Page images






ELL planned and well written, the story of the

Great Seal would be a rare story. It calls up the dead of eight silent centuries, placing before the mind much of that which is most beautiful and noble, and not a little of that which is most to be deplored in the growth of England's greatness. The poet's song and the soldier's fame give music and brightness to the atmosphere that covers and surrounds the mystic emblem of sovereign will. For seven-and-twenty generations fair women and brave men have submitted meekly to its influence and bowed before it reverentially. More than a mere symbol of the ruler's power, it has been honored as the power itself by the flatteries of pliant courtiers, the prayers of wretched supplicants, the hopes of ambition, and the fears of cowardice.

For twice four hundred years it has witnessed the most stirring scenes, held parley with the most famous personages, and been an actor in the grandest episodes of history. The right to guard it from danger has been placed amongst the chief honors of a highly-civilized people; and to win that honor, and wear it for a few brief days, accomplished, resolute, and brilliant men have in each generation striven with fierce rivalry and

[ocr errors]

heroic steadfastness. Through days of toil and nights of study; through long years of exertion, disappointment, and despair; against the difficulties of debt, and mental distress, and feeble health ; with an ascetic abstinence from pleasure, and with a terrible concentration of all their powers upon the one desired object, they have striven for that prize, and striven in vain. Bootless their perseverence and self-denial, their learning and integrity, their sacrifices and unconquerable will! Vanquished by the intensity of their own exertions, or worsted by some of those many circumstances and adverse influences which at times stay the speed of the swift and defeat the strong, they failed to achieve their purpose. They “ dropped under,” and the mighty tide of life which rolled over them is their nameless grave.

Many are the times that Fortune has wrenched the Seal from a firm grasp and dropped it into a feeble hand; many a time has she led a knave to the Marble Chair, and cast a smile of derision on men too honest to woo her with falsehood; anon she has turned her back on the entire crowd of eager aspirants, and with beautiful malice in her eyes has thrown the prize into the lap of a simpleton who had never expected to touch it, had never even asked for it.

Scarcely less startling than the most striking phenomena of science are the diverse effects which have been wrought in Keepers of the Great Seal by the mere custody of that royal property, To some its acquisition has been admission to new life, to others the first triumph of office has been followed by speedy death.

It might be told how men, still in the middle term of life-still in the sunshine of younger manhood—have snatched the coveted prize ere care had plowed furrows in their faces, or time had placed frost upon their heads. It might be told how these singularly lucky and

strangely unfortunate men have borne away the crimson purse before envious eyes, and from that time forth have never known a night of peaceful slumber—an hour of perfect repose. The story might reveal how one, more successful and wretched than all his fellows, could not endure the burden of that bauble: how its weight, so trifling in the scales, was immeasurable in his breast and upon his conscience ; how he fled from the eyes of men, and hiding his face, sought the mercy of Death-and found it.

But more inarvelous than aught and all that it has done are the vicissitudes which the Great Seal has experienced, the perils which it has encountered, the deaths which it has survived ! No charmed life of fairy lore surpasses in wonders and incredible incidents the life of the Great Seal. It has seen much service in foreign lands; when the Crusaders stirred all Europe it started in pomp and glittering magnificence upon the road for the Holy Land ; it has smiled at the feasts of kings, and starved with hunger in the garrets of continental cities; in vain have Earth, Fire, Air and Water banded together for its destruction; it has sunk to the bottom of the sea, and has risen again on the tops of the waves ; men compassed its death by hurling it into the Thames, but it asked help of a waterman, through whose timely aid it was restored to the King's House ; thieves have stolen it, melted it down, and sold it for old metal ; it has been buried beneath the ground, but friendly hands exhumed it and reinstated in honor; over and over again ruffians, armed with murderous instruments, have broken it into minute pieces—but still the Great Seal is with us, entire, sound, beauteous, flawless as ever.

[ocr errors]



T was the humor of the last chapter to speak of the

Great Seal, as though there had been no more than one Great Seal made since the kings of England first began to place their royal wishes on sealed records. That each sovereign has used his own peculiar seal, and that the opening of each reign had witnessed an actual or formal destruction of the last monarch's broad device, are facts familiar to most persons; but it is less generally known that English kings have changed their seals, and even kept two or more great seals in use at the same time. There are also those who have read certain passages of English history with conscientious care, but have omitted to give due thought to the grave cmbarrassments and laughable difficulties which have arisen from the existence of rival seals, or the customary use of a Great Seal the genuineness and legal validity of which have been called in question.

As becomes men who are about to consider a great historic subject, let the readers of this volume transport themselves to the tranquil ages of the past, and glance at seals designed and graven in times when art was low and learning was infrequent. There is no need to analyze the terra sigillata of the Egyptians, or to speculate as to the proportions of clay and common wax that entered into the compositions of the cement used by Jewish doctors in olden time. Whether Roman scholars preferred seals of paste to seals of carefully prepared fuller's-earth ; by what slow gradations the cumbrous lump of dough was refined into the delicate wafer ; whether yellow or white wax has higher claims to respect on the score of antiquity; and how far the viscous property of gum was turned to account by writers of secret letters betwixt the

« PreviousContinue »