Edward III, Power and Politics: Edward III’s Great Seals.

Rulers throughout history have used the visual arts in order to express and substantiate their power. Visual art allows the illiterate, quasi-literate and literate masses alike to grasp concepts that cannot be transmuted through written sources such as books or parliamentary rolls. The ability to disseminate information to a wide demographic gave kings in this period a valuable asset in the validation of royal power and prerogative. Visual art came in many forms, and Seals, Coins as well as livery were all important at this time. The focus of this post however is on Edward’s great seals, more specifically the Great Seal of 1360; also known as the Bretigny seal. Being the fifth of all of Edward III’s Great Seals, it’s very existence, as well as its forbears shows a contextual sensitivity to the creation of such seals.

With a famous victory at Crecy in 1346, and another ten years later at Poitiers, Edward III can be seen as having the French on their knees as well as being the most powerful monarch in Western Europe. The Treaty of Bretigny in 1360 (later to be ratified at Calais) was the immediate outcome of such victories and worked towards completing Edward’s political and military aims in France. Important aspects of the treaty included the secession of large amounts of territory to Edward, which he no longer did homage for, and the payment of three million gold crowns in ransom for the release of the imprisoned John II of France. On Edward’s part, he gave up his claim to the Kingdom of France as well as the duchy of Touraine and a number of other titles. With the renewal of hostilities nine years later, Edward retook the designation as king of France.

The design of Great Seals used by English monarchs had remained largely unchanged in principle since the days of the Norman conquest. With the King seated on a throne wielding a sceptre on one side, and the King mounted in battle gear on the other, ‘three of the most important aspects of kingship – the monarch as anointed priest-king, as fount of justice and as war leader – are thus reflected in basic designs of the great seal’. Harking back to the coronation ceremony and the promises to the kingdom made there, great seals worked to reinforce royal power and affinity by making statements about political authority and intent.

By Edward III’s reign, seals had been deeply imbued with images of royal heraldry, and until 1340 Edward maintained the regular heraldry for the rulers of England three lions passant guardant. ‘The Lion was the king of beasts, a symbol of Christ and an animal of ‘great courage, power and resolution, but with a slowness to anger and a noble compassion,’ and by adopting the lion as their symbol the rulers of England presented an image with spiritual undertones and temporal force. By 1340 Edward felt compelled to fight for his rights in France, and his heraldry took on another form, one that had political and military intent, and ‘for the first time the arms of France quartered with those of England, thus giving expression in armorial terms to his claim to be King of France’. The fleurs de lys was the symbol of the French monarchy, and had a long history back to the founder of the Frankish kingdom, Clovis. On the heraldry present in Edward’s great seals the fleurs de lys was pronounced more than the three lions passant guardant, recognizing France’s superiority in the terms of feudal practice rather than military might. By doing this, Edward made a bold statement, as not only did it allow potential allies a banner to rally too, such as those in Ghent who yearned to be free from their feudal obligations to French kings, but it challenged the French monarchs rights and substantiated Edward’s own power and authority. The heraldry present on the seals of Edward’s reign act as one layer of the concerted political message brought to bear, also present on great seals were inscriptions. These expressed the titles that the king held, ‘Edward III’s third Great Seal, used from February 1340, and his subsequent Great Seals including the famous Bretigny Seal, describe him as King of France and England,’ and seals such as this acted as a reminder of the presence of Edward’s authority in his domains.

As the first four great seals of Edward’s reign were socially and contextually constructed, so too were the remainder of the great seals used throughout his reign. As a result of the Treaty of Bretigny, Edward gained lordship over roughly a third of France, not everything he had hoped for, but an amazing prize nonetheless. Such a large area of ‘occupied’ territory inevitably created administrative difficulties and in order to help aid in the machinations of government, Edward produced a great seal to be used in England, as well as the territories ‘occupied’ in France, his sixth and seventh great seals respectively. These remained the same as his Bretigny seal and acted as a remainder to subjects in France and England of his political authority and presence.

By looking at Edward’s great seals, we can see the multi layered aspects of visual images and their uses in the substantiation of royal lordship. The nature of the heraldry of England was practical in its message and imbued with quasi-biblical meanings with the inclusion of a lion. As well as this, the adoption of the fleurs de lys, which was prominent in the heraldry itself, acted as a signal of political intent and adapted as contextual situations allowed. The seals themselves are meticulous in their design and powerful in their meanings. 

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