Seal Matrices


A seal matrix is used for making an impression on a wax seal, to authenticate a document or to keep it closed. Some specialised matrices may be used for making impressions on lead seals, such as cloth seals (e.g. NFAHG-C241B0).

The earliest seal matrices on the PAS database date from the early-medieval period, but these are rare; most date from the 13th and 14th centuries. After this they slowly declined in use, but were still made in small numbers up to the 19th or even 20th centuries.

PAS object type(s) to be used

All seal matrices should be recorded as SEAL MATRIX. For finger-rings with an engraved bezel that can be used for sealing (signet rings), use FINGER RING.

Roman engraved glass or gemstones (intaglios) were used mainly on signet rings, but they can also occasionally be found in brooches (e.g. OXON-2B4EA1) or pendants (e.g. BUC-CE48C1). Similar post-medieval intaglios were used mainly on seal matrices, but they also occur on finger-rings (e.g. SUR-A95AB6). Because of the variety of uses, detached gem or glass intaglios should be recorded as INTAGLIO.

PAS object classifications and sub-classifications to be used

The vast majority of seal matrices date to the medieval period, but even these have not been formally classified. They can however be divided into several groups, which can be added to the classification field:

  • personal (those with names, mainly dating to the 13th century)
  • anonymous (those with mottoes, mainly dating to the 14th century)
  • official (those with the name of the office rather than the individual), including both ecclesiastical and secular offices

For the sub-classification field, at the moment we are using this to divide the personal seals into men’s and women’s seals (with ‘man’ or ‘woman’ in the field). Occasionally a matrix will be double-sided, with one name on each face, and this is flagged up with ‘double sided’ in the sub-classification field.

Terms to use in the description

The engraved face is normally called the die. If it uses an engraved gem, this is called an intaglio.

The central image can be called the design, although you will also see the words ‘motif’ and ‘device’ used. We discourage the use of ‘device’ as it is a word with several meanings.

Around the central design there is usually lettering. This may be called the inscription or the legend; we prefer the former, as the latter has more than one meaning.

A seal impression is sometimes called a cast.

The term ‘matrix’ (from the Latin ‘mater’ meaning mother, plural ‘matrices’) implies that the design is cut into the surface; the equivalent in relief is called a ‘patrix’. All seal matrices, therefore, must have the design and inscription recessed into the surface. As most are made individually, the standard method of manufacture is engraving; if the design and/or inscription appear to have been cast or stamped instead of engraved, please note this in the Description field.

How to read an inscription

Because the seal matrix was used to make an impression, the engraving of the inscription was almost always done in mirror-image. To read and interpret a seal matrix it is therefore helpful to get an image of the engraving the right way round. This can be done in Photoshop, or by taking a impression (also called a ‘cast’).

The PAS used to recommend that an impression was made for every seal matrix, and photographed alongside the matrix. The materials used could be Fimo (which needs to be baked to set permanently hard) or in Dass (an air-drying clay, but which is vulnerable to damp).

These days, manipulating images is so easy that a matrix can be reversed to read the central motif and inscription the right way round. In Photoshop, choose the Image tab, then Rotate and Flip Horizontal. In this way the inscription will appear clockwise, the right way round.

Sometimes a very unclear inscription will be easier to read when the flipped image is additionally put into negative. To do this in Photoshop, choose the Filter tab, then Adjustments, then Invert. The altered images should be added to the record as separate images, keeping the unaltered record images together.

One seal matrix (KENT-A874A2), manipulated to help read the inscription. From left; original photograph, flipped horizontally, and 'inverted' (put into negative).
One seal matrix (KENT-A874A2), manipulated to help read the inscription. From left; original photograph, flipped horizontally, and ‘inverted’ (put into negative).

Roman seal matrices

Sealings in the Roman world were normally made using signet rings, which are finger-rings with engraved bezels. Normally the bezel would have held a separate carved gem or intaglio, and these are recorded as FINGER RING.

