King Henry VIII is shown on the Great Seal of the Court of Common Pleas, affixed to a 1536 court document
Ricardo Barros
The University Library’s collection of British royal and personal seals, described as the largest and most comprehensive in North America, documents the workings of the English government dating back eight centuries.

Royal seal of Queen Elizabeth I, with a design first used in 1586
Ricardo Barros
The collection was amassed by Bruce C. Willsie ’86, who since 2003 has donated more than 125 royal seals and nearly 100 metal matrices used to mold wax seals. 

The seals were used to authenticate documents, according to Don Skemer, curator of manuscripts in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. The most important items are royal charters on parchment that were issued under the Great Seal of the Realm, which in Willsie’s collection date back to the reign of King John (1199–1216). Two-sided pendant seals usually were attached to their documents by a braided silk cord or a parchment tag. 

Charter attached with a braided silk cord to the seal of King John, dated Oct. 9, 1199
Ricardo Barros

Great Seal of the Realm of Queen Victoria, attached to an 1852 royal patent
Ricardo Barros
The collection also includes royal charters and seals of Queen Elizabeth I, Oliver and Richard Cromwell, and Queen Victoria. 

The documents illustrate the “day-to-day business” of English government, Skemer said, such as confirmations of land tenure, rights and privileges, and judicial decisions. While official “record copies” were retained centrally in locations like the Tower of London, the documents in the Willsie collection were personal copies to be kept by the recipients.

Photographs by Ricardo Barros