Catalogue description Chancery: Warrants for the Great Seal, Series I

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Details of C 81
Reference: C 81
Title: Chancery: Warrants for the Great Seal, Series I

These warrants are writs, bills or letters, nearly all on parchment, giving the lord chancellor, as keeper of the great seal, authority to affix the great seal to them to solemnise the Crown's wishes.

Royal commands were expressed, if not verbally, chiefly through the privy seal or smaller seals, later through the signet, and subsequently by signed bill, using the sign manual. Privy seal writs, mere strips of parchment, are much more numerous than letters and 'bills', which are a later, but equally formal, development of warrants from the early fourteenth century.

There are also warrants issued by regents, royal councils and military commanders, and by royal ministers such as treasurers, whether of England or of the royal household, as well as other household officials. Many of these instruments were enrolled in the patent, close, fine, Gascon, liberate, pardon, redisseisin, Scotch, treaty or exchange rolls, and the latter, many of them published, supply dates for undated material among the warrants.

Date: 1230-1485

The records are nearly all bound in files. Each parchment warrant has a number stamped on the back. In some files a pencil foliation has been made on the face of the warrant. The rearrangement or later insertion of documents is usually detectable from the use of suffixes A and B after stamped document numbers.

The documents are arranged by category, and not in one chronological run: privy seal warrants; signet or small seals; signed bills and other direct warrants; regents' and council warrants; treasurers' warrants; household officers warrants; warrants arranged under successive Chancellors' names; and so on.

Related material:

Records of the Signet Office are in: SO

Privy Seal Office records after 1386 which survived the Whitehall fire of 1619 are in: PSO 1

See also the Special Collections, Ancient Petitions, in: SC 8

Held by: The National Archives, Kew
Legal status: Public Record(s)
Language: English, French and Latin
Physical description: 1799 files and rolls
Physical condition: Few of the intermediate seals on the documents have survived, and those that do are usually fragmentary.
Custodial history: The signet warrants for Edward III's reign, and other warrants bearing small seals personal to the king, were with privy seal records transferred to Chancery in 1386. Subsequent records of that office were partly destroyed by fire at the Banqueting House, Whitehall in 1619. The records now in this series formed part of the Chancery records kept in the Tower of London, and with other White Tower and Wakefield Tower records entered the Public Record Office late in 1859. They were stored in bundles while held at the Tower of London. Additional warrants have been added, some documents coming from the then Scottish Record Office in 1971.
Publication note:

Some of the documents in this series are printed in the Calendar of Chancery Warrants preserved in the Public Record Office (HMSO, 1927). Others can be found in the Calendar of Signet Letters of Henry IV and Henry V, ed J L Kirby (HMSO, 1978). From 1417, Henry V's letters in English also appear in An Anthology of Chancery English, ed J H Fisher, M Richardson and Jane L Fisher (Knoxville, 1984). Sir H C Maxwell-Lyte, Historical Notes on the Use of the Great Seal of England (HMSO, 1926) extracts many documents from the series and evaluates others. For the year September 1404-1405, see A L Brown, 'The authorisation of letters under the great seal', Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, xxxvii (1964), pp 125-155. For the later fifteenth century, see J R Lander, Crown and Nobility (London, 1976), chapters 7 and 8.

Unpublished finding aids:

A typescript list and key in ten volumes of part of the series is available.

Administrative / biographical background:

In 1311 the importance of the privy seal led the lords ordainer to remove it from the wardrobe and place it in the care of its own keeper. The first in the series of keepers of the privy seal can be identified in 1312. The Privy Seal Office now developed as the third great department of state, but although it had its own headquarters in London the keeper continued to attend the king until the middle of the fifteenth century, when the king's secretary emerged as an influential member of the royal administration.

The privy seal became one of the necessary steps in the ordinary method of passing an instrument under the great seal. Some Privy Council ordinances of the reign of Henry VI laid down that 'all bills when the king of his good grace hath granted them be delivered to his secretary and letters to be conceived upon them directed under the signet to the keeper of the privy seal and from thence under the privy seal to the chancellor of England'. This was the procedure for the most important purposes in which the great seal was employed, and first received parliamentary authority by an act of 1535.

As a consequence of the Walton Ordinances in 1338 the Exchequer would accept only great or privy seal warrants as authority for expenditure, either by itself or by accounting departments. The Privy Seal Office retained the function the seal had exercised in the wardrobe of being used in the conclusion of indentures for military service.

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