History Of The Wax Seal, Ciphers & Fobs
Seals have been used since ancient times to seal goods and important communications. Seals were used as early as the seventh millennium B.C. to stamp impressions in clay. In the fourth millennium B.C. carved cylinders that could be rolled over clay were being used in Mesopotamia. Mesopotamia included parts of modern day Iran, Syria & Turkey. The cylinder seals were used to create frieze-like designs on clay.
On the right hand side we can see a modern impression on clay of the frieze-like stamp this seal produces. The hunting scene depicts an important way of life, as much of the food was derived from hunting wild animals. The symmetry of the trees give this stamped impression uniformity. The hunter has captured an ibex. The owner of the seal is shown in cuneiform lettering above the head of the ibex. Balu-ili was a court official who was a cupbearer. Whilst this may not appear to be an important role, the name belies its significance. As well as being responsible for the king’s wine and beverages, the cupbearer would often hold positions of great trust. The king would rely on the cupbearer to prevent him from being poisoned.
Some cupbearers were chosen for their ability to analyse dreams or to predict the future.
Sargon I was a King of Kish. He was a cupbearer who drove the king from power. Sargon’s supposed ability to analyse the king’s dreams aided him in his mission to overthrow the king. Kish was a city to the north of Babylon. Sargon I founded the Akkadian Empire, which spanned approximately two centuries.
The artisans who created the seals used intaglio. They engraved or incised figures in stone or other hard material depressed below the surface so that an impression from the design yields an image in relief when pressed upon a softer material such as clay, wax or heated metal.
The scene above could be a hunting or sporting scene or one that had spiritual meaning. On the right a figure that has the appearance of half-man half-bull is fighting with a lion. A star and a crescent can be seen between them. On the right a bearded man is attacking a water buffalo.
The inscription in Akkadian reads -
Shusiba, servant of the house/temple of the god Ishkur
Religious beliefs and ancient rituals were the most popular designs seen on important seals at this time.
As food was principally sourced from hunting, this activity was of paramount importance and so it was often portrayed in art.
Cylinder seals were often hollow and worn around the neck of notable officials. This ensured their security. The seal was used to give the stamp of authority to a document. These early forms of jewellery were also worn as talismans and given apotropaic powers.
Lumps of clay stamped by the cylinder seals were also used to seal doors to prevent entry by unauthorised people and even jars of food or boxes containing jewels were sealed.
Commercial transactions were recorded on seals stamped on the relevant consignments.
As well as fired clay, metal and stone impressions have been found.
In the Middle Ages the practice of sealing with wax seals would have been reserved for the ruling elite and wealthy classes. By the 13th century this method of sealing documents was widespread. Monasteries, guilds and merchants have been recorded as sealing documents. As many people were illiterate, a seal with a symbol was an ideal way to lay claim to property or goods. Easily portable seals were also worn as jewellery. The signet ring dates back to the ancient Egyptian era. The stamp of the signet ring in wax prevented forgeries and thefts. It served the same purpose a signature does today. On the death of the owner the signet ring would either be buried with them or destroyed.
Important people, nobles and members of royal families had their own seals.
The Great Seal
In England the term Great Seal is given to seals used by monarchs. The Chancellor would keep possession of the Great Seal. A new Great Seal was made for each reign. Old seals were ceremonially broken up once the reign had ended. Since the 11th century the Great Seal has been the seal of authentication for English and Scottish monarchs. It was seen as the signature of the monarch and it was sometimes referred to as the key to the kingdom.
When a Great Seal was decommissioned it would be destroyed in front of witnesses to prevent its use or copies being made. Forging the Great Seal was considered treason and punishable by death
In mediaeval times the seal matrix was pushed into hot beeswax and then stamped onto documents to seal them closed and authenticate the source. Sometimes other soft materials were used. A matrix was cast to form the seal. The preferred materials were bronze, silver and gold. Gold was usually reserved for the monarch seal matrixes, especially the Great Seals. The single-sided seals were stamped onto the parchment. Double-sided seals are known as pendant seals. Pendant seals were attached to documents on silk, strips of material, hemp or parchment.
King John was crowned when his brother, Richard the Lionheart died in 1199. His loss of the duchy of Normandy (1214) was seen as a huge failure. The taxes he levied on the English nobility to pay for his foreign wars created much resentment. The barons demanded that their rights be respected by King John and subsequently on 15 June 1215 a royal charter of rights was agreed to by King John. The document, Magna Carta Libertatum (Great Charter of Freedoms) is commonly known as the Magna Carta. The royal charter was sealed at Runnymede, near Windsor, England. It was drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Stephen Langton.
