How King John (and others) signed a document

In 2015, the Royal Mint released a two-pound coin commemorating the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta. It showed King John on a throne, holding a scroll, presumably the Magna Carta but possibly his wife’s birthday card, in one hand and a quill in the other, making a see-what-I’ve-got gesture. It looks like he’s just used the quill to sign the scroll or is just about to.

On either side of him are men, one looking warlike, the other (for lack of a better suggestion) scribelike. Or at least armorless. They have nothing to do with the discussion, but I thought I’d mention them since the artist thought they were worth including.

Irrelevant photo: Sunset from the cliffs near Tintagel.

The coin kicked off a small storm among the limited group of people who care about these things. King John didn’t sign the Magna Carta with a quill, they said. He didn’t sign it at all. What he did was put his seal to it.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, the Royal Mint said (in not so many words), but the picture wasn’t meant to give a “literal account of what actually occurred.”

So, count that as a success, then, because it’s not a literal account. No geese were harmed in the signing of the Magna Carta. It was signed with John’s Great Seal.

Why add the quill then? Because no modern person slotting the coin into a machine to pay for overpriced hospital parking would recognize a seal, but we all know that a quill’s an era-appropriate version of the pen. Plus the seal would be too small to show in the picture anyway. John’s Great Seal wasn’t all that great, no matter what he said when he chatted up women (or men–I wouldn’t know) in the era-appropriate equivalent of the bar.

Not that the modern person slotting the coin into etc. looks at the picture. She or he is too busy looking at the amount of money that privatized hospital parking costs these days. Still, artists like to think their work gets noticed. Why else do people post things on the internet? We suffer from the delusion that someone will notice. And care.

But back to our point: quill, not seal.

As it turns out, the Great Seal wasn’t even affixed by John’s own dainty hands. He had officials who did that for him and they wouldn’t have done it at the time the Magna Carta was agreed. When John and his barons met, they’d have made a verbal agreement, and and it would have been written down later and authenticated by pressing John’s seal into wax. The sealing wouldn’t have been any sort of occasion. 

The pressing of a seal into wax, in case it isn’t obvious, is the origin of the phrase sealing wax. And just for the record, there’s no such thing as ceiling wax, even though floor wax is real.  

How did anyone get an accurate record of the agreement John and the barons came to? Good question. Probably from a scribe or two making notes, but that’s a guess. In the case of the Magna C., it didn’t matter if they got the details right because neither side meant to abide by it. In other cases, though, I can imagine all sorts of disasters getting written into key documents.

That probably says more about my notes than it does about medieval scribes.

But let’s talk about seals and signing. We have nothing better to do with ourselves and it will keep us from hanging out on the street corner.

The first Great Seal in England comes from the reign of Edward the Confessor, the (sort of) last of the Anglo-Saxon kings, who died in 1066. He’s the guy whose death set off a scramble for the throne that ended in William the Conqueror seizing and holding it. The seal carried Edward’s picture and was intended to show that he stood behind whatever document it was pressed into.

When Billy the Conqueror became king, he had his own seal made, with his own picture on it. And so on, with a few exceptions, down through the line of kings.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the word signing was first used–or first recorded, anyway–by John’s son Henry III: “sened wiþ vre seel,” which translates to “signed with our seal.”

Not that you needed a translation–you can’t get much clearer than sened wiþ vre seel–but someone out there might be a bit dense.

By the twelfth century, documents were being not just stamped with wax and a seal but closed with them. If you wanted to read them, you had to either break the seal or be sly enough to lift it and put if back down without damaging it.

As the role of government grew, monarchs adopted a Private Seal (which they capitalized because it was Important) for their own use, leaving the Great Seal in the hands of the government, so it could stamp monarchical authority onto papers without monarchical hands (or quite possibly thoughts) ever being involved. 

If a document’s important enough, it still gets a seal. In the U.K., it get the Great Seal of the Realm, which is not to be confused with a very large creature the British throw fish to. It’s a stamp to press into wax.

That may sound hopelessly quaint and British, but other countries have their own seals, including the U.S. That doesn’t make the process any less quaint, but it’s multiculturally quaint. In the U.S., at least, certain papers have to be notarized–certified by a person who will go through the motions of ensuring that the person signing them is actually that person–and the notary will use a seal, either a rubber stamp or a gizmo that leaves a much more impressive imprint on the paper. Britain also has notaries, but they have a different role and you don’t need to know about it.

With that out of the way, let’s go back to that quote about signing with a seal. It tells us that signing didn’t yet mean scrawling ink across an era-appropriate version of paper. The verb to sign comes from Latin by way of Old French by way of Oh Never Mind, and it meant to mark. Or any one of several related acts, including to mark with a sign. The idea that a signature is a person’s name written by her or his own self came later, in the sixteenth century. Before that, what we’d call a signature was called a sign-manual. In other words, the seal was what you’d expect. A signature would do, but it was a different act–related, but not the expected one.

