Dating from the 16th to 19th centuries, an interesting selection of seals from a private Scottish collection were offered in our 9th March auction of Jewellery, Watches & Silver. This group of seals provides a fascinating insight into the style and uses of seals over four centuries. Leading the collection was a remarkable survival from 16th century Scotland connected to the Royal House of Stewart - The James Stewart, Commendator of Melrose Seal which has not been seen on the open market for at least the last century and sold for £6,250*.
The James Stewart, Commendator of Melrose seal is not only a remarkable survival from the 16th century, but one connected to the Royal House of Stewart. This important piece of Scottish history was acquired by the National Museums Scotland during our March 2021 auction of Jewellery, Watches & Silver.
Dr Anna Groundwater, Principal Curator, Renaissance and Early Modern History at National Museums Scotland said:
“This is an important addition to our collection and we are delighted to have saved it for the nation. It has a direct connection to the Royal Stewart dynasty and moreover shows how King James V was prepared to give status and financial security to his illegitimate offspring, whilst also protecting his regional interests. This object has not been seen in public since 1901, so we’re very pleased to bring it into the National Collection where we will be able to put it on display in due course.”
James Stewart (born c.1529 – died 15th September 1557), son of Elizabeth Shaw, was the eldest of at least nine illegitimate children of King James V (1512 – 1542). Of James V’s illegitimate children, four of the six male children were named James / John presumably to show the connection to their father even if they would not benefit from Royal titles or privilege. However, this seal proves that the illegitimacy of the sons did not stop King James from bestowing titles and positions of power, and likely wealth, upon at least some.
Bestowed by his father, James Stewart’s position as Commendator of the Abbeys of both Kelso (1534 – 1557) and Melrose (1535 – 1557) in the Scottish Borders, put him in a very high position. Not only one of power, overseeing the lands of the Abbey and the wider areas, but in control of financial and local security.
By King James placing one of his illegitimate sons in this double roll, it not only promotes and finances his life (much closer to that of a legitimate Prince) but protects the King’s interest in the areas under his son’s control. At a time when peace with the English Royal family was tense and fragile, having widespread support was undoubtedly important. It is by no means coincidental that these positions were granted in the Scottish borders.
This seal relates exclusively to James Stewart’s work as the Commendator of Melrose Abbey. While it has not been seen on the open market in at least the last century, it was exhibited in the 1901 Glasgow International Exhibition. This exhibition brought together a remarkable cross section of Scottish history from early to modern times. The exhibitions of medieval and early modern Scottish art and relics arguably have rarely been surpassed. Drawing from personal and institutional collections some of the most important relics of the nation’s history were exhibited.
While various early Scottish seals - personal, royal and burgh - do survive, the vast majority are within institutional collections. Either residing within their original corporation, institution, or museum collections, rarely do any pre-1700 Scottish seals appear on the open market let alone from the mid-16th century.
Colin Fraser Consultant Specialist said:
"To rediscover and present this important seal to collectors and institutions alike has been a great pleasure, more so now that it will form part of the collection of The National Museum of Scotland. To see such early relics of the nation’s history is rare, and to be part of their story a privilege. We were delighted with the interest shown and the result"
Our March auction featured two lots from the 19th century of Mary, Queen of Scots interest. Lot 105 included a 19th century fob seal which showed the head of Mary, Queen of Scots wearing a ruff and a dress with pendant cross. This fob seal would be suspended from a gentleman’s albert making it a decorative piece rarely used as a seal and more of an item of jewellery. Also dating to the 19th century, Lot 108 displays two seals realating to Mary, Queen of Scots, one with the signet of the queen, whilst the other appears to be the marital arms of the Queen and her first husband, King Frances II of France.
Dating to the early 18th century, Lot 107 included another example of a decorative seal, in steel this time. It is multi-purpose as the steel frame allows the three sided matrix to be utilised in multiple ways, full arms for formal papers, crest and motto for possibly inter family papers and a monogram for personal billet doux. This seal shows great skill in the decoratation of the steelwork both in the mount as well as the matrix.
We were delighted to present this diverse, interesting group of seals demonstrating the evolution of seal use and style from the 16th to 19th centuries. Our auction of Jewellery, Watches & Silver took place live online on Tuesday 9th March, featuring a wonderful range of antique and modern pieces.