Dancing on the Seal-ing: The Royal Seals of Scotland
in the Twelfth & Thirteenth Centuries
by Laura Bailey
When I first began my research on the royal seals of Scotland, I had to repeatedly convince friends and family that I wasn’t studying semi-aquatic marine mammals. Instead, my work focused on wax impressions that might have been attached to documents such as charters. Less cute but, to my mind, incredibly interesting. So, why did I want to study seals? What fascinated me was the way in which a seal was both a practical object, used almost as an alternative to a written signature, and a symbolic object, which could embody the presence of the sealer and assert something about how they wished to be perceived.
Seals became more and more important during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as the ruling elite began to rely increasingly on written documentation such as charters and writs.1 Seals could be applied to a document to guarantee its authenticity, thus helping to develop trust in the written form. Yet the physical object of the seal itself, and the iconography that it presented, was also important: seals were made to be seen and touched. When I viewed a few of the surviving Scottish royal seal impressions at the British Library, I was struck by the physicality of these objects – their weight and presence.
Brigitte Bedos-Rezak has demonstrated how the iconography of seals could play into ideas of identity and power.2 Seals could function as signs that materialised the presence of the sealer, and also expressed a particular identity through their iconography. My research aimed to apply these ideas in the Scottish context by considering the design of the Scottish royal seals, how this design changed over time and, crucially, what this could mean for ideas about the Scottish kingship. As Dauvit Broun has shown, the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were a critical period for developing ideas of a sovereign Scottish kingship, and for ideas of ‘Scotland’ as a single people, place, and kingdom.3 Could the royal seals tell us anything more?
When surveying the royal seals from Alexander I to Alexander III, what is remarkable is the stability of the seal design. With the exception of the minority seal of Alexander III, every seal employs very similar iconography: the enthroned king with sword and orb, and an image of the king on horseback.4 Each of these elements draws upon existing strategies of representation in order to assert something about the royal persona. The image of the enthroned king can be seen on seals and other media throughout the medieval period and beyond. The sword emblematises royal justice, whilst the orb suggests that the king is divinely sanctioned to rule. Similarly, the equestrian image is found frequently on royal seals and those of lay magnates, asserting the sealer’s military superiority and their position within the developing concept of knighthood. What is clear is that these seals are not trying to express a personal identity for each king. Instead, the iconography functions through imitation, which associates the Scottish kings with existing ideas of royal authority, and by replication, which asserts continuity of lineage and legitimate authority.
However, whilst the design of the seals is generally stable, there are some developments over time. Subtle changes, such as the increasing use of ornamentation and heraldic devices, reflect the integration of these Scottish seals into wider trends in seal design. The most significant change, the addition of a crown on the seal of Alexander III, can be linked to increasing concerns that the status of the Scottish kingship should be considered as equal to that of any other ruler -particularly the English king. In this context, seals should be viewed alongside other narratives of royal power, such as ceremony and history writing.
The significance of the royal seal and its design becomes increasingly clear if we think about the developing role of documentation in the Scottish kingdom throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. More documents meant more seals, which in turn meant the increasing visibility of a constructed image of Scottish kingship. Dauvit Broun has emphasised the importance of the increasing presence of royal authority, and the idea of obedience to the king of the Scots, in nascent ideas of a Scottish nation. In this context, it is interesting to consider how Scottish royal seals might have played a role in the development of the idea of a Scottish nation, not through their expression of ‘Scottish-ness’ but instead through their assertion of royal authority.
I have here briefly touched upon on the possibilities offered by the study of seals for the exploration of ideas about people, authority, and nationhood. In the future, I hope to be able to delve further into the question of how seals might be used to explore the development of the royal authority and the Scottish nation. In the meantime, my doctoral research focuses on literary rather than iconographical representation, exploring the representation of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales in Old French literature of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
Laura Bailey is an AHRC-funded PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. Laura’s current research focuses on the representation of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales in Old French literature of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
1 See M. T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307 (Oxford, 2013). For the Scottish context, see C. Neville, Land, Law and People in Medieval Scotland (Edinburgh, 2010).
2 B. M. Bedos-Rezak, When Ego was Imago: Signs of Identity in the Middle Ages (Leiden; Boston, 2011).
3 D. Broun, ‘Becoming a Nation: Scotland in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries’, in H. Tsurushima, ed., Nations in Medieval Britain (Donington, 2010), pp. 86-103.
4 For a study of the minority seal of Alexander III, see G. G. Simpson, ‘Kingship in Miniature: A Seal of Minority of Alexander III, 1249-1257.’, in A. Grant and K. J. Stringer, eds., Medieval Scotland: Crown, Lordship and Community: Essays Presented to G.W.S. Barrow (Edinburgh, 1993), pp. 131-139.
Ideas for Further Reading
- Bedos-Rezak, B. M., When Ego was Imago: Signs of Identity in the Middle Ages (Leiden; Boston, 2011).
- Broun, D., ‘Becoming a Nation: Scotland in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries’, in H. Tsurushima, ed., Nations in Medieval Britain (Donington, 2010), pp. 86-103.
- Scottish Independence and the Idea of Britain from the Picts to Alexander III (Edinburgh, 2007).
- Clanchy, M. T., From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307 (Oxford, 2013).
- Neville, C., Land, Law and People in Medieval Scotland (Edinburgh, 2010).
- Schofield, Phillipp R., ed., Seals and Their Context in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 2015).
- Simpson, G. G., ‘Kingship in Miniature: A Seal of Minority of Alexander III, 1249-1257’, in A. Grant and K. J. Stringer, eds., Medieval Scotland: Crown, Lordship and Community: Essays Presented to G. W. S. Barrow (Edinburgh, 1993), pp. 131-139.
- Solway, S., ed., Medieval Coins and Seals: Constructing Identity, Signifying Power (Belgium, 2015).
- W. de Gray Birch, History of Scottish Seals from the Eleventh to the Seventeenth Century, Vol I: The Royal Seals of Scotland (Stirling, 1905).