What’s in a seal?

I’m currently working on scholarly commentaries of Scottish seal plates that were included in the third volume of Vetusta Monumenta, which is being digitised as part of a larger digital humanities project to provide an edition of the volumes for students and researchers. The project is led by Noah Heringman of the University of Missouri in collaboration with the Society of Antiquaries of London. In this blog, I will briefly reflect on one of the more interesting seals I’ve come across so far, the privy seal of Margaret Tudor, queen of Scotland. Her seal has raised questions for me about identity construction and the extent to which we can glean personal identities from this type of source material, something that motivates my current research.

The privy seal included amongst the Scottish seal plates, compiled by Thomas Astle in the 1790s, is one of the three seals used by the Scottish queen, and seems to have been the least well-known of the three. The illustration, shown here, depicts a seated and crowned female figure with a hound leaping in her lap. In the background, on either side of the figure, a rose branch.

The plate illustration of the privy seal of Margaret Tudor, queen of Scotland (c. 1513).

The image depicts the status and position of Margaret Tudor as royalty. The roses on either side of the figure likely allude to her Tudor lineage, and the crown reflects her position as queen consort. What I was more struck by, however, is other elements in the seal’s imagery. While a small hound in her lap denotes her elite status, it also conveys a sense of intimacy, affection, and emotional attachment between a woman and her dog, something that we, as a modern audience, can perhaps relate to and understand.

A modern woman (me!) and her small hound (c. 2016)

The personal elements present in this seal contrast with the other seals belonging to the queen, which were heraldic and bore the marshalled arms of Scotland, England, and France, to reflect her natal and marital lineages. Both the privy seal and the signet seal would have been used in a variety of contexts, but the privy seal would have been suited to personal correspondence.

The contrast between the two queenly images raises interesting questions about identity. Is the privy seal more representative of Margaret Tudor the person? Or is this seal still a constructed identity with the audience in mind, playing into a shared symbology that reflected her royal, elite status? These questions are perhaps not easily answered in a blog post, but they speak to overarching questions I ask in my current work on seals, including the commentary work on Astle’s plates.

Further reading:

Davis, R.M. (2021) ‘Material evidence? Re-approaching elite women’s seals and charters in late medieval Scotland’ PSAS 150, pp. 301-26.

Beer, M.L. (2018) Queenship at the Renaissance Courts of Britain: Catherine of Aragon and Margaret Tudor, 1503-1533. Woodbridge: Boydell &Brewer.

Blakeway, A. (2015) Regency in Sixteenth-Century Scotland. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer.

Walker-Meikle, K. (2012) Medieval Pets. Woodbridge: Boydell &Brewer.

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