Signatures were common in the Jewish community as early as the second century C.E. and among Muslims in 622. In Europe, they began to be used in the sixth century but became common in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when increased literacy meant that written agreements became more common and developing an intricate, illegible signature became a sign of–well, something. A good education. Style. Couth.

The tradition of an illiterate person signing a document with an X may have come from the ninth and tenth century scribes who validated documents with the sign of the cross.

In the seventeenth century, the Statute of Frauds required contracts to be written, dated, and signed–with signatures. And that pretty well sealed it: Signatures were on their way to becoming primary.

69 thoughts on “How King John (and others) signed a document

  1. Did you know that many women had their own seals? They were more oval in shape than men’s, which were round. If they were depicted on their seal they were shown standing, while men were seated. Seals are fascinating. We still seal envelopes, although it’s gum these days.

    Liked by 6 people

    • I didn’t know that, and it’s fascinating. Isn’t it odd, though, how in so many small areas of a range of cultures we humans underscore differences between male and female. I’m sure it seemed inevitable that women’s seals would be oval and men’s round, because the shapes were more feminine and masculine. And that women would sit and men stand.

      A potter friend works in the Japanese tradition, where a pair of tea cups are different sizes, larger for the man, smaller for the woman. It seemed reasonable enough to him, and to his wife. The woman’s smaller than the man, generally speaking. On the other hand, neither of them had ever shared a pot of tea with me. Small as I am, I can be a real hog about the stuff.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. I give this a seal of approval. But you didn’t mention the Chinese chop.We probably have to wait for Marco polo et al on that. But the Chinese eating utensil derives from the stick with the owner’s mark carved on the bottom end.It was inked and pressed to the scroll

    Liked by 4 people

    • I also missed mentioning the Japanese seals, which a potter friend still uses to sign his work. It all looked like it would take me too far afield–even for my wandering mind. If I run off in too many directions, a post will fall apart completely.

      I didn’t know that about chopsticks, though. I’ve known both words but never thought to wonder about the overlap. Thanks.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. THank you for another amusing and informative post, Ellen. When Mrs P and I decided to change our 3 piece suite a couple of years ago we found one with different sized armchairs – she is quite small and likes to sit with her feet on the ground. We both drink tea from mugs, though.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Oh, artists and their license to play around with stuff! John probably couldn’t read or write (that’s what monks are for) and none of his noble could either but everyone could see a seal and know what it meant. The people who were witnesses to the ceremony were far more important to the verification of the act than the written document – they saw it and remembered it!

    Liked by 3 people

    • I hadn’t thought about the importance of the witnesses. I’ve been reading David Horspool’s The English Rebel, and although it’s not his point it’s given me a sense of how small a group the English aristocracy was, and how inter-related. So yes, the individuals who stood as witnesses would matter. Thanks for bringing that up.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I remember one story of a boy being witness to a donation of land to a monastery, who was given a good hard punch to make him remember the event. When there was a despite years later about that land he was produces (now an an old man) and said he remembered the donation well beacuse he remembered being punched at the time. I don’t think they hit the adults!

        Liked by 1 person

        • The story fits right in with a tradition here–one I assume is Cornish but for all I know may be typical of Britain in general: beating the bounds. The people of the parish walk the perimeter, stopping at various markers and bumping the kids’ heads against them so they’ll remember them.

          The British traditions weren’t easy on kids, were they?

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Ha ha, another seal of approval from me, Ellen! I think illiteracy was rife in those days. I’ve looked back at two of my great-grandparents’ marriage certificates, and they’d signed with an X. However did people function in society if they couldn’t read and write?

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s fascinating–and amazing that you still have the documents. I’d guess that not as many things were text based, and for those that were it wouldn’t have been unusual to find someone to read the text to you, or at least tell you what it said. Of course, you had to hope they were telling you the truth. I’ve read that medieval pubs and stores had pictures on their signs so that anyone could understand what they were without having to read.

      Liked by 1 person

        • I haven’t been there, but I have heard about it.

          The difference, I think, about being illiterate in even the fairly recent past and being illiterate now is that there was no shame in it. It would’ve been, I think, like not knowing a foreign language or understanding physics. You might see them as useful skills you wished you had or you might see them as something only an egghead would bother with, but either way not knowing was about your history and your class and wasn’t taking to reflect on your intelligence or competence.

          I think.

          Liked by 1 person

            • I was just reading about Keir Hardie, the first parliamentary leader of the Labour Party, who started work at eight, was the sole support of his family for at least some of his childhood, became a miner at (if I remember right–I’d have to check) fourteen or so, and by seventeen (or so) had taught himself to read and write. He never did go to school. He was born in 1856. Clearly, he saw literacy as something that would make a difference tohis life, but I expect in not being able to go to school he wasn’t atypical for his time, place, and class.

