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12. The privy seal writ: an unwelcome gift

By Laura Flannigan  (@LFlannigan17)

One of the main methods by which accused parties were summoned to appear before central English law courts in the early modern period was the privy seal writ. Issued from the royal Chancery at Westminster to the litigant (for a fee), this writ was a small document in Latin or English, folded into a bound packet.  A wax seal measuring around 1 ½ – 2 ½ inches depicting the seated monarch and the royal arms (denoting it as the monarch’s ‘private’ or personal seal) was affixed to the outside. Testimonies given by messengers and plaintiffs to the courts throughout the sixteenth century describe, in detail, the delivery of these small but imposing items in public spaces and in the presence of witnesses.  Owing to the vague nature of the text of the writs – which usually identified only the recipient’s opponents, and not the matter for which they were being summoned – reactions to being handed one could be extreme. Though the writs came with a financial penalty if ignored, those on the receiving end might ‘throw [the writ] on the ground’ or otherwise ‘violate’ the document and the seal whilst uttering ‘opprobrious words’, and some went so far as to unsheath their weapons. More unusually, one defendant in 1525 threatened to make the bearer ‘ete the said letters’. In the 1510s, a litigant’s servant actually was caused ‘to have eten all [the] seid prive seale with the wex and… swallow it doon’. In the increasingly litigious society of early modern England, this was a gift no-one wanted to receive.

Image: Court of Chancery, made available under a public domain licence.

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