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What happened to the Great Seal of James II?1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 January 2012


Historians seldom trouble themselves much about the Great Seal of England; but that of James II forms an exception. Contemporary rumour seems to have associated it closely with the king's first flight from London, in disguise and by night, on 11 December 1688; and, from the contemporary Bishop Burnet and Rapin down to Miss Foxcroft in our own day, historians and memoir-writers of the period, with few exceptions of importance, have accepted this invitation to the picturesque. For the student of seals these excursions into his subject are flattering but rather embarrassing: Charles Bertie (in a letter to Danby), Burnet, Lord Campbell, and the second Earl of Clarendon (who quotes a letter of Barillon, the French Ambassador); Sir John Dalrymple and the Ellis correspondence; Miss Foxcroft; Halifax; King James himself; John Heneage Jesse and Bishop Kennett; Lingard, Sir Richard Lodge, and Narcissus Luttrell; Macaulay, Sir James Mackintosh (or his editor), and James Macpherson; Ranke, Rapin, Reresby, Smollett, Temperley—they are all in a tale. But not all, unfortunately, in the same tale. The king ‘took away’ the Great Seal; he was prepared l'emporter au besoin; he destroyed it; he told someone to throw it in the Thames; he flung it into the river himself; he gave it to the queen (who presumably took it to France with her); it was carried off by Jeffreys; it was delivered to the king by Jeffreys; the king took the seal and Jeffreys took the ‘purse’ —here truly is sufficient variety. The writers, in fact, agree in little save in telling a story of some kind about the Great Seal and giving no authority for it. James himself in a document of 1693 says merely (or his officials say for him) that he destroyed it. (The document is in fact an order for a (second) new seal, to be engraved apparently by one of the continental members of that Roettier family whom we are to mention below.) The story most generally accepted has been that the king threw it in the Thames during the first stage of his flight on 11 December, to which a certain number add sensational sequels: according to these it was recovered later in a fisherman's net and ‘restored to the Government.’

Research Article
Copyright © The Society of Antiquaries of London 1943

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page 1 note 2 Burnet, Gilbert, Bishop of Salisbury, History of his own time, 1724-1734.Google Scholar

page 1 note 3 Rapin-Thoyras, Paul de, History of England (transl. Tindal, N.), 1732, 1733.Google Scholar

page 1 note 4 Foxcroft, H. C., Life and Letters of Sir George Savile, Bart., first Marquis of Halifax…, 1898.Google Scholar See also her edition of Burnet, 1902.

page 1 note 5 Among contemporary writers who seem to be silent on the point are Sir John Bramston, Evelyn, Romney (Henry Sidney), and Stebbing in his continuation (1707) of Sandford's Genealogical History. But I should add that a number of Reports of the Historical Manuscripts Commission (for instance, those on Buccleuch, Dartmouth, Fleming, Kenyon, Leeds, Leyborne Popham, Portland, and Stopford Sackville MSS.) have also been searched without success.

page 1 note 6 Historical Manuscripts Commission Report on Lindsey MSS., p. 454.Google Scholar

page 2 note 1 Historical Manuscripts Commission, Stuart Papers preserved at Windsor Castle, i, p. 77.Google Scholar ‘When we were convinced that it was absolutely necessary for us to withdraw for a time from our Kingdom…we have thought fit to destroy our Great Seal of our Kingdom of England.’ Sir Lodge, Richard (Political History of England, ed. Hunt, and Poole, , viii (1910), p. 295)Google Scholar finds in this support for the story of the Thames: for which I can see no justification.

page 2 note 2 I have resisted here the temptation to a fascinating by-path: but it would be interesting to know how long the exiled Stuarts continued to have a Great Seal and how far evidence of its form survives in the shape of impressions. The document quoted mentions an earlier Great Seal made for James, after his departure from England, by the same engraver; which was ‘not so beautiful’ as was desirable. The papers of families known to have had grants of ‘Jacobite Peerages’ (see G. E. C., Complete Peerage, new edition, vol. i, App. F) might produce some tangible evidence as to these, and perhaps later, seals.

page 2 note 3 Burnet, Campbell, Dalrymple, Jesse, Macaulay, and Temperley.

page 2 note 4 Burnet, Campbell, Dalrymple, and Jesse.

page 2 note 5 Jesse. Dalrymple says that it was ‘brought to London’, and Campbell that it was handed over to ‘the Lords of the Council’.

page 2 note 6 He had a Warrant for £212. 19s. 2d. (Calendar of Treasury Books, viii, p. 628) on 3 March 1686, for his labour in ‘making, graving, blanching and finishing our new Great Seal in October last’ after deduction of, £30. 8s. 4d. for 115 ounces 17 pennyweight of silver which he had received for the said seal.

page 2 note 7 The name appears under numerous variations of spelling.

page 2 note 8 See Calendar of Treasury Papers, 1556/7-1697, p. 53: under date 1689.

page 2 note 9 Ibid., giving the date of their patent as 1669: but a later report (Treasury Papers, 1697-1701/2, p. 195)Google Scholar says they had an earlier grant in 1661.

