Great Seal of the Realm

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An impression in wax of the Great Seal of the Realm (1953) Reverse of the Great Seal of the Realm 1953.jpg
An impression in wax of the Great Seal of the Realm (1953)
The Great Seal attached to the 2006 reissuance of the BBC Charter BBC Charter.jpg
The Great Seal attached to the 2006 reissuance of the BBC Charter

The Great Seal of the Realm or Great Seal of the United Kingdom (known prior to the Treaty of Union of 1707 as the Great Seal of England; and from then until the Union of 1801 as the Great Seal of Great Britain) is a seal that is used to symbolise the Sovereign's approval of state documents.


Scotland has had its own great seal since the 14th century. The Acts of Union 1707, joining the kingdoms of Scotland and England, provided for the use of a single Great Seal for the new Kingdom of Great Britain. [1] However, it also provided for the continued use of a separate Scottish seal to be used there, and this seal continues to be called the Great Seal of Scotland, although it is not technically one. A new Welsh Seal was introduced in 2011.

Sealing wax is melted in a metal mould or matrix and impressed into a wax figure that is attached by cord or ribbon to documents that the Monarch wishes to seal officially.

The formal keeper of the seal is the Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain.


At some time before the year 1066 Edward the Confessor began to use a "Great Seal", which created a casting in wax of his own face, to signify that a document carried the force of his will. With some exceptions, each subsequent monarch up to 1603, when the king of Scotland succeeded to the throne of England, chose his or her own design for the Great Seal.

Levina Teerlinc is believed to have designed the seal of Queen Mary I, and also the earliest seal used by her successor Elizabeth I, in the 1540s. [2]

When opening Parliament on 3 September 1654, the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell was escorted by the three "Commissioners of the Great Seal of the Commonwealth of England", who were Whitelock, Lisle, and Widdrington. This Seal was inscribed with 'The Great Seal of England, 1648', displaying a map of England, Ireland, Jersey, and Guernsey on one side, with the Arms of England and Ireland. On the other side was shown the interior of the House of Commons, the Speaker in his chair, with the inscription, 'In the first year of Freedom, by God's blessing restored, 1648.' In 1655, Cromwell appointed three Commissioners of the Great Seal of Ireland, Richard Pepys, Chief Justice of the Upper Bench, Sir Gerard Lowther, Chief Justice of the Common Bench; and Miles Corbet, Chief Baron of the Exchequer. But they held the seal only until 1656, when Cromwell nominated William Steele, Chief Baron of the Court of Exchequer in England, Lord Chancellor of Ireland. [3]

In 1688, while attempting to flee to France during the Glorious Revolution, James II allegedly attempted to destroy his Great Seal by throwing it into the River Thames, in the hope that the machinery of government would cease to function. James's successors, William III and Mary II, used the same seal matrix in their new Great Seal. This may have been a deliberate choice, in order to imply the continuity of government. A new obverse was created, but the reverse was crudely adapted by inserting a female figure beside the male figure. When Mary died, the obverse returned to the design used by James II, while the female figure was deleted from the reverse. Thus, William III used a seal that was identical to James II's, except for changes to the legend and coat of arms. [4]

Edward VIII, who abdicated in order to marry Wallis Simpson only a few months after succeeding to the throne, never selected a design for his own seal and continued to use that of his predecessor, George V. Only one matrix of the Great Seal exists at a time, and since the wax used for the Great Seal has a high melting point, the silver plates that cast the seal eventually wear out. The longer-lived British monarchs have had several Great Seals during their reigns, and Queen Victoria had to select four different Great Seal designs during her sixty-three years on the throne. [5]

The current seal matrix was authorised by the Privy Council in July 2001. [6] It was designed by James Butler and replaced that of 1953, designed by Gilbert Ledward. The obverse shows a middle-aged Elizabeth II enthroned and robed, holding in her right hand a sceptre and in her left the orb. The circumscription ELIZABETH . II . D . G . BRITT . REGNORVMQVE . SVORVM . CETER . REGINA . CONSORTIONIS . POPVLORVM . PRINCEPS . F . D . is the abbreviated Latin form of the royal title. [7] On the reverse are the full royal arms, including crest, mantling and supporters. This is the first time that the royal arms have provided the main design for one side of the English or British Great Seal. The obverse of the 1953 version depicted the Queen on horseback, dressed in uniform and riding sidesaddle, as she used to attend the annual Trooping the Colour ceremony for many years until the late 1980s. The seal's diameter is 6 inches (150 mm), and the combined weight of both sides of the seal matrix exceeds 275 troy ounces (302  oz ; 8,600  g ).


The Great Seal is attached to the official documents of state that require the authorisation of the monarch to implement the advice of Her Majesty's Government.

Under today's usage of the Great Seal, seals of dark green wax are affixed to letters patent elevating individuals to the peerage, blue seals authorise actions relating to the Royal family, and scarlet seals appoint bishops and implement various other affairs of state. In some cases the seal is replaced by a wafer version, [8] a smaller representation of the obverse of the Great Seal embossed on coloured paper attached to the document being sealed. This simpler version is used for royal proclamations, letters patent granting royal assent to legislation, writs of summons to Parliament, licences for the election of bishops, commissions of the peace, and many other documents. [9] It formerly constituted treason to forge the Great Seal. [10]

The Great Seal of the Realm is in the custody of and is administered by the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. This office has been held jointly with that of Lord Chancellor since 1761. The current Lord Chancellor is Brandon Lewis. The Constitutional Reform Act 2005 reiterates that the Lord Chancellor continues to be the custodian of the Great Seal. [11] Though, in the past, the Great Seal has been delivered to and remained in the custody of the Sovereign when it has been used to seal instruments that related to or granted gifts or emoluments to the Lord Chancellor. [12]

The Clerk of the Crown in Chancery, who is also Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Justice, heads Her Majesty's Crown Office, and is responsible for the affixing of the Great Seal. He is assisted by the Deputy Clerk of the Crown. Day-to-day custody is entrusted to the Clerk of the Chamber, and subordinate staff include a Sealer and two Scribes to Her Majesty's Crown Office.