There are a few examples of Roman lead seals which were stamped with rectangular dies (examples here), but we have not yet recorded any matrices. The closest candidate has raised letters, so is a patrix rather than a matrix; it has therefore been recorded as a DIE STAMP (SUR-8620F1).

Early-medieval seal matrices

Early-medieval seal matrices exist, but are exceptionally rare. One of the four known Anglo-Saxon seal matrices (other than signet rings) is are recorded on the PAS database at SF-BE7CB0, and there are also two Frankish-style signet rings, PAS-8709C3 and ESS-E396B1.

Medieval seal matrices

Medieval seal matrices are usually made from lead or copper alloy, but can occasionally be made from silver. They have a central design and inscription, usually added to the matrix by engraving.

Circular and pointed-oval seal matrices, showing the central design and the inscription (IOW-CFE1A5 and NMS-A97FD5).
Circular and pointed-oval seal matrices, showing the central design and the inscription (IOW-CFE1A5 and NMS-A97FD5).

Medieval seal matrices tend to be one of two broad forms – flat, or conical (perhaps hexagonally faceted). Flat seal matrices can be of lead or copper alloy; conical ones can be of copper alloy or silver. Both can be a variety of shapes, but flat ones are most often circular or pointed-oval, and conical matrices most often have circular dies. About a quarter of the silver examples include a re-used Roman intaglio as the central design.

Conical matrices usually have pierced terminals, probably for suspension, and can have an orientation mark on the reverse to show where the top of the design is. Flat matrices usually have a pierced lug on the reverse which fulfils both of these functions.

Medieval seal matrices. Left above, a flat pointed-oval lead matrix (SF-3FC3B3). Left below, a conical silver matrix with a re-used Roman intaglio (SUR-36D8C9) - note the orientation mark on the reverse. Right, a conical copper-alloy matrix with circular die (NARC-BDC51E).
Medieval seal matrices. Left above, a flat pointed-oval lead matrix (SF-3FC3B3). Left below, a conical silver matrix with a re-used Roman intaglio (SUR-36D8C9) – note the orientation mark on the reverse. Right, a conical copper-alloy matrix with circular die (NARC-BDC51E).

Seal matrices with personal names are thought to date to the 13th century, and anonymous seal matrices are thought to date to the 14th century.

Occasionally an unfinished, blank seal matrix is found, such as LON-37E577 or SWYOR-3A9A82. Further evidence for manufacture of medieval seal matrices comes from the mould LVPL-35AD66 and the mis-cast matrix LON-476DD1.

How to describe a medieval seal matrix

Descriptions of seal matrices normally follow a standard formula. The overall form comes first (i.e. flat or conical) and then the description of the reverse is completed. For a flat matrix this will include details of any pierced or unpierced lug, raised rib or decoration (normally cast in relief).

Features on the reverse of a flat seal matrix
Features on the reverse of a flat seal matrix. Left: SUSS-BF0F87. Right: YORYM-86DF46.

For a conical matrix, it will include details of the handle, the terminal, and any orientation mark, which helps to locate the top of the matrix’s design.

Parts of a conical seal matrix
Parts of a conical seal matrix. Left: WAW-C6FCA1. Right: SWYOR-09A80B.

If incomplete, say whether the matrix has been deliberately cut (to cancel it) or accidentally broken.

Once everything else has been described, the die comes last.

The central design

Normally we start with the central design (also called the central motif). This can be described as seen on the die itself or on the impression, but if there is a difference you must explain which you are describing (e.g. a lion facing right on the matrix, and facing left on the impression). Usually all aspects of the die have been made by punching or engraving, but sometimes the central design has some cast elements; if you see this, please note it.

There is often a division between the central design and the inscription, consisting of a plain groove or a beaded line. Please note this down if it is present – and be very certain to note if it is not present, because this may be an indicator of relatively early date.

