Wax Seals

'I kisse your hands, and so seal to you my pure love' (1651: 105). So wrote John Donne to his friend Sir Henry Goodere, simultaneously imagining his letter as a kiss, his friendship as a letter and the kiss as the all-important seal on that letter. Often bright red and always compellingly tactile, seals are one of the most immediately striking aspects of an early modern letter, but have received relatively little critical attention to date. The discipline of seal-study, usually referred to as 'sigillography' and sometimes 'sphragistics', has been explored in depth recently by Harry Newman at The Shakespeare Institute, who notes:

Sealing was an essential material process that authorised and authenticated a wide range of written documents, from those pertaining to matters of state (such as royal patents, proclamations and commissions) to those concerning personal business and correspondence (like common deeds, wills, and letters). (2011)

A seal was made by pressing a seal matrix onto freshly-applied hot wax before it set, in order to leave an impression in it. (The object used to make the impression on the wax seal was often referred to as the 'seal', too.) The matrix bore a design (a 'device' or 'figure') carved in by intaglio, which left a mirror-image of itself in relief. These images would often be highly personalised. For example, after 1561, the seal of Bess's fourth husband, George Talbot, sixth earl of Shrewsbury, is a dog (a Talbot also being the name for a hunting dog) surrounded by the motto of the Order of the Garter, which he was awarded that year: 'Honi soit qui mal y pense' ('Shame be to him who thinks evil of this') ID 079. By imprinting his seal into warm wax, Talbot was thus literally stamping it with his authority. The Talbot seal-ring, featuring the dog, can still be seen today at Sheffield Cathedral on the tomb of [external site] the fourth earl of Shrewsbury, resolutely affixed to one of the fingers of his praying hands. The sixth earl's son (and Bess's step-son and son-in-law), Gilbert Talbot, later seventh earl, used a similar stamp, also featuring the Talbot dog: an intact seal with an impression directly into the wax survives on one of his letters to Bess ID 174, and there are other examples where the impression is through paper over wax, such as ID 080 and ID 081. As with other writers' seals, we should not allow playful personal touches to obscure the seriousness of their message: the Bacon family used the image of a boar over several generations, and Sir Thomas Roe's astoundingly decorative seal represents a deer's (i.e. a roe's) head. Witty visual puns aside, an identifiable personal seal imbued a letter with its writer's presence and power.

One problem when it comes to analysing Bess's own use of seals is that very few reliable examples survive from the time before her fourth husband Shrewsbury died, in November 1590, and she became dowager countess of Shrewsbury. We know that after this time, as dowager countess, she used a seal embossed with her own 'Hardwick cross' which can be seen in a number of her letters, such as those written to Queen Elizabeth, Robert Cecil and John Stanhope, between January and March 1602/3 ID 128, ID 129, ID 131 and ID 134. However, we do not know if she had always used the Hardwick cross to seal her letters earlier in her life; she may have used her husband's seal in his lifetime. We know from her account books that soon after Shrewsbury's death, in 1591, Bess purchased two new seal rings, but we do not know if these were for herself, nor do we know the symbol they featured. The Hardwick cross is a design that occurs in her earlier needlework, and throughout the iconographic and heraldic schemes at New Hardwick Hall today, so it was one in which Bess had made a considerable personal investment. Along with her self-referencing architectural innovations, this seal therefore contributed to the development of her personal iconography.

But a seal had the potential to do more than act as a stamp of personal authority. In some cases, the merest glace at a seal could indicate the nature of a letter's contents. If the seal wax was black, rather than the usual red, the message would most likely contain bad news. We do not have any examples of black seals from among the letters to and from Bess, but they are known from other early modern writers. For example, the letters of Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia, provide a striking illustration. As Nadine Akkerman, editor of Elizabeth's letters, notes, Elizabeth created a 'cult of widowhood' around her after the death of her husband, Frederick, Elector Palatine, in November 1632. She decked her home in black velvet inside and out, and wore only black long after the usual period of mourning. After Frederick's death, Akkerman points out:

Elizabeth consistently presented each of her letters as mourning cards or as letter of condolence: she used black rather than red seal wax, she attached black rather than coloured silk threads to the seals, and she also edged her paper with black ink. The black edges are sometimes extremely fine, often only encompassing the very edge of the page. Yet the symbol of mourning was always visible to the reader and must have had quite an effect. Up to her death in 1662, Elizabeth continued to mark her letters in this manner. (Akkerman, private communication 2012)

The marks of mourning served a dual function, both manifesting Elizabeth's private emotions and helping her project a public persona, and are thus essential to any interpretive reading of her letters. Physical features like this can also provide clues to resolving issues for historians: Akkerman was able to date several letters after November 1632 in her edition because of the black sealing wax.

