A Crash Course on Wax Seals

Our latest Searchroom Curiosity Cabinet features a selection of wax seals and seal matrixes from our collection. For those of you who can’t visit to see the display in person, we thought we’d share a bit more information here.

Wax seals were first used in the Middle Ages, although the Roman’s practiced a similar method with bitumen and the Ancient Mesopotamians made seal-indents in clay tablets. One of the first English examples of a wax seal being used in an official capacity was by Edward the Confessor c.1042-1066.

People used their coat of arms, family crest, or any other iconography that was important to them. Mythological symbols were particularly common.

An ‘applied seal’ is when the wax is applied directly to the page. However, the seal can also be arranged to hang on a tag or cord which is known as a pendant seal. Larger pendant seals are sometimes encased in cases, called skippet’s, which protect them from damage.

The size of the seal often correlated with the importance and status of the person whom it belonged to. This Great Seal for Queen Victoria, enclosed in its own metal skippet, is the perfect example!

As well as being used to authenticate the document, applied seals were useful in making sure that letters were not tampered with – a broken seal was a sure sign that the contents of your letter were no longer private! Today they are mostly used for decoration on posh stationery, such as invitations.

The wax impression is created using a ‘seal matrix’, which features a negative image; this is pressed into the wax to produce the positive image. The most popular type of seal matrix is the signet ring, evidence for which dates back as far as Ancient Egypt. Signet rings have also been used as symbols of wealth and power throughout history and were often destroyed when their owner died to prevent forgeries.

This seal matrix, dated to the early 14th century seal matrix, was dug up near the Little Dunmow Priory almost 100 years ago. It probably belonged to one of the priors.

If you want to see the full display, including a soap box full of seals and a 17th century seal matrix, it will feature in the Curiosity Cabinet until November. The Great seal of Queen Victoria is really something impressive to see in person – our photo does not do justice to its size!

ERO’s Cabinet of Curiosities: Travel Journal from 18th-Century Summer Holiday


Abboristwith is a poor wretched Old Town, a Sea Port which makes it very well supply’d with fish … they might have a very great trade here but they are a very indolent Lazy kind of People here

These scathing comments about the town of Aberystwyth are taken from a journal of a tour through England and Wales in the 18th century (D/DMy 15M50/1325).  Although unimpressed by the town, the author did at least enjoy the view from nearby Rhugo (?) Hill from whence you have the finest prospect in the World … so that you have the View of St. George’s Channel almost all the way.

Digital image of page from handwritten travel journal
Travel journal opened to page showing description of Aberystwyth, 1741
(D/DMy 15M50/1325)

The diary begins in Oxford and the journey continues through Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Shropshire before entering into Wales via Hay on Wye.  The writer then visits most of the Welsh counties (except for what was then Monmouthshire and Glamorganshire), returning to England via ‘West Chester’ (Chester) and continuing through Lancashire and Yorkshire and then south to Hertfordshire and London.  On the way, he inspects castles, cathedrals and great houses ranging from the well-known (Powis Castle and Erddig, both now owned by the National Trust) to ‘Choffden Court’ (Shobdon Court, Herefordshire, now demolished). 

The journal makes no reference to Essex, but the author is presumably one of the Mildmay family of Chelmsford, since it came to us with a collection of their family papers.  We do not know with whom he travelled or the cost of any of his lodgings or meals – sadly this sort of information simply isn’t recorded. 

Only the day and month are recorded; we knew that it took place in late July and ended in late September, but could not be certain of the year.  Internet searches (not possible when the document was first deposited) enabled us to narrow down the period when the diary was written.

A reference to the then Bishop of Banger, Dr Herring, meant that we knew the author must have visited sometime between 1737 and 1743.  Checking against a perpetual calendar suggested the diary was written in 1741, but further cross-checking in Cheney’s Handbook of Dates indicates it was actually 1738.

The later 18th century saw a growing interest in tourism within Britain, made easier in part by improvements to roads through turnpike trusts and encouraged by an increase in guidebooks.  The volume is therefore early evidence of this enthusiasm for travel.

