Library acquires British seal collection

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.

A recently acquired collection of seals from the first through the 20th century is on display in the lobby of Princeton University's 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.

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 via e-mail or at (609) 258-3184.

Contact: Eric Quinones (609) 258-3601