page 2 note 10 Calendar of Treasury Books, viii, pp. 291 et al.

page 2 note 11 Treasury Papers, loc. cit.

page 3 note 1 They seem to have been finally ‘turned out’ of their appointments, and of the house, in 1697 (Calendar of Treasury Books, xi, p. 358: xii, pp. 75 and 186, and xiii, p. 40. See also Calendar of Treasury Papers, 16971702, pp. 195, 437)Google Scholar.

page 3 note 2 Numismatic Chronicle, iii, 158.

page 3 note 3 See D.N.B., vol. xlix (1897), andGoogle ScholarForrer, L., Biographical Dictionary of Medallists (1904).Google Scholar I am indebted to Mr. A. J. Collins for a note.

page 3 note 4 The grant of 1661 is said to have been made to them because the king had experience of their skill.

page 3 note 5 B, A.. and Wyon, Allan, The Great Seals of England, 1887.Google Scholar

page 3 note 6 My previous addenda to Wyon are printed in Antiq. Journ. xi (1931),Google Scholar xvi (1936), and xviii (1938), and in Archaeologia, lxxxv (1935)Google Scholar.

page 3 note 7 Their elder brother, father, and grandfather all in turn had held the office of seal-engraver to the Crown.

page 4 note 1 If it is so (and Campbell is the only authority Wyon cites) there is here a good example of the way in which a story grows by relation: for Wyon's version contains some details which do not appear in Campbell nor, so far as I know, anywhere else.

page 4 note 2 , John, Campbell, Lord, Lives of the Lord Chancellors and Keepers of the Great Seal of England. I have used the fourth edition (1857), vol. iv, pp. 404, 405, 412.Google Scholar

page 4 note 3 Burnet (editions already cited and edition (containing the History of James II only) published at Oxford, 1852) says ‘some months after’. Macaulay has changed ‘some’ into ‘many’. Miss Foxcroft, in the Supplement to her edition, p. 301, prints an interesting variant from Burnet's original Memoirs— ‘it seems he disposed of the great seal; for it was cast into the river above Fox-Hall; …but whether it was dropped there on design or lost is not yet known.’ The ‘not yet’ must be a more or less contemporary note.

page 5 note 1 See, for example, in the narrative of Halifax (printed by Miss Foxcroft in her Life of Halifax, cited above, ii, 58) the account of the interrogation of Jeffreys. I am indebted t o Miss Foxcroft for a note on this point.

page 5 note 2 , Barillon, quoted in Correspondence of Henry Hyde, Earl of Clarendon (1828), ii, 223, n.Google Scholar

page 5 note 3 P.C. 2, numbers 72 and 73. Like all the other records cited here, these are at the moment not available in London: and I am indebted to my colleague Mr. H. C. Johnson for making the necessary search.

page 5 note 4 The relevant volumes of State Papers Domestic have been calendared.

page 5 note 5 C. 66/3325. Th e only entries of earlier date are two proclamations of 28 February; and the earliest entry on the face of the roll- is dated 4 March. I am indebted for this search also to Mr. H. C. Johnson.

page 6 note 1 P.C. 2/73, p. 27.

page 6 note 2 I am again indebted to Mr. Johnson for this note.

page 6 note 3 Calendar of Treasury Books, ix, p. 88, under date 22 April: see also p. 273, under dates 3, 8, and 11 October; and p. 705 under date 16 June 1690.

page 6 note 4 pp. III, 140.

page 6 note 5 P.C. 2/73, p. 125.

page 6 note 6 He also notes one example of use after the queen's death: see below, p. 13, f.n. 2.

page 7 note 1 pp. III, 141.

page 7 note 2 The Seal-impression of James is from a document dated 19 March 1686 in the possession of The Worshipful Company of Carpenters: I am much indebted to the Clerk of the Company, Mr. H. C. Osborne, M.C., for his assistance. That of William and Mary is from a document dated 5 April 1690 in the possession of the Corporation of Hereford: I must record my grateful thanks to the Town Clerk, Mr. T. B. Feltham, who was good enough to have photographs specially made for me.

page 7 note 3 Wyon has unwittingly obscured the matter further by giving the diameter of James's seal as 5·6 in. and that of William and Mary's as 5·9. This may have been due to his measuring casts—or perhaps even photographs—instead of original impressions.

page 7 note 4 On a document dated 15 May 1691 kindly put at my disposal by the Dean and Chapter of Peterborough: I have to thank their Treasurer, our Fellow, Mr. W. T. Mellows, for his good offices.

page 8 note 1 See my articles in Antiquaries Journal and Archaeologia already cited.

page 8 note 2 A Great Seal of King Edward VII was still in use in the King's Remembrancer's Department in 1935.

page 8 note 3 The Brétigny Seal of Edward III, which had been altered for Richard II, was used by Henry IV, and for that matter, his son and grandson. Wyon also states that Henry V I during his brief restoration (October 1470-April 1471) used the seal of Edward IV.

