The University of Cambridge: Seals and insignia

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1959.

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'The University of Cambridge: Seals and insignia', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge, ed. J P C Roach( London, 1959), British History Online [accessed 21 July 2024].

'The University of Cambridge: Seals and insignia', in A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge. Edited by J P C Roach( London, 1959), British History Online, accessed July 21, 2024,

"The University of Cambridge: Seals and insignia". A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge. Ed. J P C Roach(London, 1959), , British History Online. Web. 21 July 2024.


The University of Cambridge. Gules on a cross ermine between four leopards a book gules. [Granted 1573]

Of the three seals of Cambridge University that are known to have been used, the earliest was made probably c. 1261. It was a pointed oval, 2¾ by 17/8 in., and the device represented the Chancellor, capped and holding a book, seated on a chair between two disputing scholars; above them was a straight-sided trefoil arch surmounted by a pediment with the sun and moon at the sides; below was a four-arched hump-back bridge over a river containing three fishes. The legend, in Lombardic lettering, was sigillum universitatis cantebrigie. The earliest known impression of this seal, which is no longer extant, is apparently that attached to a deed of 1291 in the Peterhouse muniments. (fn. 2) This seal was replaced by one of c. 1410, also pointed oval, 2¾ by 1¾ in., and bearing a device similar to that on the earlier seal, though more ornate. In the device on the later seal the Chancellor and scholars were framed in an elaborately pinnacled canopy of three compartments; their clothes—gown, furred tippet with pendants, and round cap for the Chancellor, sleeveless gowns with hoods for the scholars—were shown in detail; the Chancellor's book was depicted open; and the bridge at the bottom was of three arches, level and with a parapet, and with only two fishes beneath it. The legend was in black letter: sigillum universitatis cantebriggie. The earliest impression of this second seal is apparently that attached to a deed of 1420 at Trinity College. (fn. 3) In 1580 this second seal was in turn replaced, and the material may have been used towards the new Chancellor's seal. The third seal of the University was authorized by Grace in 1580. (fn. 4) It was the gift of Matthew Stokys, who paid for the workmanship, and William Farrand, who provided the silver from which it was made. It is a pointed oval, 4 by 25/8 in., originally with a handle at the back which has been cut away. The device represents the Chancellor between two masters of arts, who are possibly the proctors, each holding a book. The Chancellor is seated on an elaborate throne and wears a furred tippet and square cap. Above each master of arts is the royal coat of arms used by Elizabeth I—France Modern and England, quarterly—and in the upper part of the seal is the trilingual Holy Name. In the lower part of the seal, beneath a scroll inscribed in humanistic lettering mars musas, are the modern University arms, dividing the date 1580. The legend is in humanistic lettering: sigillum commune cancellarii magistrorum et scholarium universitatis cantebrigie. (fn. 5) Round the edge of the back of the seal is the inscription 'Guilielmus Farrand procurator dedit materiam Matthaeus Stokis bedellus dedit formam 1580'. This seal remains in 1957 the official seal of the University.

Of the two seals that have belonged to the Chancellor, the earlier, made of silver apparently in the early 14th century, was a pointed oval, 21/8 by 13/8 in., showing a bust of the Chancellor, in his round cap, in profile, above a four-arched bridge with level parapet over a river with two fishes, all within a double-feathered octofoil. The legend was in Lombardic lettering: sigillum cancellarii universitatis cantebrigie. The earliest known impression is that attached to a deed of 1316 at the British Museum. (fn. 6) In 1580 it was decided that this seal was too small and worn, and that a new Chancellor's seal should be made from the material of the old one and of two other seals then unused. (fn. 7) One of these may have been the second of the University's seals. The new Chancellor's seal, evidently engraved by the same hand as the University seal of 1580, is silver, a pointed oval 3 by 2 in. The device represents the Chancellor, in gown, furred tippet and square cap with a book in his hand, announcing from a pulpit dominus prope est. At the top is a crowned shield bearing the royal arms and at the bottom a shield bearing the University arms dividing the date 1580, with a laurel sprig sprouting from each of the upper corners of the shield. The legend is in humanistic lettering: sigillum officii cancellarii almae universitatis cantebrigie. On the reverse are inscribed the words 'ex dono d[omini] Edw[ardi] Leedys juris civilis doctoris' (fn. 8) and the initials 'M S' which are thought to be for Matthew Stokys. The original handle on the back has been cut away. This seal is kept in the registry, but by the late 19th century was no longer used.