Section 2 of the Great Seal Act 1884 governs the use of the Great Seal of the Realm:

2 - (1) A warrant under Her Majesty’s Royal Sign Manual, countersigned by the Lord Chancellor, or by one of Her Majesty’s Principal Secretaries of State, or by the Lord High Treasurer, or two of the Commissioners of Her Majesty’s Treasury, shall be a necessary and sufficient authority for passing any instrument under the Great Seal of the United Kingdom, according to the tenor of such warrant; Provided that any instrument which may now be passed under the Great Seal by the fiat or under the authority or directions of the Lord Chancellor or otherwise without passing through any other office may continue to be passed as heretofore.

(2) The Lord Chancellor may from time to time make, and when made revoke and vary, regulations respecting the passing of instruments under the Great Seal of the United Kingdom, and respecting the warrants for that purpose, and the preparation of such instruments and warrants, and every such warrant shall be prepared by the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery.

(3) No person shall make or prepare any warrant for passing any instrument under the Great Seal of the United Kingdom, or procure any instrument to be passed under that Seal otherwise than in manner provided by this Act or the Crown Office Act 1877; and any person who acts in contravention of this section shall be guilty of a misdemeanour.

Inscriptions on the Great Seal

The Great Seal for each successive monarch is inscribed with the monarch's style (in Latin) on both sides of the seal. Some of those used in the past are shown below. [13] [14] Where the inscriptions on both sides of the seal are identical, only one is given. Where they are the same except for the use of abbreviations, the one with the fuller forms is given. Where they are different, they are shown separated by a slash.

Kingdom of England

The Great Seal of King John King John's seal (16264365113).jpg
The Great Seal of King John

Union of the Crowns

Depiction of the Great Seal of the Realm (Charles I) on a 17th-century funerary monument (St Mary Magdalene's Church, Croome D'Abitot, Worcestershire) St Mary Magdalene, Croome, Worcs - Monument to 1st Baron Coventry (1578-1640) detail 3.JPG
Depiction of the Great Seal of the Realm (Charles I) on a 17th-century funerary monument (St Mary Magdalene's Church, Croome D'Abitot, Worcestershire)



Kingdom of Great Britain

United Kingdom

Great Seal of the Realm of Queen Victoria attached to the charter incorporating the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral of Saint Alban, 1900. Seal charter Cathedral Saint Alban 1900.jpg
Great Seal of the Realm of Queen Victoria attached to the charter incorporating the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral of Saint Alban, 1900.

See also


  1. Article XXIV
  2. King, Catherine (1999). What Women Can Make. pp. 61–62.
  3. James Roderick O'Flanagan, The lives of the Lord Chancellors and Keepers of the Great Seal of Ireland, from the earliest times to the reign of Queen Victoria, (1870), Chapter XXV. Custody of the Great Seal During The Commonwealth.
  4. Jenkinson, Hilary (1943). "What happened to the Great Seal of James II?". Antiquaries Journal. 23 (1–2): 1–13. doi:10.1017/s0003581500042189.
  5. Davies, Caroline (16 February 2001). "New seal of approval for Queen". The Daily Telegraph . Retrieved 25 October 2013.
  6. "Great Seal of the Realm". The Royal Household. 2009. Retrieved 25 October 2013.
  7. In full: Elizabeth Secunda Dei Gratia Britanniarum Regnorumque Suorum Ceterorum Regina Consortionis Populorum Princeps Fidei Defensor. This is the official Latin form of the royal title: Elizabeth II by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.
  8. "Crown Office Act 1877, s. 4". The National Archives. p. 2. Retrieved 28 August 2021.
  9. "The Crown Office (Preparation and Authentication of Documents Rules) Order 1988, Sch. 1". The National Archives . Retrieved 28 August 2021.
  10. Maxwell-Lyte 1926, p. 1.
  11. "Constitutional Reform Act 2005, Sch. 1, para. 1". The National Archives. p. 210. Retrieved 28 August 2021.
  12. Maxwell-Lyte 1926, pp. 321–322.
  13. Wyon & Wyon 1887.
  14. Bloom, J. Harvey (1906). "Appendix: Table of inscriptions on the Great Seals". English Seals. London: Methuen. pp.  247–253.
  15. Wyon & Wyon 1887, pp. 109–111.
  16. Silver Imprint of the Royal Seal of George III. Live Auctioneers
  17. Impression from the seal of George III, Caernarfon, 1816–1837 Archived 15 August 2011 at the Wayback Machine Gathering the Jewels
  18. "The University's Original Charter". University of Toronto. Archived from the original on 11 January 2012. Retrieved 25 October 2013.
  19. Great Seal of England of King William IV, British Museum, engraved by Benjamin Wyon
  20. W. H. Boulton; The Romance of the British Museum - The Story of Its Origins, Growth and Purpose and Some of Its Contents, Horney Press, 2008, ISBN   978-1-4437-5922-9
  21. From 1948 onwards, the inscription was changed so that 'FD IND IMP' became 'FIDEI DEF'.


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