Seals, Insignia, Plate, and Officers

Pages 544-546

A History of the County of York: the City of York. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1961.

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The first common seal of the city is round, 2½ inches. (fn. 1) It depicts on the obverse a triple-towered castle, the walls with an embattled parapet, the side-towers embattled and attached to the central one by flying buttresses. Legend, lombardic: [SIG]ILLUM CIV..... FIDELES R. . .NS. It depicts on the reverse St. Peter, standing, with nimbus, in his right hand 2 keys over his shoulder, in his left a cross and banner. Legend, lombardic: [SIG]ILLUM ECLESIE SAN[CTI PET]RI CATHEDRALIS EBORACENSIS. The only impression known to survive is attached to a deed of 11911206. (fn. 2)

The second common seal, of which the silver matrix of the obverse survives, is round, 2⅜ inches, and depicts on the obverse a triple-towered castle with a masoned and embattled keep. (fn. 3) The towers have pointed roofs and each tower is topped with a flag split into 3 streamers. Legend, lombardic: SIGILLUM CIVIUM EBORACI. The seal depicts on the reverse St. Peter, standing on a carved bracket, in his right hand 2 keys over his shoulder, in his left a banner with 3 streamers, topped with a cross. On each side of him stands an angel with expanded wings and nimbus holding a candle in a candlestick. Legend, lombardic: s. BEATI PETRI PRINCIPIS AROSTOLORUM. The seal is thought to date from the 13th century, and was certainly in use by 1335. (fn. 4) In 1537 it was kept in a chest. (fn. 5) In 1736 it was commonly appended to all leases and grants by the city, (fn. 6) as, in effect, it is today. (fn. 7) The original matrix, however, is not now (1959) normally used, for it has been replaced for most purposes by a bronze replica, ? struck ante 1937. (fn. 8) A stamp, the design on which approximately reproduces on a smaller scale the design on the obverse of the common seal, was applied until recently to less important documents.

A seal, said to be the privy seal of the city, (fn. 9) appended to a document of 1397, (fn. 10) wherein, however, it is called the seal of the mayoralty, is round, 1⅛ inch, and depicts a triple-towered castle, masoned and embattled, with a round-headed doorway. On each side is a lion's face. Legend, lombardic: s... ...E CIVITATIS EBO[R]ACT.

The seal of the mayoralty, of which the matrix in a base metal survives, is round, 2 inches, and bears the city arms, on a diapered field, ensigned with an open coronet of 3 fleur-de-lis and 2 triplets of pearls, with ostrich feathers as supporters. (fn. 11) Legend, black letter: SIGILLUM SECRETUM OFFICI MAIORATUS CIVITATIS EBORACI. The seal was certainly in use by 1422. (fn. 12) In 1736 it was appended to deeds acknowledged before the mayor by femes covert and to the certificates of the execution of deeds sent overseas. (fn. 13) It has been used within the memory of Guildhall officials living in 1959. It was then kept in a press made for it by William Thornton in 1766.

The second common seal of the city

actual size.

A seal for sealing precepts, passports, and the like was ordered to be struck in 1577 and a payment for engraving such a seal was made in 1597-8. (fn. 14) The matrix of this seal, struck presumably at the later date, surives. It is oval, 1⅛×1 inch, and bears the same design as the foregoing on a plain field. (fn. 15) Legend, humanistic: SIGNACULUM EBORACENSIUM. In 1736 it was used for sealing freemen's certificates, J.P.s' warrants and sessions processes. (fn. 16)

A seal for the recognizance of statute merchant debts was granted to York by the Statute of Acton Burnel (1283). Like the seals of other cities possessing the right bestowed by that Statute the York seal was of two pieces, the larger kept by the mayor, and the lesser kept by the clerk. Until the mid-15th century, if not for longer, the Crown appointed to the clerkship, at first usually during pleasure, but from the mid-14th century more often for life with power to depute. Many clerks, particularly from the 14th century, were past or present servants of the Crown. (fn. 17)

What seems to be the first design (fn. 18) for the larger part of the seal is round, 1¾ inch, and bears a king's head, full face, with a leopard below, and on either side a castle with a central embattled tower. The castle on the sinister side is removable, probably so that other devices could be substituted for it. Legend, lombardic: s. EDW... ...or...

