Burse for Queen Elizabeth I's Great Seal

Throughout history, bags have been made both for practical use and also valued as symbolic devices. Their design or decoration can often reveal something about the wearer, whether it be their profession, their aspirations or social status. Like many bags today, such as backpacks or briefcases, It-bags and evening clutches, this Elizabethan burse was created with a specific purpose and message in mind.

Drawstring deep red velvet bag richly embroidered in gold and featuring a lion, dragon and the initials E.R.
Burse, 1558 – 1603, England. Museum no. T.40-1986. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Designed to impress, this richly embroidered burse (purse) was made to contain and protect the silver matrix of Queen Elizabeth I's Great Seal. It was intended to be both practical and symbolic, an important example of the paraphernalia of State. When Elizabeth issued an important document, such as a transfer of land or money, it was accompanied by a large wax tablet, about the size of a saucer, bearing the impression of her Great Seal. This wax seal impression was made using the silver matrix. The Great Seal was of incredible significance, as it would be affixed to all important documents of state, including royal proclamations, letters patent, writs and charters, acting as the authoritative signature of the ruling monarch. The security of this important device was entrusted to the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, a post usually contained within the office of the Lord Chancellor.

Historically, the Great Seal matrix was carried before the Lord Chancellor and Keeper of the Great Seal in a burse or purse. These were traditionally simple in their design and would have been made of white linen or leather without any adornment. However, when Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1558, the simplicity of the burse, previously considered as an ordinary functional container, was transformed into a sartorial display of symbolic power.

Drawstring deep red velvet bag richly embroidered in gold and featuring a lion, dragon and the initials E.R.
Burse (detail), 1558 – 1603, England. Museum no. T.40-1986. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This velvet burse served a dual purpose and was designed to reflect both the majestic authority of the Great Seal matrix held within and that of Queen Elizabeth I. This is evident in the burse's ornate embroidery: it is decorated with the Royal arms, which are topped with a crown and supported on either side by the lion of England and the Welsh dragon. Emblazoned below is the cypher E.R (Elizabeth Regina) for Elizabeth I, with the recognisable symbol of the Tudor rose featured prominently in the centre. Scrolling leaves surround the heraldic design, which is bordered similarly with flowers and shamrocks.

Because of its powerful symbolic nature, no expense would have been spared in the making of this burse. The work was carried out by highly skilled royal embroiderers, making it an important demonstration of Elizabethan embroidery. The eye-catching raised design is achieved through the use of incredibly costly gold and silver wrapped thread. The technique used is a combination of raised and couched work that would have shimmered – enhanced even further by carefully placed spangles applied to the panels of rich silk velvet that make up the body of the square burse. Colours can have strong meanings, and this palette of crimson, silver and gold acts as a signifier of the royal status of this bag, having been associated with English royalty since the 11th century. Glass beads act as the eyes of the lion and the dragon, completing the three dimensional effect. Ultimately, every stitch and material used to make this burse can be read as a symbol of the regal power of Elizabeth and the lavishness of her court.

Circular brown wax seal with image of Elizabeth I attached to a white document with black written text on it.
Wax seal impression, about 1586, England. Museum no. P.48-1980. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Highly decorative, yet inherently functional, the burse was regarded as one of the most prominent symbols associated with the esteemed office of the Lord Chancellor and Keeper of the Great Seal. Uniquely, the V&A's collection includes examples of the various objects that relate to the design and use of Elizabeth I's Great Seal. These include not only this burse, but also a wax seal impression affixed to a document relating to land and property in Lincolnshire. This impression was made using the matrix for Elizabeth I's Second Great Seal, designed by Sir Nicholas Hilliard in 1584 to replace the first version, used from the start of the queen's reign in 1558. The timing of this commission was historically important, in her fifties without an heir, and facing unrest with Spain, the design gives us some insight into how she wanted to be portrayed. Seals allow monarchs to convey the image that they want to project to their subjects, and Elizabeth expertly used this opportunity as a way to reinforce her image.

