Designing the Great Seal for the Act of Union

Ruth Herman

What are the little things (and not so little) that have to be decided before you join one independent nation state to another. It’s probably not one of the questions we ask ourselves when contemplating the really big political changes.  One of these ‘little’ questions occurred when the Act of Union when Scotland and England were joined together as Great Britain.  One of the considerations  was the incorporation of Scotland’s arms into the iconic Great Seal, the official stamp of royal approval required for British parliamentary activities.  The letter below is from leading politician Robert Harley in his role as Secretary to the North, to the Lord Chancellor, William Cowper, the official keeper of the seal.  The letter can be seen in the Panshanger collection in the Hertford archives[1]

18 October 1706

I had not an opportunity last night to mention one particular to your lordship about the Great Seal of Great Britain. King James the First did adapt the Arms as well as the circumscription to the crude and arbitrary project of an Empire over Great Britain. Now that in the due time a legal and reasonable union is brought about care must be taken to please the northern parts with little things. I think the Act of Union provides there should be a new seal and they will not be satisfied only there an alteration and already   Scotland hath great advantage given in the Arms, but they will expect to have some material alteration made and I humbly conceive they might be gratified in it.  If your lordship is not provided of a draft I would offer one, but I will not contact the Heralds for they are so very ignorant that excepting [honours?] they cannot read their own business.

The result of this was the first ever Great Seal which incorporated the arms of Scotland and England.  The relevant Article in the final Act of Union of 1707 read as follows:


That from and after the union there be one Great Seal for the United Kingdom of Great Britain, which shall be different from the Great Seal now used in either kingdom: and that the quartering the arms and the rank and precedence of the Lyon King of Arms of the Kingdom of Scotland, as may best suit the union, be left to Her Majesty: and that in the meantime, the Great Seal of England be used as the Great Seal of the United Kingdom, and that the Great Seal of the United Kingdom be used for sealing writes to elect and summon the Parliament of Great Britain, and for sealing all treaties with foreign princes and states, and all public acts, instruments and orders of state which concern the whole United Kingdom, and in all other matters relating to England, as the Great Seal of England is now used:

It is remarkable that such an important, although tiny, item relating to one of the most significant moments in British history can be found in the archives at Hertford

[1] DE/P/F60

This page was added on 06/10/2017.

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