The second design for the larger part is very similar to the foregoing. (fn. 19) The castle, however, has 3 embattled towers and the detail is more finely executed. Legend, lombardic: S. EDWARDI REGIS ANGLIE AD RECONGNICIONEM DEBITORUM APUD EBORACUM. The only known design for the lesser seal (fn. 20) is round, 1⅞ inch, and depicts St. Peter, with head turned to right, holding a book and keys. On the left a castle. Legend, lombardic: EBORACUS. The silver matrices of both the immediately preceding seals survive. Impressions are appended to documents dated 1542 (fn. 21) and 1605. (fn. 22) The lesser seal was out of use in 1736. (fn. 23)

Two seals for an unknown purpose were ordered to be made in 1646-7. (fn. 24)

The city's insignia (fn. 25) consist of two swords of state, a cap of maintenance, a great mace, four sergeants' maces, gold chains for the lord mayor and lady mayoress, a jewel worn with the lord mayor's chain, a lady mayoress's staff, a sheriff's chain and badge, sheriff's and under-sheriff's staffs, sheriff's lady's chain, three livery collars and badges, and a porter's staff.

The first sword, made in the early 15th century, belonged to the Emperor Sigismund (1368-1437); at his death it passed to the Dean and Canons of Windsor; the dean later gave it to one of his canons, Henry Hanslap, a native of York, and Hanslap presented it to the city in 1439. The sword was redecorated in 1586, as recorded on the blade, and frequently repaired. The second sword was given to the city in 1545 (fn. 26) by Sir Martin Bowes, a native of York and Lord Mayor of London, in gratitude for the city's agreement to preserve St. Cuthbert's Church. (fn. 27) It was extensively repaired in the early 17th century. Two other swords were in existence until at least 1796 but have been lost: one was given by Richard II in 1389 to be carried before the mayor, the other was used by him when he 'went abroad or stirred from home'.

The first cap of maintenance, worn by the swordbearer on state occasions, is said to have been given by Richard II in 1393. New ones were bought in 1445 and 1580. That in current use was given by George V in 1915, (fn. 28) and the city still possesses the cap of 1580.

A mace or maces were apparently borne before the mayor and sheriffs before that privilege was granted in the charter of 1396. There were at first six serjeants-at-mace, but later only four; a macebearer carries the great mace. A great mace was certainly in existence during the 15th century, but a new one was made in 1580; another and larger one was made in 1647 and is the great mace still in use. The smaller mace disappeared during the 18th century. The four serjeants' maces, called 'city seals', are of comparatively modern date.

The lord mayor's gold chain of office was bequeathed to the city by a former lord mayor, Sir Robert Watter, in 1612. The lady mayoress's gold chain was given by Marmaduke Rawden in 1670. The jewel to be worn with the lord mayor's chain was given by Sir J. S. Rymer in 1914. (fn. 29) The lady mayoress's 'staff of honour' was given by Alderman Richard Towne in 1726; it was reputed to have belonged to an Indian potentate and replaced an old staff.

The sheriff's gold chain and badge were given by Alderman Thomas Walker in 1893. The sheriff's and under-sheriff's staffs were given by Reginald Teasdale, under-sheriff, in 1921, and the sheriff's lady's chain by J. H. Turner in 1919. (fn. 30) The three silver livery collars are worn by the sword-bearer, mace-bearer, and staff-bearer. They were formerly worn by the city waits and were in regular use by 1565; in 1566 a fourth collar was made when the number of waits was increased. They were repaired and partially remade in 1585, and two of the existing collars may be of that date. By the early 16th century the waits also wore the city arms on their sleeves, as did other civic officers later. The porter's staff was in use by at least 1679, a date with which it is inscribed. One further item of the insignia has been lost: an ensign or 'ancient'.

The city does not appear to have possessed any plate proper before 1558 when Sir Martin Bowes gave a silver parcel-gilt basin and ewer, now lost. (fn. 31) Many additions, losses, alterations, and exchanges have since taken place, the bulk of the plate being of 18th-century manufacture and gift; no complete list has been printed. (fn. 32) No 16th-century plate survives, but remarkable among the 17th-century pieces are a gold loving cup and a silver chamber-pot presented by Marmaduke Rawden in 1672. In the later 19th century and in the 20th century it became a common practice for lord mayors to present pieces of plate to the city at the close of their year of office, and much has been acquired in this way. The city exchanged pieces of plate with the town of Dijon (Côte d'Or) in 1957 and the city of Münster (Nordrhein-Westfalen) in 1958. (fn. 33)

