Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Great Seal Definition:

A formal and unique seal pressed onto wax used mostly in medieval or even previous times, to authenticate important documents emanating from a monarch.

Historically, the highest and most authoritative of all of the seals in a land, especially England. In earlier times, in monarchies, the Great Seal was the chosen mechanism used to authenticate a decision of her or his Majesty as articulated in a document.

The round, metallic Great Seal was solmenly kept by a prestiguous office known as the Lord Keeper of the Seal.

The United States of America, initially a colony of Great Britain, has had since 1782 a Great Seal as have most Commonwealth jurisdictions such as, for example, Canada where:

"The Great Seal of Canada is used on all state documents such as proclamations and commissions of cabinet ministers, senators, judges and senior government officials."1

Some of the provinces of Canada have their own distinct Great Seal used to authenticate decisions of their respective governments; New Brunswick in Nova Scotia each with, circa 2013, a Great Seal Act.

Although it was the highest in rank, the Great Seal was, in some jurisdictions, one of only a sequence of special seals apposed upon documents and signifying royal authority. These others include the quarter seal, the privy seal and the signet.

Every monarch had their own, unique Great Seal struck in metal, usually including a rough rendering of their person, and sometimes a Latin word or two or date.

The process and the custody, and transfer of the Great Seal was a matter of great pomp and ceremony.

In a book published in Scotland in 1890, the Society of Writers to Her Majesty's Signet describe the Great Seal as follows:

"The great seal, which, so far as records inform us, appears to have been the earliest in use. It was used for authenticating Royal grants of land in the form of charters and confirmations of dispositions by subjects. It was also adhibited to protections, summonses of treason, forfeiture by Parliament and similar writs. From the time of King David I (King of Scotland 1083-1153),  it was under the care of the king's chancellor."

in 1884, the government of England purported to set out the use and restrictions on the use of the Great Seal in a Great Seal Act 1884, §2:

"(1) A warrant under Her Majesty's Royal Sign Manual, countersigned by the Lord Chancellor, or by one of Her Majesty's Principal Secretaries of State, or by the Lord High Treasurer, or two of the Commissioners of Her Majesty's Treasury, shall be a necessary and sufficient authority for passing any instrument under the Great Seal of the United Kingdom, according to the tenor of such warrant; Provided that any instrument which may now be passed under the Great Seal by the fiat or under the authority or directions of the Lord Chancellor or otherwise without passing through any other office may continue to be passed as heretofore.

"(2) The Lord Chancellor may from time to time make, and when made revoke and vary, regulations respecting the passing of instruments under the Great Seal of the United Kingdom, and respecting the warrants for that purpose, and the preparation of such instruments and warrants, and every such warrant shall be prepared by the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery.

"(3) No person shall make or prepare any warrant for passing any instrument under the Great Seal of the United Kingdom, or procure any instrument to be passed under that Seal otherwise than in manner provided by this Act or the Crown Office Act, 1877 ; and any person who acts in contravention of this section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor."

Universities and professional associations often continue the tradition of the Great Seal by sticking them on to certificates of membership or of graduation where-after, they are proudly on display at the professional's office.


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