In addition to these iconographic and symbolic functions, seals, of course, served a very practical security purpose. Seals were needed to shut letters after folding, but they were also required to keep contents hidden from unintended readers. As Newman notes:

[letter] seals served the extra function of security: the necessary action of unsealing a folded letter in order to read it meant that an illegitimate reading would always be evident unless the perpetrator had the skill and materials with which to replicate the seal exactly. (2011)

Editing Elizabeth of Bohemia's letters, Akkerman sometimes found two broken seals, each with a different stamp. Normally Elizabeth would use an imprint of her shield of arms, but occasionally her letters bore a second seal with an imprint of her monogram. Akkerman surmised that two seals meant the letter had been opened, amended and shut again, and would 'indicate to the recipient that it was Elizabeth who tampered with the letter and not someone else who had spied upon it'. Such security issues are pertinent to Bess's correspondence, since Mary, Queen of Scots, would have had most if not all of her correspondence opened during her time under house arrest. (Walsingham's seal expert was Arthur Gregory, who counterfeited seals so that Mary's correspondence could be read.) Matters of interception and safety were prominent in the minds of Bess and her household.

Sometimes we find seals which are 'papered' with a strip of paper taken from the top or bottom of the address leaf, as in a letter from Shrewsbury to Bess, c.1575, ID 077. This extra strip of paper may have protected the seal itself against damage or decay, but mainly seemed to have prevented the wax sticking to the seal matrix and becoming detached from the paper. As David Reid and Anne Ross note:

The papered seal evolved as a technological advance, insofar as the dampened paper inserted between the matrix and the wax avoided any possibility of difficulties in connection with separation, and so considerably accelerated the process of seal-making (1970: 52)

Nevertheless, while the seal may have gained some extra protection over the decades, paper itself continued to suffer during the opening process. As described above, most letter-writers would use a large sheet, folded to make four pages, and would use only the first of these for their letter, meaning that after folding for postage, the seal would be affixed to paper without writing on it. Not all writers bore this in mind, however, as Edward, second Viscount Conway, noted to his daughter-in-law, the philosopher Anne Conway, in 1651:

Allthough I have troubled you sufficiently yet I must give you a little more in making a request to you, that since you write like a man, you would not seale your letters like a woman, your last letter was sealed upon the wrighting, and in the opening two or three wordes were torne out, allthough the letter was opened with providence that the writing was in danger of tearing. (Nicolson and Hutton, eds., 1992: 32)

Many of the images of letters included in this web-edition show quite clearly the damage caused to paper when letters were opened; for example, the letter from Bess's eldest son Henry Cavendish, 31 December 1605, still has its red wax seal (impressed with the Cavendish arms featuring three bucks heads cabossed) and the paper torn below it from the right-hand side of the letter on opening ID 011. In some cases the paper torn away on opening has subsequently been patched using modern methods of conservation, for example ID 019. Many of the images also show letters which lack seals. Most often this is because the seal has been lost, but it is important to remember that some letters were never sealed, such as those which were themselves enclosures or which were copies that were not sent. As Akkerman notes, a lack of sealing 'could either suggest that a letter was inserted into a larger package or that it is in fact a copy made for administrative purposes'. When attempting to discern between the two, endorsements usually provide the answer: copied letters are usually marked as such by the copyist before archiving. The existence of a contemporary copy clearly indicates that, to the recipient, the letter was considered important enough to keep. It is perhaps telling that the angry letter from Shrewsbury to Bess during the marriage breakdown is a scribal copy: Shrewsbury does not usually keep copies of his correspondence, but he does ensure that a record is kept of this letter ID 119.

Unsealed enclosures might be read by the recipient of the enclosing letter before he or she sealed and resent them to their second, intended, recipient. Stewart and Wolfe observe that:

If the seal on a letter was not the seal of the sender, the recipient would know that the letter had been read and approved by the person whose seal it was (2004: 36)

A letter without a seal might therefore represent an enclosure which was not passed on to its intended recipient, either because it was deemed inappropriate or because a new copy was sent in its stead. One might send an unsealed letter for two reasons. First, one might seek the advice of the forwarder or mediator. For example, Edmund Lascelles wrote to Gilbert Talbot on 11 April 1605 enclosing a letter to Bess from James Montague, Dean of the Chapel Royal. The letter advised her to petition King James to make her son William Cavendish a Baron and was sent unsealed so that Gilbert could read it before Bess did. On this occasion, unusually, Montague even sent his own matrix so that Gilbert could seal the letter and make it seem previously unread. Often, however, sending an unsealed enclosure was simply a courtesy, designed to show that the writer was not keeping secrets from his friend. Gilbert Talbot wrote to Henry Butler on 25 June 1611 about financial matters, sending the letter via Bess's son Charles Cavendish; a postscript invites Cavendish to read the letter and then seal it, making the entire exchange transparent to all parties.

