databas cerddi guto'r glyn


The word ‘seal’ (sêl) is used both for the mould (‘matrix’) used to make an impression in sealing wax, and for the impression itself. Another term used by Guto’r Glyn is insael, a loan word from the Middle English inseil, which could denote either an impression or a matrix by his day, though it seems the former was its original meaning.[1] The design of seals could incorporate a motif or words, or both, and they served an important role in proving the authenticity of documents. Sometimes seals were used to close documents, keeping the contents private until the seal was broken, but they could also be attached to the face of a document or to a cord or strip of parchment at its foot.[2]

The reverse of the Great Seal of Owain Glyndŵr.
Great Seal of Owain Glyndŵr
Click for a larger image
Various motifs were used on medieval seals. The figure of a warrior on horseback, brandishing a sword, was used by Welsh princes in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, emulating the seals of English kings and magnates, whilst the motifs of a sword on its own or a hand grasping a spear seem to have been associated with the lower ranks of the Welsh nobility.[3] Motifs associated with hunting were also popular, such as a bow and arrow, hunting horn and stag, and a variety of other designs were used including animals, flowers, foliage, human figures and religious symbols.

In the later Middle Ages heraldry became the main means of expressing noble status on seals.[4] Coats of arms and other heraldic designs might be incorporated into a larger motif, for example, a representation of a mounted warrior bearing a heraldic shield and with the same design displayed on the caparisons of his horse, but the use of purely heraldic seals giving pride of place to the coat of arms itself became increasingly common.

Both heraldic and non-heraldic seal motifs could be passed down the generations.[5] Guto’r Glyn seems to have been aware of this, as he refers to the seal (insael) of John Talbot, second earl of Shrewsbury, whilst praising his descent from the royal houses of Gwynedd and Deheubarth:

Mae prins Gwynedd yn d’insael, 
Arglwydd Rys eurgledd yw’r ail. 
The prince of Gwynedd is on your seal,
the Lord Rhys of golden sword is the second.

(poem 78.39-40)

A coat of arms with a ‘lion rampant within a bordure engrailed’ is displayed on the shields of two fourteenth-century effigies in St David’s cathedral, said to represent the Lord Rhys of Deheubarth (who died in 1197) and his son Rhys Gryg, and a seal with the same arms was used by Richard Talbot, great-grandson of Rhys Gryg.[6] The later Talbot earls of Shrewsbury would continue to use these arms to proclaim their descent from the royal house of Deheubarth. (They also used the family emblem of a ‘talbot’, a kind of hound, see the section on badges).

Poetic references to seals need not always be interpreted literally, as seals could be used figuratively as symbols of authority or validity. For example, Guto refers to Sir William ap Thomas of Raglan as a ‘privy seal’:

Prifai-sêl y parfis wyd, 
Perl mewn dadl parlmend ydwyd, 
Ystiwart dros y Deau, 
Iustus doeth, eiste sy dau. 
You are the privy seal of disputation,
you are a pearl in parliamentary debate,
steward over the South,
wise judge, it is your place to preside.

(poem 19.15-18)

Powerful personages often had both a ‘great seal’ and a ‘privy’ or ‘secret’ seal, which could be applied to the reverse of an impression made by the great seal.[7] By the fourteenth century the privy seal of the king of England had become almost as important as the great seal.[8] Its keeper might also be known as ‘privy seal’, so in the above lines Guto could either be describing Sir William as a figurative ‘privy seal’ or comparing him to the keeper of the privy seal. In either case, the meaning seems to be that Sir William is an authoritative voice in legal disputes. Likewise, Guto described Siancyn Havard of Brecon as prifai-sêl clod ‘privy-seal of praise’ (poem 31.6) and referred to Hywel ap Llywelyn Fychan of Glyn Aeron as prifai-sêl serch ‘the privy seal of love’ (poem 10.57), in each case conveying the idea that the patron is a mark of authenticity or authority.

In his poem in praise of Dafydd ap Gwilym of Llwydiarth, Guto refers to both a seal and a patent:

Yr oedd batent o’i hendad 
Ym ar dir cyn marw ei dad. 
Ei dai ar ôl a’i dir ym, 
A’r sêl a roes i Wilym. 
There was a letter patent from his grandfather
for me entitling me to land before his father’s death.
He gave me his court afterwards and his land,
and the seal to Gwilym.

(poem 62.3-6)

A patent or letters patent was an open letter or document conferring a privilege, right, office, title or property.[9] Guto states that Dafydd ap Gwilym’s grandfather had invested him (i.e., Guto) with his court and land by means of a patent before Gwilym died and had given the seal of the patent to Gwilym. None of this should be understood literally but, rather, as a way of saying that Guto could have whatever he wanted from his generous patron.[10]

For further information about medieval seals see Exploring Medieval Seals.


[1]: Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru (Caerdydd, 1950-2002), s.v. insel, insail, and ‘The Oxford English Dictionary’, s.v. inseil, n.
[2]: J. McEwan and E. New, with S.M. Johns and P.R. Schofield (eds.) Seals in Context: Medieval Wales and the Welsh Marches (Aberystwyth, 2012), 17.
[3]: McEwan and New (eds.), Seals in Context, 37, 40-3.
[4]: McEwan and New (eds.), Seals in Context, 71-2, 77, 81-3, 86.
[5]: McEwan and New (eds.), Seals in Context, 77-83.
[6]: M.P. Siddons, The Development of Welsh Heraldry, 4 vols (Aberystywth, 1991-2007), vol. I, 289.
[7]: Williams, Welsh History through Seals, 19.
[8]: S. Friar (ed.), A New Dictionary of Heraldry (London, 1987), 276.
[9]: Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru, s.v. patent, petent¹, and ‘The Oxford English Dictionary’, s.v. patent, adj. I.¹(a) and n. I.¹(a).
[10]: J.Ll. Williams and Ifor Williams (goln.), Gwaith Guto’r Glyn (Caerdydd, 1939), 332.
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