Lord Seton's Tomb; Seton Church

The Use of Seals

Early documents were produced on parchment or vellum. They were not printed but handwritten by clerks. Instead of putting your signature at the bottom of a document or letter as we would today, men of importance attached wax seals to authenticate their papers.

The Declaration of Arbroath 2Notice the seals attached to the bottom of the Declaration of Arbroath. In 1320, a total of 46 Scottish earls and barons attached their own seals to this document. Sadly, as you can see, not all of them have survived today.

The seal was the personal property of the user. In medieval Scotland, seals were used mainly by kings, bishops and the nobility. Designs on seals included monarchs seated on their thrones, bishops surrounded by saints, castles, ships, or coats of arms. The earliest surviving seal of a king of Scotland is that of Duncan II, 1093-94, who is depicted on horseback.

Seals attached to The Declaration of Arbroath
NAS: State papers SP13/7

The design for a seal, called a matrix, was usually carved in lead. More elaborate matrices were sometimes engraved in ivory, jet or soapstone. The wax impression of the seal was made from the matrix. The wax was warmed to soften it and then pressed carefully into the engraved design. The back of the wax was then moulded to shape. If it was a two-sided seal, each matrix had a flat back so that the two sides of the seal matched exactly and could be pressed together either by force of hand or a seal-press.

Seals were generally impressed in beeswax to which some resin was added to make it stronger. Early wax seals were uncoloured but later, verdigris was added to make green wax and vermilion to make red. Some seals on charters issued by the royal chancery in Scotland were also varnished.

There were three ways to attach a seal to a document:

  • suspend it on a cord, woven band or strip of parchment called a tag that would pass through holes or slits at the bottom of the document folded back for added strength
  • attach the seal to a strip of parchment called a tongue that was cut away from the bottom of the document and left to hang
  • the seal was applied to the document with wax

When a great number of seals were attached to a document, as in the case of the Declaration of Arbroath, tags or cords were used. Such a variety of seals provides us with useful information about the particular people involved. The study of seals is called sigillography.

The Seal of King Robert I of Scotland, The Bruce
The Scottish Record Office © 2005

The Seal of King Robert I of Scotland.

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Seals from the Arbroath Declaration

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