Royal Portraits in Wax

Thanks to two decades of careful collecting and generous gifts by Bruce C. Willsie (Class of 1986), the Manuscripts Division now has the finest North American collection on British sigillography (an auxiliary science of history devoted to the study of seals used with historical documents). The Bruce C. Willsie Collection of British Sigillography (C0953) contains over a hundred boxes of seals, matrices, seal impressions, and other items from Roman Britain almost to the present. Most important are royal charters on parchment, issued under the Great Seal of the Realm, from the reigns of King John to Queen Victoria. The collection also includes a significant array of private seal matrices in copper alloys and lead, which were used to mold the wax impressions for use on documents. These date from Romano-British of the 2nd-3rd centuries CE until the end of the 15th century. There are also a few papal bullae and some examples from the 16th-18th centuries.

Then as now, seals served to authenticate genuine documents and prevent forgeries and fabrications. The legal authority of documents could also be attested by prescribed forms of Latin legal expression and physical presentation, royal portraits and regalian imagery, inclusion of witness names and signatures, and conformance of the texts of engrossed documents to archival file copies, whether centrally maintained on rolls or in registers. Most medieval and early modern charters have two-sided pendant seals, generally attached to the document by means of a braided silk cord or parchment tag. Medieval English kings are depicted in stylized portraits as enthroned monarchs on the obverse and as mounted knights (counter-seal) on the reverse. Still intact, these royal charters and seals bear silent witness to ancient legal transactions and provide evidence of documentary practices and of royal government at work.

Among several dozen recent donations by Willsie is a historically important charter of Henry III (r. 1216-72), prepared by Chancery clerks at Canterbury, on 25 October 1265 (see below). It is a grant to Sir John de Vaux (ca. 1220-87) of Lincolnshire, who later was appointed High Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk. The charter relates to a major English constitutional crisis, when Simon de Montfort (ca. 1208-65), sixth earl of Leicester, led the Rebel Barons against Henry III during the Second Barons War (1263-65). Simon de Montfort attained quasi-royal power and twice convened Parliament, until Montfortian forces were defeated decisively at the Battle of Evesham (4 October 1265), where Simon de Montfort was killed and dismembered. Henry III summarily confiscated property of the Rebel Barons for their treasonous acts and awarded them to royalist supporters. In the present charter, issued just three weeks after the Battle of Evesham, Henry III reallocated particular confiscated manors to Sir John de Vaux, including the manor of Benefield, Northhamptonshire; and the manors of Holt and Cley, Norfolk.

Among the charter’s high-ranking witnesses were other royalists, including Walter Giffard (d. 1279), bishop of Bath and Wells, subsequently archbishop of York; Hugh Bigod (ca. 1221-66), Justiciar of England, 1258-60; Philip Basset (ca. 1185-1271), Justiciar of England, 1261-63; Roger de Leybourne (1216-71), and Sir Robert Aguillon (d. 1286). The Great Seal of the Realm (in green wax) was attached to the charter by means of a green-and-tan braided silk cord. The latter was laced into the lower fold (plica) of the charter at and embedded in the green wax seal. The completed charter was then folded down several times in each direction, probably for secure storage in a muniments chest with other family archives. In later centuries, endorsements (listing manors granted) were added on a blank verso panel of the folded charter as part of a filing system for family archives, and Henry III’s Great Seal was inserted into a protective red silk cover because wax becomes brittle with age. A descendant of Sir John de Vaux eventually sold off old family documents, and this charter entered the antiquarian book trade, where it was acquired by the American attorney and bibliophile Robert S. Pirie (1934-2015). In December 2015, Willsie acquired the charter at the Pirie sale, at Sotheby’s, New York.

The Willsie collection is being conserved, properly housed, and described in a finding aid. Royal charters with seals, from the 12th to 16th centuries, are being conserved, flattened, and specially mounted by Ted Stanley, Special Collections Paper Conservator in the Library’s Preservation Office, for safe storage, consultation, and display. Among the Willsie collection’s many high spots are royal charters and seals of Elizabeth I, Oliver and Richard Cromwell, and Queen Victoria, whose massive royal seals are protected by tin skippets. Concerning Middle English charters and seal matrices, see Don C. Skemer, “Cover Note,” Princeton University Library Chronicle, vol. 75, no. 3 (2014), pp. 437-42. For more information about the Willsie Collection, contact Don C. Skemer, Curator of Manuscripts.

Henry III, Folded charter and red silk cover.


Henry III, Great Seal of the Realm.


Henry III, Charter (after conservation treatment).

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