This section is from the book "The Law Of Contracts", by William Herbert Page. Also available from Amazon: Commercial Contracts: A Practical Guide to Deals, Contracts, Agreements and Promises.
The use of the seal as a means of authenticating instruments is often said to be due primarily to the ignorance of our ancestors. This is not historically true. Before the Norman conquest we find that seals were used by the Duke of the Normans and possibly a few of his great men. On the other side of the channel, Edward the Confessor carried his love for things Norman to the extent of using a private seal.1 In the years immediately following the Norman Conquest the use of the seal was distinctive of the king and a few of the great men. Gradually the use of the seal extended downward in the social scale until by the time of Henry II. we find that it was assumed that formal instruments, executed by free men, would be under seal. We know of this change in the general use of the seal better than many more important facts about the history of our law. In a famous case between Abbot Walter and Gilbert de Baillol2 we find that the validity of a charter of an earlier reign was attacked on the ground that the charter was unsealed. Richard de Lucy, the justiciar, replied that it was not the ancient custom that every petty knight should have a seal, which was suitable only for kings and pre-eminent personages.3 It is
1 Pollock & Maitland's History of English Law, I. 72 (original paging); II. 221 (original paging).
2Bigelow Placita, 175; Pollock & Maitland's History of English Law, 11.221 (original paging). Adams & Stephen's Select Documents of English Constitutional History, 9.
3"Now, since there was nothing in this statement of the case for prosecution which could be successfully controverted, as the Curia Regis possessed testimony on every point; at the permission of the king, the deeds of purchase and of gift were read in the hearing of all. and also the charters of confirmation. Since the other party had little to true that the justiciar was sitting in a case in which his brother was deeply interested as plaintiff, and was doing everything in his power to bring about a decision in his brother's favor. His statement of the deterioration of human nature may be challenged. At the same time his statement of the law seems to have been unquestioned. We may thus conclude that soon after the Norman Conquest it was not expected that knights holding by military tenure would have private seals; while by the reign of Henry II. it was assumed that every knight at least will have a seal, and by the end of the thirteenth century it is assumed that every free and lawful man will have a seal as a matter of course.4