second Great Seal of the Realm. The document used in this lesson was dated 1584 and the extracts from it explain why Queen Elizabeth requested the creation of a new Great Seal and reveals how it was made. Designs for the matrix, according to the source, had been made ‘upon parchment by you our servant Hilliard’ to begin with. The Queen agreed that these should be engraved in silver and ‘bringe to perfection ready to be used with all convenient speede suche a new Greate Seale’.

Great Seals come in a number of different colours, though they darken with age as with this example. Nearly all English great seals show on the front or obverse, the monarch sitting on their throne with the orb and sceptre, symbols of their authority. On the reverse they are usually shown riding a horse as a military leader and defender of the kingdom.

Elizabeth I took the cultivation of her image very seriously. Part of the way that she maintained her authority over the English nobility and her ambitious courtiers was through elaborate rituals and performance. She was given names like Astraea, a goddess from Greek mythology, or Gloriana, a character in poet Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene.  Portrait painters were given special “face patterns” by the government in order to make ensure that pictures of Elizabeth reflected her preferred image. Hilliard produced some of these patterns, however he is most famous for his ‘portrait miniatures’, tiny images of Elizabeth or members of her court. In the 1580s wearing miniatures of the queen became very fashionable and a sign of loyalty. Like the Great Seal and large scale portraits, these miniatures were highly effective instruments of propaganda.

Outside London few people would have known what the Queen looked like, although Elizabeth and her Court travelled across southern England and East Anglia on ‘progresses’ which allowed more people to catch sight of her. Before the internet, radio, television or newspapers and with a population who could mostly neither read nor write the Great Seal allowed Elizabeth’s image to be visible throughout her kingdom.

Teachers' notes

This lesson is designed to help pupils understand how Elizabeth I presented herself to her subjects in the days before mass media.  Pupils can use the sources to study some of the key ways in which the Queen’s image was conveyed to her subjects.  They are also encouraged to think about our current Queen, Elizabeth II and how her image is presented in comparison to that of Elizabeth I.

Groups of pupils can study the document extracts and seal to report back to the whole class and discuss the answers to the questions. Alternatively, pupils can work through the tasks independently. To find more examples of seals online consult this National Archives guide on seals:

Go to the National Portrait Gallery’s website to compare the seal to any portrait of Elizabeth I and discover how she fashioned her image through portraiture:


Source 1 (a) & (b): SP 15/28 f79 Extracts from a warrant sent to Derek Anthony, Chief Graver at the Mint and Nicholas Hilliard, 8th July 1584.

Source 2 (a) & (b): SC13/N3 Second Great Seal of Elizabeth I (a): Obverse: front & (b): Reverse: back

Source 3: Detail from KB 27/1276/2: Court of Kings Bench: Plea and Crown Sides: Coram Rege Rolls 1581

Source 4: WORK 21/292: Trooping of the Colour 1948-50, Queen Elizabeth II on horseback.

External links

Kings and Queens of England
A short biography of Elizabeth I

The face of Royalty
View a selection of Royal Seals and plea rolls held by The National Archives on our Pinterest board.


Connections to curriculum

Key Stage 1: Lives of Significant individuals in the past who have contributed to national and international achievements.

Key Stage 4: GCSE history period studies covering the Early Modern era including the reign of Elizabeth I.

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Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 1, Key stage 2, Key stage 4

Time period: Early modern 1485-1750

Curriculum topics: Changing power of monarchs, Significant individuals, Tudors

Suggested inquiry questions: What can we learn about Elizabeth I from the imagery she used?

Potential activities: Create your own great seal to represent you

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