From the time she ascended the throne, Elizabeth crafted a dominant propaganda image of herself as the total embodiment of English power. Hilliard's design demonstrates this, showing Elizabeth enthroned, with a crown surmounting her hair, a prominent ruff collar and elaborate dress. On the reverse, the queen is shown proudly riding on horseback whilst sunrays beam from between the parted clouds, shining down on her in heavenly blessing. She is flanked by the crowned motifs of her domains, the Fleur-de-Lys of France, the Tudor Rose of England and the Harp of Ireland, appearing for the first time within the design of a Great Seal. The motto around the edge of the seal reads, 'Elizabetha dei gracia Anglie Francie et Hibernie Regina Fidei Defensor' (Elizabeth, by grace of God, Queen of England, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith).

Sepia/tan coloured pen and ink drawing of Queen Elizabeth I on cream background
Elizabeth I, pen and ink drawing, by Nicholas Hilliard, about 1585, London. Museum no. P.9-1943. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Hilliard was a celebrated miniaturist at the Elizabethan court, lauded for his skilful portraits, including examples depicting the queen, who he first painted in 1572. The involvement of Elizabeth in crafting her public image through her Great Seal is demonstrated in a pen and ink portrait by Hilliard. Thought to be a preparatory sketch for the design of the Second Great Seal, it is likely to have been one of several sent to the queen for her approval. This version was not chosen for the final design, but it emphasises the attention to detail paid by the queen and Hilliard when designing her second seal.

Oval portrait miniature painting of a man standing in a room wearing Elizabethan clothing in black and gold with white stockings.
Sir Christopher Hatton, portrait miniature, by Nicholas Hilliard, 1588 – 1591, England. Museum No. P.138-1910. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A leading light at the Elizabethan court was Sir Christopher Hatton. Hatton, born in Northamptonshire in 1540, was a favourite of Elizabeth, having caught her eye with his dancing skills and good looks. A self-made man, Hatton notably invested in the voyages of Sir Francis Drake, who renamed his ship Golden Hind, in honour of Hatton's coat of arms. Hatton was ultimately awarded the responsibility and power of the post of Lord Chancellor and Keeper of the Great Seal, serving from 1587 – 91.

Detailed crop from a portrait miniature of a red bag with a crest on the front and gold tassels.
Sir Christopher Hatton (detail of burse), portrait miniature, by Nicholas Hilliard, 1588 – 1591, England. Museum No. P.138-1910. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The V&A collection includes a miniature of Hatton by Hilliard which depicts him sometime during the years of 1588 – 91, at the peak of his influence. Traditionally, portraits set the sitter within their context in society and this full-length portrait miniature is a prime example of this. Hilliard expertly surrounds Hatton with the symbols of England's authority. He is proudly depicted in his robes of State, wearing the insignia associated with his status as a Knight of the Order of the Garter, including the gold collar featuring a pendant of St. George and the garter itself, visible on his left leg. Hatton's hand is placed on the table between the ceremonial Chancellor's mace and the burse for the Great Seal.

The burse's prominent inclusion emphasises its unique status as both a practical bag and a signifier of power and royal authority – accentuating Hatton's rank and proclaiming the queen's glory. Elizabeth had five Lord Chancellors during her reign, and each would have possessed multiple iterations of the burse, all of similar design. It is known that burses were made regularly during the 16th century, and so it cannot be known for certain if the burse in our collection is the burse that Hilliard painted draped on the table beside Hatton. Ultimately, the burse conveys information about Hatton's status, much like many bags continue to do today.

Stately, and designed to reflect the power of the sovereign, this burse is an example of the enduring material legacy of Elizabeth's astute image creation. The legacy of the burse as an emblematic bag, created to demonstrate the importance of the king or queen, continues today. Each year at the State Opening of Parliament, a similarly elaborate seal burse, now known as the Purse, is carried in procession by the Lord Chancellor, the Queen's Speech protected inside. While contemporary iterations of the burse no longer protect the Great Seal, they continue to act as dual purpose bags, to both protect their contents and proclaim the power of the monarch.

Header image:

Burse, 1558 – 1603, England. Museum no. T.40-1986. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London