Power and beauty: seals, charters and the story of identity

In a world before chip and PIN, royal seals and legal charters reigned supreme in matters of personal identity and the expression of power.


Power and beauty: seals, charters and the story of identity

Celebrating 800 years of royal authority, power and symbolism using charters, seals and deeds, this exhibit examined the significance, complexity and exquisite beauty contained in the seals of rulers from King John to Elizabeth II.

On display for the eight hundredth anniversary year of the Magna Carta, was a tantalizing fragment of the Great Seal of King John himself. The remarkable object eloquently depicted the King enthroned on one side, mounted on horseback on the other, identical in every way to the seal used to authenticate the Magna Carta. It is shown alongside a document sealed by King John that had never been on public display. 

Charter for anatomies, Elizabeth I, 1564
Elizabeth I's Charter for anatomies, which gave the RCP authority to acquire bodies for dissection and anatomical lectures, 1564
Seal for letters patent by Elizabeth I, 1564
Seal for letters patent by Elizabeth I, 1564

For centuries intricate and often beguiling wax seals have kept important documents secure, confidential and confirmed the identity of those who approved their contents, while representing the importance and supreme authority of the sovereign. Through extensive displays dating back to the height of the mediaeval world, this exhibition unpicks the rich symbolism of seals and the role the documents they gave power to have played in shaping the College and the wider world. 

From our own age consumed by image and the politics of identity, this exhibition allowed us to take the long view across time to understand how in seals and charters power and beauty have come together to shape history itself.     

When walking through the exhibit, visitors were presented with perhaps the most significant object in the entire exhibit – the 1518 charter signed and sealed by Henry VIII, founding the RCP. Following on from this, a 1205 title deed sat on display for visitors of the museum. This title deed had been authorized by King John using his Great Seal, the same seal that would be used on Magna Carta 10 years later. 

A section of the exhibit focused on the RCP’s authority to acquire bodies for dissections and anatomical lectures, vital to the teaching of medicine. The main item in this display was Elizabeth I’s Charter for anatomies, which gave the RCP access to the bodies of hanged criminals from Tyburn (located at the west end of Oxford street). This was a very important privilege for the college in a time where only the bodies of criminals could legitimately be used for dissections and medical teaching. 

The exhibition highlights the craftsmanship and artistry of the constitutional documents that symbolise and confirm the authority of the Royal College of Physicians and their amazing survival in the archives over five centuries, facing war, fire and theft.