Alumnus seals the deal on donating collection to library


Princeton NJ -- Today much ceremony is made of presidents signing bills into laws. Back in the 1500s when Queen Elizabeth I wanted to authenticate newly issued royal documents, she had her seal attached to them.

  the wax seal of Elizabeth I

One of the works on display is the wax seal of Elizabeth I. An inscription around the edge reads: "Elizabetha dei gracia Anglie Francie et Hibernie Regina Fidei Defensor" (Elizabeth, by grace of God, Queen of England, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith). The seal was engraved by the famous miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard and was used by Elizabeth during the second half of her reign, from 1586 to 1603.

A recently acquired collection of seals from the first through the 20th century is on display in the lobby of Firestone Library through Nov. 30.

The collection of British sigillography was donated to the University by Bruce C. Willsie, a 1986 Princeton graduate from Redmond, Wash.

"Since the dawn of recorded history, people have authenticated legal documents by means of engraved seal matrices or dies (generally stone or metal), which were used to make impressions in soft materials such as wet clay or warm beeswax," said Don Skemer, curator of manuscripts in the library's Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. "Sigillography is the historical study of seals, the actual impressions."

After the Roman conquest of Britain in the first century A.D., people in England began using seals to authenticate documents. During the reign of King Edward the Confessor (1042-1066), royal documents came to have two-sided pendant seals, generally attached to the document with a parchment tag and later braided cords. Most common in England were "equestrian seals," portraying the king enthroned on the front, surrounded by the symbols of royal authority, and depicting him as a mounted knight on the back.

Willsie, a collector primarily of rare printed materials related to English common law, previously has presented many gifts to the Princeton library. The Bruce C. Willsie Collection of British Sigillography contains a small number of English royal seals with portraits of King Edward IV, Queen Elizabeth I, William and Mary and Queen Victoria. In addition, the collection includes 95 seal matrices in bronze, latten, lead and copper alloys.

From the 13th century, aristocrats, merchants and other people used these matrices to produce personal seals. Seal matrices can be round, lozenge-shaped or armorial, usually with raised handles ending in a suspension loop, into which one would have laced a linen cord, leather thong or metal chain in order to carry the matrix.

"Imagery varies widely among personal seals, from religious motifs to flowers, animals and brief mottos," Skemer said. "One 14th-century merchant's bronze seal matrix depicts a squirrel with a Middle English motto that reads 'I crake notis' ('I crack nuts'), which had been interpreted to mean that the owner was a hard bargainer."

Hours for the exhibition are 8 a.m. to 11:45 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 9 a.m. to 11:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. For more information on the collection, contact Skemer at 258-3184 or <>.


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