              I stumbled into the story in the process of researching something that seems completely irrelevant to it (hats in the House of Commons, of all things), but it’s stayed with me in a way many tales don’t. I need to read more about him. The connection to hats is that he wore a working man’s flat cap to the House of Commons at a time when top hats were expected. I’m sure he caused six different kinds of scandal.

              Liked by 2 people

  6. I’m a Notary in the US, and we used to have those wonderful big seals that you used to emboss the document. Looked wonderfully impressive and important. Then my state made us go over to using an inked stamp instead, because the embossed seal wouldn’t photocopy.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I always imagined scribes, when writing and sealing/signing official documents saying, “You know, this should have been included. Hey, why not? No one will notice, and if they do it’ll be too late to do anything about, everyone will know it’s in there.”

    Liked by 2 people

  8. We still have corporate seals to go on deeds executed on behalf of corporations. If the person signing did not gave his seal with him at closing, the closer draws a circle and writes corporate seal inside the circle. Or there would be a generic seal that says corporate seal which would be used.
    And then someone would always make the joke that if you don’t have a seal, a walrus would do. Followed by annoying laughter.

    Old traditions die slowly. Speaking of that, all the royal pomp over the Trump visit was impressive. I just kept wondering how much that was costing the British taxpayers, money that could have gone toward health care. But pomp plays better on tv than health care.

    Gave a good week.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That business about drawing a circle where the seal should be really does say how seriously everyone takes it, doesn’t it? Just bring in a six-year-old and a box of crayons and we’ll prove how important this all is.

      Pomp, money, Trump, and health care. Yes indeed. And just to add to the expense, he had to be moved everywhere (or so I’ve heard) by helicopter so he wouldn’t see the protesters or the giant angry orange baby balloon they were flying.


  9. Ellen, oh my word, thanks for finding me and commenting on my post, otherwise I don’t know that I would have found you. And boy, am I glad I hopped on over here. What a brilliantly entertaining history lesson (the comments are equally so to the point that I was hesitant to comment for fear that I could not measure up to the level of intellectual humor that I have now myself in the presence of). And for some reason, all this talk of seals and signatures and strange rituals that strange humans perform (we are all strange humans, indeed), it reminded me of the rituals of promotions in the US Army (I am an Army wife) that I thought worth sharing as you may appreciate it (or perhaps you may already be familiar with it, but I will share anyway in case there are any curious readers).

    When a soldier receives a promotion to the next rank, they go through a “pinning” ceremony. The rank insignias on their uniforms used to be actual pins (they are now velcro patches which coincidentally most end up sewing on because the velcro falls off in the wash and gets lost and these tiny little patches cost a disproportionate amount of money for their teeny tiny size and actual production cost). In any event, said soldier usually chooses a loved one (a family member) or a respected mentor of some sort to “pin” their next rank. Part of this ritual is that the person “pinning” the soldier would punch the pin as hard they could into the soldier’s chest so as to puncture them with the stick part of the pin. Why? I have no idea, really. Some form of display of bravado? Leaving a “red badge of courage”? I may have to investigate further as to the meaning behind this strange ritual. But I suppose it left a “seal” of some sort on the soldier’s chest that indicated they are now higher ranking military personnel than the moment before the “pinning” occurred.

    Thank you for sharing your wonderfully post and your fabulous sense of humor with the world!


    Liked by 2 people

    • Apologies. You got trapped in the spam folder and I only just found you. Your tale about pinning makes me wince. I could see where you’d want to pick your pinner very carefully, and why the introduction of velcro–useless as it is over time–would be a blessing.

      Anyway, I’m glad you’re here, I’m sorry to have ignored you–and all the more so since your comment is flattering as hell. I hope WordPress’s bad manners won’t stop you from dropping by again. I really do need to check my spam folder more often.


  10. At least a seal would be easier to consistently reproduce than a signature. I hope you noticed that I affixed my image (gravatar) to this blog post, an indication that I enjoyed the post very much.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Your image is there, and I’m happy to see that you haven’t slipped off that roof yet

      Since delivery drivers have started showing up with electronic gizmos that we’re supposed to sign with a fingertip, the idea of signatures has started to dissolve entirely. I take a perverse kind of pleasure in scrawling something completely unrelated to writing in the little box. I think I’ve reverted to being a four-year-old, because it looks like a four-year-old’s idea of a signature.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Of ships and shoes and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings–great post! I have an electronic signature for work that I can give people for important documents. I tried to use my best handwriting, because I’m a very sloppy cursive writer!

    Liked by 2 people

    • My handwriting’s always been terrible and my signature falls well short of impressive. I tried, briefly, to come up with something that looked vaguely more adult than the one I’ve got but I can’t say I wasted much of my life on it. By the time I’d opened my first checking account, I figured I couldn’t change it anyway, because the one I had was officially mine. In short, I betcha my signature’s worse than yours is.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Pingback: Choosing the Right School | Stevie Turner

Talk to me

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.