Complete lists of the chief civic officials have not been printed. Drake (fn. 34) has lists of mayors and bailiffs and lord mayors and sheriffs from the earliest times to 1735, the list from 1273 being based on that of Hildyard; (fn. 35) Drake's list (fn. 36) of recorders from 1417 to 1722 is based on Widdrington; (fn. 37) and his list (fn. 38) of M.P.s from 1294-5 to 1727-8 is taken from the papers of a Mr. Willis. In each case corrections were made by Drake. Drake's lists were corrected by Skaife (fn. 39) whose list of lord mayors and sheriffs extends (with some gaps) to 1906, of recorders to 1896, and of M.P.s to 1906; Skaife also lists the common and town clerks from 1374 to 1906, and the chamberlains from 1290 to 1835 when the office was abolished. Skaife's list of mayors is printed, and extended to 1927-8, in the corporation's Supplemental Year Book (1928); there are also printed lists of the sheriffs until 1927-8, taken in part from a Public Record Office List of 1898, of the recorders until 1917, taken in part from Skaife, of M.P.s from 1885 to 1924, and of common and town clerks until 1913, largely taken from Skaife. Officials appointed in subsequent years are given in the corporation's Year Books.

The City of York.

Silver, on a cross gules five gold lions passant guardant.


  • 1. B.M. Cat. of Seals, ii, No. 5542; Drake, Ebor. pl. facing App. p. ci. No. xxiii. In the B.M. cat. the legend on the obverse is printed as though it appeared on the reverse and vice versa.
  • 2. E.Y.C. i. 231; vi. 178.
  • 3. B.M. Cat. of Seals, ii, No. 5543; W. Boyne, Tokens issued in ... Yorks ... also ... Seals of all the Corporations in that County (priv. print. 1858), pl. 14.
  • 4. D. & C. York, v. i. 13.
  • 5. York Civ. Rec. iv. 22.
  • 6. Drake, Ebor. p. xxxiv.
  • 7. Ex inf. the Town Clerk.
  • 8. Ibid.
  • 9. B.M. Cat. of Seals, ii, No. 5544.
  • 10. E 43/657.
  • 11. B.M. Cat. of Seals, ii, No. 5545; Boyne, Tokens issued in Yorks. pl. 15.
  • 12. Yorks. Deeds, vi. 180.
  • 13. Drake, Ebor. App. p. xxxiv.
  • 14. Ll. Jewitt and W. H. St. John Hope, Corporation Plate and Insignia, ii. 467.
  • 15. B.M. Cat. of Seals, ii, No. 5546; Drake, Ebor. pl. facing p. 381, No. 4.
  • 16. Drake, Ebor. App. p. xxxiv.
  • 17. Cal. Pat. passim
  • 18. B.M. Cast cvii. 65. Said to be cast from an impression penes D. & C. Westminster, but not traceable in 1959.
  • 19. B.M. Cat. of Seals, i, No. 1090; Drake, Ebor. pl. facing p. 381, No. 5.
  • 20. Ibid.
  • 21. E 42/141.
  • 22. Wards 2/180/37.
  • 23. Drake, Ebor. App. p. xxxiv. Attached to the matrix of the lesser seal is a silver ring set with 3 signet seals.
  • 24. Jewitt and St. John Jope, Corporation Plate, ii. 467.
  • 25. This account of the insignia is from Jewitt and St. John Hope, Corporation Plate and Insignia, ii. 445-66, unless otherwise stated; some of the insignia are to be seen in use in plate facing p. 473.
  • 26. Not 1549 as stated by Jewitt and St. John Hope; the date is inscribed on the sword.
  • 27. See p. 378.
  • 28. York Corp. Supplemental Year Bk. (1928), 102.
  • 29. Ibid.
  • 30. Ibid.
  • 31. Ibid. 468.
  • 32. Lists were made each year by the chamberlains until 1835 and appear on their rolls.
  • 33. Ex inf. butler, Mansion House.
  • 34. Ebor 359-67.
  • 35. Antiq. of York City (priv. print. York, 1719), 21-148.
  • 36. Ebor. 368.
  • 37. Analecta, 88-89.
  • 38. Ebor. 355-8.
  • 39. 'Civic Officials and Parl. Reps, of York' (MS. in York Pub. Libr.), where are to be found voluminous biographical details.