John Donne played with the convention of the unsealed enclosure, teasing his friend George Garrard by sending his sister Martha a sealed letter inside a letter to George:

Sir, I cry you mercy for sealing your sisters letter, but I deliver you up my authority, and I remember you, that you have hers to open it again. You will the easilier forgive me, that I write no newes, when you observe by this transgression, that I live in a place which hath quenched in me even the remembrance of good manners (1651: 248)

Donne's comments may in fact contain a bawdy joke, since in early modern rhetoric the seal had a number of sexual connotations, carefully delineated by Harry Newman:

By the Renaissance, the language and imagery of the ancient technology of wax sealing were well-established resources for expressing sexual activities such as kissing, deflowering and impregnating. Sexual sealing metaphors … were usually variations of the typically patriarchal trope in which a woman was represented as wax to be passively 'sealed' or 'unsealed' by men … Letter seals and hymens were understood to authorise, authenticate and secure private textual and sexual spaces. These spaces were similarly fetishised by discourses of patriarchal power that obsessively focused on dichotomies between the inside and the outside, the closed and the open, the private and the public, the hidden and the visible. In plays and poems of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the seal was often represented as a kind of epistolary hymen and the hymen as a kind of human seal. (2011)

Sexual metaphors are not always present in references to seals, of course, but the rich vein of imagery in the period is highly indicative of the symbolism of the seal. Specifically, the physical state of the seal, broken or unbroken, is the clearest marker of the private nature of the letter. Furthermore, as Newman notes, once the sexual metaphors had been established, 'the seal's association with the hymen contributed to its aura of secrecy, mystery, liminality and ambiguity in Renaissance epistolary culture'.

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References and Further Reading

  • John Donne's letters to Goodere and Garrard are found in Letters to Severall Persons of Honour (London, 1651).
  • For more on seals, see 7000 Years of Seals, ed. by Dominique Collon (London: British Museum Press, 1997), especially the articles by John Cherry ('Medieval and Post-Medieval Seals', pp. 124-42) and Gertrud Seidmann ('Personal Seals in Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth-Century England and their Antecedents', pp. 143-60). See also P. D. A. Harvey and Andrew McGuiness, A Guide to British Medieval Seals (London: The British Library and Public Record Office, 1996).
  • Key reference books are J. Harvey Bloom, English Seals (London: Methuen & Co., 1906), Alphonse Chassant, and Henri Tausin, Dictionnaire des devises historiques et héraldiques (Paris: J.-B. Dumoulin, 1878) and Alphonse Chassant and P. J. Delbarre, Dictionnaire de sigillographie pratique (Paris: J.-B. Dumoulin, 1860).
  • My thanks to Harry Newman for his extensive advice on this subject and especially for sharing with me '"A seale of Virgin waxe at hand / Without impression there doeth stand": Hymenal Seals in English Renaissance Literature', a conference paper he delivered at Cultures of Correspondence in Early Modern Britain, 1550-1640 (University of Plymouth, 14-16 April 2011). This paper is the source of all my quotations from Newman.
  • For a particularly illustrative example of Roe's seal, see SP 81/17, fols 59-60. I am grateful to Nadine Akkerman for this reference and for her advice on this matter.
  • For black seals, see Alan Stewart and Heather Wolfe, Letterwriting in Renaissance England (Washington, DC: The Folger Shakespeare Library, 2004), p. 36, and for Elizabeth of Bohemia's use of them, The Correspondence of Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia, ed. by Nadine Akkerman, 3 vols., one published to date (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011-).
  • The Conway quotation comes from British Library, Add. MS 23,212, fol. 9, also cited in The Conway Letters, ed. by Marjorie Hope Nicolson, rev. by Sarah Hutton (1992).
  • For papered seals, see David Reid and Anne Ross, 'The Conservation of Non-Metallic Seals', Studies in Conservation, 15 (1970): 51-62.
  • The letter from Edmund Lascelles to Gilbert, seventh earl of Shrewsbury, 11 April 1605, in which he encloses his seal matrix, is London, Lambeth Palace Library, Talbot Papers, Vol. L, fol. 7; and the one from Gilbert to Henry Butler, 25 June 1611, which he invites Charles Cavendish to read, is Talbot Papers, Vol. O, fol. 153.
Author(s): Daniel Starza Smith, April 2013


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'Bess of Hardwick's Letters' was developed by The University of Glasgow with technical development provided by The Humanities Research Institute at The University of Sheffield
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