The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

I have sent you a Privy Seal…

The answer to last week’s crocodile mystery?

As Jan Kellett correctly pointed out in her comment to the October Crocodile Mystery, the red-orange concentric circles in this image are an “offset mark made by a seal.” The mark was made by the waxy residue and impression from a privy seal which was once enclosed within a letter. Early modern letters often mention things enclosed (another letter, seeds, a lock of hair, a recipe, a poem) but rarely do we see the proof of such an enclosure.

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Detail from L.a.814, fol. 2v, Folger Shakespeare Library

The letter itself is dated May 17, 1589. It was sent by George Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury to Richard Bagot. It is part of the Folger’s Bagot collection which dates from 1428-1671, with the bulk of the letters written in the lifetimes of Richard Bagot (d. 1597) and his son Walter (1557-1623). The papers touch on an extensive range of topics, from spying on recusants to family squabbles to the spread of the plague. The collection also contains correspondence with notable figures of the day, such as William Cecil, Lord Burghley and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex.

 

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L.a.814, fol.2v, Folger Shakespeare Library

The letter informs Bagot that a privy seal is enclosed. Writing from Brierley Lodge, Shrewsbury instructs Bagot to give the privy seal to Richard Endsore of Bromley, gentleman. He further commands that Bagot use his own servants to make the delivery, or else any other known officer in Endsore’s “hundred” (a subdivision of a county). Shrewsbury explains that he has just received a discharge for Mr. Wolverson touching his payment of the loan money, and that he has named Endsore as Wolverson’s replacement.

L.a.814, fol.1r, The Folger Shakespeare Library
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Detail from L.a.814, fol. 1r: “…I haue named Richerde Endsor of Bromley gentleman: and haue sent you a privie Seale which you must Cause to be forthwith delyvered…”

The term “privy seal” in this case applies to both the seal itself and the warrant demanding a forced loan, which would have been affixed to it. A reproduction of a privy seal forced loan letter from 1589 appears in Richard Hoyle, Tudor Taxation Records: A Guide for Users (PRO Readers’ Guide No. 5), 1994, p. 40. In it, the queen demands the loan to cover England’s preparations against Spain. The loans were usually for one or two years, and if individuals (such as Mr. Wolverson) could prove that they were unable to raise the money, the privy seal could be redirected. As Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire, Shrewsbury would have been tasked with distributing Elizabeth I’s privy seal letters to individuals in his county. He relied on deputy lieutenants such as Richard Bagot to make sure that the payments (in this case, 25 pounds) happened.

Privy seals are mentioned many times in the Bagot collection: privy seals were regularly sent or delivered by Bagot family members, or others within their circle. In L.a.63 two privy seals are mentioned by Lewis Bagot (Richard Bagot’s grandson and Walter Bagot’s son). Lewis Bagot writes that he has delivered a privy seal to a Mr. Brown and the other one he has in his keeping (this letter was recently exhibited in the Age of Lawyers: The Roots of American Law in Shakespeare’s Britain at the Folger). In L.a.79 Richard Bagot sends a privy seal for a loan to the Vicar of Dovebridge and Marston; an impression of the seal can be seen in this letter. In L.a.104 Walter Bagot writes to Thomas Kery that of 84 privy seals sent to him, he has delivered 55 and is sending the remainder back because the men named cannot make the loans. In L.a.203 Richard Bagot is informed that John Jolley of Leake cannot pay the privy seal, but his son is more sufficient to discharge the same.

Notice that there is another seal on the address leaf of the letter.

Detail of the resin seal from L.a.814
Detail of the resin seal from L.a.814

That red seal, made of resin rather than beeswax, was used to close the letter packet, using the tuck-and-seal method of closure. The juxtaposition of the seal used to close the letter with the ghostly remains of the enclosed privy seal is an important reminder of the ubiquity of seals and their various functions: as a form of authentication, a form of closure, and a warrant to pay.

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