Colour engraving of Chelmsford Road, 1806
Chelmsford Road, 1806, published by M. Jones (I/Mb 74/1/144)

The document is on display in the Curiosity Cabinet in the Searchoom until September.

You can view the Curiosity Cabinet and more on our next public Searchroom tour, on 5 September at 10:30 a.m. This 45-minute tour will show you how to get the very best from the Record Office’s Searchroom and is ideal if you are just starting your research. Find out more and book online.

ERO’s Cabinet of Curiosities: Old St Paul’s Cathedral

Archivist Lawrence Barker has added a new item to our Cabinet of Curiosities. Read on to find out more about one of the antiquarian treasures in our Local Studies Library.

At the end of January, we celebrated our Local Studies Library moving into the 21st century when we added the book catalogue to Essex Archives Online.

So, for the next document featured in our Curiosity Cabinet, we thought we would choose one of the antiquarian treasures in the Library, our copy of Monasticon Anglicanum compiled by William Dugdale, originally published in Latin in 1655 but republished in 1718 in an abbreviated English version. 

Image of the front page of text Monasticum Anglicanum

One of the most intriguing features of the book is the inclusion of engravings of cathedrals and collegiate churches as they appeared at the time, including old St Paul’s Cathedral in all its medieval glory ten years before the great fire of London destroyed it.  From 604, when Mellitus was made first Bishop of London, up to 1846 when it transferred to the Diocese of Rochester, Essex was part of the Diocese of London.  So, St Paul’s was the cathedral of Essex for well over a thousand years.

Drawing of the north side of exterior of old St Paul's Cathedral

A view from the book of the north side of the cathedral (above) shows the eastern half still sporting its Decorated Gothic windows, featuring early Geometric plate tracery dating from the second half of the 13th century.  The view of the east end (below left) shows that there was once a fine rose window echoing those of the transepts of Notre Dame in Paris.

In contrast, the western half (above) shows the radical transformation carried out at the hands of Inigo Jones, who was commissioned by James I in the 1630s to carry out a restoration using an early Classical style.  A view of the west front (below right) shows that Jones had even added a classical portico.  Even at the time, the overall effect was thought a little incongruous alongside the Gothic style of the rest of the building!

If you had walked under the portico and through the west door into the cathedral, however, you would have entered into the original Norman nave.  Construction of the cathedral began in 1087, at the end of William I’s reign. The view of the nave from the book (below left) reveals the cathedral’s provenance, as the arrangement of clustered columns in the arcade with the large tribune above resembled the nave of William’s Abbaye-aux-Hommes in Caen, Normandy (below right).

The Abbaye-aux-Hommes was William’s final resting place – that is, one of his thigh bones remains there; the rest of his bones were scattered during the French Wars of Religion in 1562. But St Paul’s ended up being a good deal larger than the Abbaye-aux-Hommes. By the time it was completed, Old St Paul’s was one of the largest churches in Christendom.  It was nearly 600 feet long, a length only exceeded by the enormous abbey at Cluny in Burgundy, and 100 feet wide.  It also had a spire of 489 feet, about 80 feet taller than that of Salisbury, but this caught fire and crashed through the roof of the nave in 1561.

As the book’s title suggests, the Monasticon is primarily a history of the monasteries in England and Wales, and, as such, provides a useful starting point for a study of the various monastic institutions in Essex.  Of course, at the time it was published, most of those monasteries had been suppressed during the Reformation.  To find out more about Essex’s experience of the dissolution of the monasteries, come to Ken Crowe’s talk on the dissolution in south west Essex (focussing on Barking Abbey and Stratford Langthorne Priory) at our upcoming ‘Essex on the Edge’ conference on Saturday 18th May.

Find out more about our ‘Essex on the Edge’ conference and book tickets.

The Monasticon Anglicanum book – open at the page showing the image of St Paul’s – will be on display in our Searchroom until the end of May.