The charter promised the protection of church rights and it also offered protection for the barons from illegal imprisonment and gave them access to swift justice. It placed limitations on feudal payments & taxes to the Crown.
It was intended that a council of 25 barons would ensure the conditions were met. However, neither King John nor the barons adhered to the charter. On 24 August 1215 the charter was annulled by Pope Innocent III. This led to the First Barons War.
Despite the difficulties which arose, the document was remarkable in that it implied there were laws the king was bound to observe.
Clause 39 stated that -
No free man shall be arrested or imprisoned or disseised [dispossessed] or outlawed or exiled or in any way victimised…except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.
This clause has been rightly celebrated as guarantee of trial by jury and of habeas corpus.
This clause inspired England’s Petition of Right (1628) and the Habeas Corpus Act (1679).
The Middle Ages were followed by the early Modern era. This time is most well known for the battle Henry VIII had with the catholic church, Pope Clement VII and the beginning of Protestantism.
In 1530 a group of English noblemen wrote to the Pope urging him to annul Henry VIII's marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, so that Henry could marry Anne Boleyn. The King’s desire was not only for a son, but a legitimate heir. It was argued that Catherine’s marriage to Arthur (Henry’s brother) had been consummated and so Henry & Catherine were not legitimately married.
The document was signed by Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, other senior clergymen, members of parliament and leading noblemen. In the document they stated the extreme remedies they could pursue if Pope Clement VII refused their request.
The document measures 3 feet wide. 81 wax seals are attached to the parchment by red silk ribbons. It is clear from this document that the seals are used in the way that signatures are today. Although the document is also signed, the seals provide legitimacy to the signatures. Above the seals, in order of the seals arrangements are the relevant signatures.
The well documented desire of Henry VIII to have his marriage with Catherine of Aragon annulled led to his breakaway from the Catholic Church and the establishment of the Church of England.
The letter to Clement VII was recently discovered in 1926 by Angelo Mercati, Prefect of the Archives. It was hidden in a chest built under a chair.
It was sent to the Pope in July 1530 and took two months to arrive in Rome.
When the Pope refused to annul the marriage it led to a chain of events which culminated in the English Reformation.
The fabulous Great Seal shown above was designed for Queen Elizabeth I by Sir Nicholas Hilliard.
The motto around the edges of the seal reads as -
ELIZABETH DEI GRACIA ANGLIE FRANCIE ET HIBERNIE REGINA FIDEI DEFENSOR
(ELIZABETH BY THE GRACE OF GOD QUEEN OF ENGLAND FRANCE & IRELAND DEFENDER OF THE FAITH)
We can trace the use of royal cyphers in Commonwealth countries. This practice originates from England. Public display of the royal initials dates at least from the early Tudor era. Early ciphers display the monarch’s initial. After Henry VIII’s reign the initial was affixed with the letter R which represented Rex or Regina. The letter I for Imperatrix was added to Queen Victoria's monogram after she became Empress of India in 1877.
The royal ciphers set down the initials in no particular order. Often royal arms or a crown would be incorporated into the design. Royal palaces would often have royal ciphers engraved into the stonework.
The remarkable solid gold pencil case shown above was from the collection of Queen Charlotte. Queen Charlotte’s cipher is engraved into a citrine seal set into an ornate repoussage mounting. The maker is believed to be Alexander James Strachan.
The reign of Queen Victoria was so long that she had two Great Seals. The first became worn through use. The second Great Seal matrix is shown above. Queen Victoria is depicted mounted on an elaborately decorated horse which is being led by a page. The seal matrix is crafted in solid silver.
Inscribed around the edge in Latin -
VICTORIA BY THE GRACE OF GOD QUEEN OF BRITAIN.DEFENDER OF THE FAITH
The maker’s details are stamped onto the matrix -
JOSEPH S. WYON CHIEF ENGRAVER OF HER MAJESTY'S SEALS
Fobs & Intaglio Fobs
By the Victorian era most fashionable men of standing wore solid silver or gold watches suspended on chains affixed to their waistcoats. Symmetry was required and so the length of chain would reach from both waistcoat pockets. The chain not holding the pocket watch would often be adorned with medals, fobs and intaglio fobs which could be used to stamp documents with a wax seal.
