The Antiquaries Journal

Research Article

What happened to the Great Seal of James II?1

Hilary Jenkinson

Historians seldom trouble themselves much about the Great Seal of England; but that of James II forms an exception. Contemporary rumour seems to have associated it closely with the king's first flight from London, in disguise and by night, on 11 December 1688; and, from the contemporary Bishop Burnet and Rapin down to Miss Foxcroft in our own day, historians and memoir-writers of the period, with few exceptions of importance, have accepted this invitation to the picturesque. For the student of seals these excursions into his subject are flattering but rather embarrassing: Charles Bertie (in a letter to Danby), Burnet, Lord Campbell, and the second Earl of Clarendon (who quotes a letter of Barillon, the French Ambassador); Sir John Dalrymple and the Ellis correspondence; Miss Foxcroft; Halifax; King James himself; John Heneage Jesse and Bishop Kennett; Lingard, Sir Richard Lodge, and Narcissus Luttrell; Macaulay, Sir James Mackintosh (or his editor), and James Macpherson; Ranke, Rapin, Reresby, Smollett, Temperley—they are all in a tale. But not all, unfortunately, in the same tale. The king ‘took away’ the Great Seal; he was prepared l'emporter au besoin; he destroyed it; he told someone to throw it in the Thames; he flung it into the river himself; he gave it to the queen (who presumably took it to France with her); it was carried off by Jeffreys; it was delivered to the king by Jeffreys; the king took the seal and Jeffreys took the ‘purse’ —here truly is sufficient variety. The writers, in fact, agree in little save in telling a story of some kind about the Great Seal and giving no authority for it. James himself in a document of 1693 says merely (or his officials say for him) that he destroyed it. (The document is in fact an order for a (second) new seal, to be engraved apparently by one of the continental members of that Roettier family whom we are to mention below.) The story most generally accepted has been that the king threw it in the Thames during the first stage of his flight on 11 December, to which a certain number add sensational sequels: according to these it was recovered later in a fisherman's net and ‘restored to the Government.’


1 These notes, compiled in the intervals of war-time occupations, would have suffered much more than they have done from the effects of war conditions but for the kindness of numerous friends and colleagues. To the names mentioned in various footnotes below I must add those of Mr. C. H. Digby-Seymour, Town Clerk of Worcester, and Mr. Vivian Collett, City Councillor of the same, and my colleagues, Mr. P. V. Davies and Mr. H. N. Blakiston, and this by no means exhausts the list of my correspondents.