The description of central designs should ideally do two things. One is to fully describe the animals or figures that you can see; the other is to mention them using standardised terminology so that all similar designs will be retrieved in a search. Seal matrices with the same motif can be very different in detail and all must be described individually and precisely, but without the standardised (technical or jargon) term it will be difficult to find parallels and groups.

Examples might be ‘lamb with foot curved to hold a staff with a square flag at the top (Agnus Dei)’ or ‘a pelican in her piety, i.e. a bird in an untidy nest feeding three chicks by pecking at her own breast’.

The Seals in Medieval Wales project classified central designs into types. Although nearly a quarter of the Welsh seals had unusual, individualistic (‘unclassified’) designs, there were 21 designs with ten or more examples in the sample. These were called ‘standard classes’ (McEwan 2016, 29-30, table 1.3).

We are still trying to establish the best way of adding the standard class that a motif fits into to the PAS database record, and hope that we may be able to add detailed advice soon. In the meantime, it would be helpful to add the names of the standard class of design used on a matrix to the Description field. The classes and their order may surprise some of us used to recording matrices, as we don’t have many with ‘text’ or ‘shield’ and we have a lot of others not frequent enough in the Welsh material to make it into the standard classes, such as a hare, a moon and star, or a head on a dish (usually interpretable as John the Baptist).

The names of the 21 standard classes are given below (in bold), with the commonest in the Seals in Medieval Wales sample first.

  • text – one or more letters, excluding the ‘Christogram’
  • shield – shield or similar, with heraldic or pseudo-heraldic device
  • radial – two or more intersecting branches, petals, leaves or lobes
  • stylised lily – fleur-de-lis
  • bird – any bird, excluding ‘pelican in piety’ and ‘hawk hunting’
  • bust – human head, or head and shoulders
  • woman holding child – often interpretable as the Virgin Mary and Child
  • lion – quadruped with mane and/or bulbous end to a long tail; excluding the ‘lion sleeping’
  • armoured man on horseback – full-length depiction
  • squirrel – recognisable from the long bushy tail
  • merchant mark (what we do if the merchant’s mark is on a shield has yet to be established!)
  • pelican in piety – bird perched on nest with chicks, pecking at its own breast
  • lamb and staff – this motif is often known as the Agnus Dei or the Lamb and Flag
  • lion sleeping – curled-up lion seen from above
  • stag head – recognisable from the antlers, often with a cross between
  • two heads – a pair of human heads
  • crossed hands – a pair of clasped hands
  • stag – excluding ‘stag head’
  • hawk hunting – bird of prey above another animal
  • Christogram – abbreviation of the name of Jesus (ihc, or ihs, etc)
  • hare on hound – a hare (with long ears and short tail) astride a dog (with short ears and often a long tail)

The inscription

The inscription is recorded in two places. In the inscription field, it is transcribed exactly as it appears on the impression (normally clockwise from the top), together with any abbreviation marks, dots between letters, and any initial mark (this is usually a cross on 13th-century matrices and a star or asterisk on 14th-century matrices). Spaces can be added to make it easier to understand, but please don’t add inverted commas around it or a translation. If there are letters in the inscription that you cannot read, add […]. No more is needed here; the place for a full exposition is the Description field.

The second place is in the Description field. Here you can use punctuation; although inverted commas are usually unhelpful, as they can be confused with apostrophes on the object, a full stop at the end may be appropriate. Please add a translation here if you can. In addition, unusual aspects of the inscription may need to be briefly described here, e.g. if an N is reverse-barred, or if two letters are ligated, or if the lettering is unusually crude, or if the inscription does not start at the top of the matrix.

The language of an anonymous inscription can be French, English or Latin. To help reconstruct or understand an anonymous inscription, Harvey and McGuinness 1996 has a list of mottoes towards the back; there is also a brief list of the commonest mottoes below.

If the inscription starts with an S, it will probably be a personal seal matrix, with a personal name. These are normally in Latin, and the S stands for sigillum (seal). To help read or understand a personal seal matrix, there is a list of common first names (or given names) below.