Depicted above is a typically elegant fully hallmarked Victorian 9ct gold fob set with bloodstone. This elaborate and finely wrought piece was assayed at London in 1867. Bloodstone is deeply symbolic and sought-after. The green jasper has red inclusions of hematite and some also have white inclusions. The red inclusions are said to resemble spots of blood, hence the name bloodstone.
The elegant fob shown above is fully hallmarked 9ct yellow gold. This Victorian fob is presented on an ornate chain. Crafted in the mid-Victorian era, the fob was tested for purity at Birmingham Assay Office in 1861. This splendid piece is set with carnelian. Carnelian has been described as a stone of courage, endurance, energy, leadership, and motivation. The fob and bale are hallmarked.
Ancient Egyptians called carnelians the setting sun.
Christian legend refers to the stone being covered in the blood of Christ during the Crucifixion. Bloodstone is considered to be a powerful talisman giving the wearer courage & success and having the powers to dispel 'melancholy'.
Antique fobs set with bloodstone are highly collectible & sought-after.
The fob shown above has red and white inclusions of hematite.
Until modern times all men would wear watches or pocket watches. The materials used to fashion these necessary accessories gave an indication of the wearer's status. Only relatively wealthy individuals would possess watches and watch fobs crafted from solid gold. Elaborately wrought hallmarked gold watch fobs are as sought-after today as they were in the Victorian era.
Three dimensional figural fobs are highly collectible. This charming and well modelled fully hallmarked 9 carat gold eagle fob is suspended from an eighteen inch 9 carat gold cable chain necklace. The fob is set with black onyx.
Black onyx is said to help the wearer to feel well balanced enough to make wise decisions.
In the twenty-first century these solid gold watch accessories are often paired with chains so that they can be worn around the neck.
What is an intaglio fob?
Although intaglio seals are known to date from ancient Egyptian & Roman times they became hugely popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. The intaglio is used to secure documents with wax seals. The written material would be enclosed and private. The recipient would know if the communication had been viewed because the seal had to be broken to see its contents. The seal would also allow the recipient to know prior to opening who the sender was. The intaglios were also known as ciphers when they were engraved with the monogram and emblem. For example a royal cipher or that of a Roman emperor.
The impressive 9ct gold fob shown above is fully hallmarked. The fob is set with a carnelian & it is no accident that this gemstone was chosen for the adornment.
In ancient times carnelians were given to those who needed to become bold. Warriors wore carnelian around their necks to give them great physical power & courage. This gemstone was also used to show the higher rank of the Egyptian master architects. At one time it was believed to prevent illness & the Plague.
The carnelian is engraved with the image of a Roman centurion.
In the 21st century ladies as well as gentlemen like to wear fobs.
Fobs make an ideal and unique addition to necklaces and chains.
Art Nouveau Wax Seals
Some of the most enchanting fobs and wax seals date to the Art Nouveau era.
ART NOUVEAU FRENCH HALLMARKED SILVER FIGURAL WAX SEAL
The most gorgeous fully hallmarked sterling silver Art Nouveau figural dog seal! This beautiful seal has the most ornate foliate motifs in relief. The surfaces are rendered so that no finger-prints or marks show, except for the engraved stamp at the base which bears the initial L M in Gothic script.
An exceptional French Art Nouveau fully hallmarked sterling silver and vermeil wax seal in the original case. This divine French silver creation epitomises the superlative skill of French silversmiths of this era. Sinuous vermeil tendrils swirl around exquisite lilies and even the texture of the water is captured beautifully.
The seal stamps the monogram / initials R G or G R . The leather clad case is just as delightful. The seal nestles in the most exquisite green velvet which has the appearance of beautiful moss. The silk lid is signed Guerineau and the location of this establishment, QUIMPER, is also given. This piece is stamped with the maker's mark in multiple places and it also bears the poinçon sanglier.
SILVER GILT LILY WAX SEAL
The choice of the lily to adorn this piece is no accident. French Catholicism naturally adopted symbols which the Roman Catholic Church used to convey messages to the faithful.
The lily, especially the white lily, came to be known as the Madonna lily. The lily is the most well recognised symbol for the Virgin Mary. The whiteness represents Mary’s purity, innocence, fertility and divine connection.
The highly stylized version of the lily has been known since ancient times as the fleur-de-lis.
The fleur-de-lis has been used by French royalty ever since the Franks were united by the actions of King Clovis I. At the coronation of Clovis an ampulla with a fleur-de-lis insignia was used to anoint him as king. The symbol came to represent the French monarch's divine right to rule.
The British Museum
The National Archives Kew
Royal Collection Trust