I take the opportunity to record a new and particularly curious example of the same thing which came to my notice, while this article was in the press, through the kindness of our Fellow Mr. Herbert Wood and Mr. A. G. Madan, Curator of the Torquay Museum. From an Exemplification of a Recovery at present in the possession of that Museum it appears that so late as November 1660, six months after the Restoration, and on a document otherwise completely restored to pre-Revolution form (i.e. in the use of legal writing and the Latin language), the Court of Common Pleas could still use the Commonwealth Seal, showing the Parliament and Map of England!

page 9 note 1 I am indebted to my colleague Mr. Charles Johnson for checking various entries in Treasury Books (T. 53/10, pp. 106 and 392; T. 60/3, p. 34) which show orders to pay John and James Roettier. But a memorandum dated 2 July 1689 (Treasury Papers, 1556/7-1697, p. 53)Google Scholar states that the work was done by John's two sons without his assistance.

page 9 note 2 In the possession of the Dean and Chapter. Owing to war precautions I have not been able to check it.

page 9 note 3 Catalogue of Seals, vol. i, p. 69, n.

page 9 note 4 In the present reproduction the legend has been blocked out.

page 10 note 1 According to the Dictionary of National Biography Clint was appointed, towards the end of his short life, Seal Engraver to Queen Victoria: but this would not appear to imply any connexion with the designing of the Great Seal. According to Wyon (p. 190) the ‘Chief Engraver’ at this time was Benjamin Wyon.

page 10 note 2 This theory has the additional merit, for those who admire the work of the Roettiers, that it enables us to acquit them of the ridiculous additions to the seal of James II, which may be attributed to another hand.

page 10 note 3 See passages from Treasury Books already cited.

page 11 note 1 See my article in Archaeologia already cited.

page 11 note 2 Some support for the theory that moulding and casting were used comes from the wording of a mysterious Roettier account for the making of a Great Seal printed so long ago as 1840 in the Numismatic Chronicle (ii, 198) from a document in private possession. This refers to the ‘making of the Molds and casting of the Great Seale at several times’. I call this document (which is not cited by Wyon) mysterious because the alleged date (1666/7) for the making of a new Great Seal and breaking of the old one does not fit with any of the other evidence at present available. But this again is a by-path which must not be explored at the moment.

page 11 note 3 I do not think it would often be possible to get a satisfactory casting from an impression made in the ordinary way: they are seldom perfect.

page 11 note 4 An interesting comment on these suppositions is furnished by the fact that A. B. Wyon himself produced (see his plates) three successive seals for Queen Victoria which are practically identical in design.

page 12 note 1 Calendar of Treasury Books, ix, p. 103: from King's Warrant Book, xiv, p. 54.

page 12 note 2 Ireland (? four), Scotland, Wales (eight or nine), divers Palatinates, the Courts of Exchequer, King's Bench, and Common Pleas, and a certain number of plantations or colonies. See my article in Archaeologla already cited.

page 12 note 3 I am judging by the seals of later reigns.

page 12 note 4 There is at present no case in which a complete set of examples for every reign has been recorded for any one series of ‘deputed’ seals; and many are known by only one or two examples over a period of centuries. Moreover, in some series there is known to have been a violent sudden change; the Exchequer, e.g., substituted the seated for the equestrian figure of the sovereign in the reign of Mary: see Archaeologia, loc. cit. Any general statement, therefore, in regard to their devices must be to some extent inferential.

page 12 note 5 I describe it from a cast in the possession of the Society of Antiquaries: I have not seen an original impression.

page 12 note 6 See Archaeologia, loc. cit.

page 12 note 7 Ibid., pl. xcix.

page 12 note 8 My attention was first called to this by Professor Robert H. George, of Brown University, Rhode Island.

page 12 note 9 Calendar of Treasury Books, viii, p. 2016.

page 12 note 10 Ibid., p. 953.

page 12 note 11 Ibid. 775, 1199.

page 12 note 12 P.C. 2/71, p. 27.

page 12 note 13 It is much to be desired that some one having access to collections on the spot should investigate the possible survival of (e.g.) grants of land showing examples of American and other Colonial Seals of all periods.

page 13 note 1 I have not at present found orders for any save the Great Seal proper. That for Barbados, at any rate, was still in use, with the two figures (see Archaeologia, lxxxv) in the reign of Queen Anne: But I have not prolonged inquiries into this part of the subject.

page 13 note 2 Calendar of Treasury Books, x, pp. 1167, 1193, 1203. Documents of earlier date in that year (for instance one in the possession of the City of London which our Fellow Dr. Thomas was good enough to produce for me) carry the two-figure seal.

page 13 note 3 The impression of James's Seal is (in a fresh reproduction) that already cited, in the possession of the Carpenters' Company: that of William's is from a document at the Public Record Office connected with the First Partition Treaty—State Papers Foreign Treaties (S.P. 108), 332: which deserves a longer note than I have here space for.

page 13 note 4 Apparently this, or approximately this, sum was the usual amount charged: it is the exact charge for engraving (apart from extras) in the ‘mysterious’ account (1666/7) already cited from the Numismatic Chronicle and within a few pounds of the Roettiers' bill in 1686 and 1689.

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