There are also good resources to be found on line. Perhaps the quickest and easiest is; simply type the letters you can see into a search box and see what you get. Alternatively, several resources can be found grouped together at and a list of women’s given names can be found at

After the first name, there will probably be a surname (also sometimes called a by-name). The most common are patronymics, which begin with FIL’ or F’ (son/daughter of…). There are also place-name surnames, often starting with DE or D’ (of…); and occupation names, often starting with LE (the…). Lastly some other names can be pure nicknames.

For surnames the best source is Reaney and Wilson’s Dictionary of English Surnames (often abbreviated to DES). There are lots of editions of this, and a copy can be cheaply obtained second-hand. Use it to check medieval versions of surnames.

Women’s seal matrices

Somewhere between 20% and 25% of all matrices recorded on the PAS database with readable names are those of women. Please add the word ‘woman’ to the sub-classification field so that we can retrieve all the records together.

Common personal names on seal matrices

The names on seal matrices look different to names we use today firstly because they are in Latin, and secondly because they are in the genitive (also called the possessive). For a name like Henry Richardson, we would write in English ‘Seal of Henry, son of Richard’ but in Latin, Henry is Henricus and Richard is Ricardus, and in the genitive this becomes Henrici and Ricardi. So the inscription becomes ‘Sigillum [seal] Henrici [of Henry] filius [son] Ricardi [of Richard].

Not only that, but all of the words tend to be abbreviated. you can’t look for a familiar name, e.g. Adam or Thomas, or even Henricus, and expect to find it written out like this. The commonest genitive ending for a masculine name is -i, and the commonest ending for a feminine name is -e, but they vary and there are many exceptions. The commonest names and their abbreviations are below.

Name in Latin in genitive: Common abbreviations found in inscriptions: Full Latin name in nominative: Translates into English as:
Male names in –us change to –i in the genitive:
WILLELMI WILL’, WILL’MI Willelmus William
ROBERTI ROB’, ROB’TI Robertus Robert
HENRICI HEN’ Henricus Henry
RICARDI RIC’ Ricardus Richard
GALFRIDI GALF’, GALFRID’ Galfridus Geoffrey
PHILIPPI PH’LI Philippus Philip
IULIANI IULIAN’ Julianus Julian
WALTERI WALT’ Walterus Walter
ROGERI ROG’ Rogerus Roger
RADULFI RAD’ Radulfus Ralph
RANULFI RAN’ Ranulfus Ranulph
PETRI Petrus Peter
REGINALDI REG’ Reginaldus Reginald
GILBERTI GILB’TI Gilbertus Gilbert
NICHOLAI NICOL’I Nicholaus Nicholas
ALANI Alanus Alan
ALEXANDRI ALEX’I Alexandrus Alexander
STEPHANI Stephanus Stephen
Common exceptions to this rule:
ADE, ADA Adamus Adam
Male names in –es change to –is in the genitive:
Male names in –as change to –e in the genitive:
ANDREE ANDRE’ Andreas Andrew
THOME THOME Thomas Thomas
HUGONIS HUG’ Hugo Hugh, Hugo
SIMONIS Simon Simon
Female names in –a change to –e in the genitive:
ALICIE Alicia Alice
MARIE Maria Mary
IULIANE Juliana Juliana
PHILIPPE Philippa Philippa
DIONISIE Dionisia Denise
JOHANE Johanna Joan
CLARICIE Claricia Clarissa
EMME Emma Emma
ISABELLE ISAB’ Isabella Isabella
SARE Sara Sarah
AVICIE, AMICIE etc Avicia, Amicia Avice, Avise, Amise
CISSILIE, CECILIE, etc Cecilia Cecilia or Cecily
MARGERETE MARGAR’ Margareta Margaret
Common exceptions to this rule:
MATILDIS MATIL’ Matildis Matilda
BEATRICIE Beatrix Beatrice
CRISTINA Christina Christina

Common mottoes on anonymous seal matrices

Again, a lot of the words used in anonymous mottoes can be abbreviated.

