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.