The two successive Chancellor's seals were used also by the Vice-Chancellor. (fn. 9) From the end of the 16th century the Vice-Chancellor had two large gold signet rings, now kept in the registry. The larger of the two, with a sealing surface 1 by 7/8 in., is engraved with the university arms and bears inside the initials 'M S' which probably refer to Matthew Stokys, as the donor. The other, ¾ by 5/8 in., is engraved with Minerva and the Gorgon's head, and bears the legend si perdam pereo in humanistic lettering; (fn. 10) inside is inscribed 'my only rest'.

A seal used by the commissary is represented by an impression attached to a document in Caius College treasury. It is pointed oval, 1¾ by 1 in., and bears a device representing the Virgin and Child, but it is damaged and the legend is illegible. It is therefore not certain whether it was an official or a private seal. In the university audit book for 1579–80 there are references to two seals for the proctors and to the taxors' seal, (fn. 11) but nothing further is known about these. A Grace of 1477–8 records the making of a new seal, (fn. 12) but what this seal was is not known.

The principal insignia of the University of Cambridge consist of four maces, originally carried by the three esquire bedells and by the yeomen bedell. The three silver maces of the esquire bedells were presented by the first Duke of Buckingham, Chancellor of the University 1626–8. The number of the esquire bedells was reduced, by the statutes of 1858, to two, and the third mace, which had formerly been borne by the senior esquire bedell, has not been used since the death of Dr. George Leapingwell in 1863. The yeoman bedell's mace, the central portion of the staff of which is mahogany, was probably presented by the Earl of Holland, Chancellor of the University 1628–49. The office of yeoman bedell was abolished in 1858, and the mace was for long unused, but, since the installation of Lord Rayleigh as Chancellor in 1908, it has been borne by the university marshal. In addition to the maces there is the Vice-Chancellor's cup, presented by the Earl of Essex, Chancellor 1598–1601. (fn. 13)


  • 1. This account is largely based on W. H. St. J. Hope, The Seals and Armorial Insignia of the University and Colleges of Cambridge; Part 1, The University (1883, the only part published); W. H. St. J. Hope, 'Seals of the Colleges and of the University of Cambridge' (Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of London, 2nd ser. x. 225–30); and W. de G. Birch, Catalogue of Seals in the British Museum (1892), ii. 30–32.
  • 2. Peterhouse muniments, Cista Communis IV.
  • 3. Trinity College, King's Hall Documents, no. 99.
  • 4. Grace Bk. [delta], ed. J. Venn (1910), 343–4; and see below.
  • 5. There is a drawing of the seal in Statutes of the Univ. of Camb. 1955, p. 1, and a photograph in H. P. Stokes, Ceremonies of the Univ. of Camb. (1927), frontispiece, where it is wrongly described as the Chancellor's seal.
  • 6. B.M. Harl. Ch. 111 C. 25; a good impression, of which the edge has been badly damaged since it was seen by Hope and illustrated in his Seals and Armorial Insignia of Camb., plate iv, fig. 1.
  • 7. Grace Book [delta], 344.
  • 8. It is not clear what Leedys gave; the material came from the old seals, the extra silver required and the cost of the workmanship being charged to the University by Stokys: Proceedings of the Soc. of Antiq. 2nd ser. x. 229.
  • 9. Grace Book [delta], 344; Proceedings of the Soc. of Antiq. 2nd ser. x. 229.
  • 10. A photograph of these signet rings is reproduced in Stokes, Ceremonies of Univ. Camb., facing p. 8.
  • 11. See Proceedings of the Soc. of Antiq. 2nd ser. x. 230.
  • 12. Grace Bk. A, ed. S. M. Leathes (C.A.S., Luard Memorial Ser. 1897), 124.
  • 13. A. P. Humphry, 'On the Maces of the Esquire Bedells, and the Mace formerly borne by the Yeoman Bedell', C.A.S. Comm. iv. 207–18; Hist. Reg. Univ. Camb. ed. J. R. Tanner, 59; H. P. Stokes, Esquire Bedells of Univ. Camb. (C.A.S. Publ. 1911), 38–42, and Ceremonies of Univ. Camb. 8, 21–23; Sir Arthur Shipley, 'Camb. Univ. Insignia and Ceremonies', Camb. Cameos, 29–38. The maces seem originally to have been gilt, but the gilding has almost worn off: Stokes, Bedells, 41–42.