Malcolm Jones has pointed out that inscriptions starting IE SV (I am, in French) benefit from ‘amuletic ambiguity’, because they can also be read as starting JESU, and so invoking the name of Jesus.

Inscription Language Translation
ALAS BOWLES uncertain uncertain
ALAS IE SV PRIS French Alas, I am caught
ALONE I RIDE I HAVE NO SWAYNE English Alone I ride, I have no swain
AMVR ME TIENT French Love holds me
AQVILA IOhIS Latin Eagle of John
AVE MARIA GRACIA PLENA Latin Hail Mary full of grace
CAPVT IOhIS Latin Head of John
CAPVT SERVI DEI Latin Head of a servant of God
CREDE FERENTI Latin Believe (or trust) the bearer
CREDE MIChI Latin Believe in me
CROV ME DAY English Crow me day
ECCE AGNUS DEI Latin Behold the lamb of God
EST AMOR ME (around IHC) Latin (Jesus) is my love
ESTO FIDELIS Latin Be faithful
FAVCVN IENTIL French Gentle-falcon (i.e. peregrine falcon)
FRANGE LEGE TEGE Latin Break, read, conceal
HAYL OWL HAYL or HAIL APE HAIL English Hail, owl, hail; or Hail, ape, hail
hER IS NO MORE [or LASS] BVT APE OWL ASS English Here is no more [or less] than ape, owl, ass
HEV OV RVMILOV English Possibly ‘heave ho rumbelow’ (a rowing chant)
I CRAKE NOTIS English I crack nuts
I WAS A MAN English I was a man
IE SV DEGISE French I am disguised
IE SV PRIVE French I am private
IE SV SEL D AMI LEL French I am a seal of a loyal (or true) friend
IE SV SEL D AMVR LEL French I am a seal of true love
IE VOYS A BOIS French I see in the wood
IESVS MERCI French Thanks be to Jesus
LEGE TEGE Latin Read, conceal
LEL AMI AVET French You have a loyal (or true) friend
LEL SV French I am loyal
LEO PVGNAT CVM DRAGONE Latin Lion fights with dragon
LOVE ME ANDE I YE English Love me and I thee (Y = TH)
MATER DEI MEMENTO MEI Latin Mother of God, remember me
MATER DEI MISERERE MEI Latin Mother of God, have mercy on me
PENSET DE MOY French Think of me
PRIVE SV French I am private
PRIVE SV E POY CONV French I am private and little known
SIGILLVM SECRETI Latin Seal of secrets
SIGILLVM AMORIS Latin Seal of love
SIGNVM SALVTIS Latin Sign of salvation
SIGNVM VERITATIS Latin Sign of truth
SOHOV ROBIN English Soho Robin
SOHOV SCVT English Soho hare
SOHOV SOHOV English Soho Soho
SVM LEO FORTIS Latin I am a strong lion
SVM PELICANVS DEI Latin I am the pelican of God
TENET LA FOY French Keep the faith
TIMETE DEVM Latin Fear the Lord
WAKE ME NO MAN English Wake me no man

Post-medieval seal matrices

Post-medieval seal matrices are recorded in much the same way as medieval seal matrices. Most importantly, any inscription should be copied across to the Inscription field, even if it only consists of initials in the centre of the die.

If it is thought useful, the term ‘fob seal’ can be used in the Object Description field, but it is not necessary. The term is sometimes used for 18th- to 20th-century matrices with dies of glass or gemstone, and copper-alloy handles which can often be of openwork and sometimes fold flat. A ‘fob’ was originally a small pocket, for a watch or similar; it was also used for the chain holding the watch (short for ‘fob chain’), and this is the sense used by the mda thesaurus.

'Fob' seal matrix of post-medieval date
‘Fob’ seal matrix (LVPL-735D37) of post-medieval date