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VocalEyes - Hall's Croft

Memento Mori [MOR-ree] Seal, 1558-1603.



“No, I’ll be sworn; I make as good use of it as many
a man doth of a Death’s-head or a memento mori: I
never see thy face but I think up hell-fire...”
[Henry IV, Part I, Act III, Scene 3]

This rough lump of coffee coloured wax measures about one and a half centimetres by one centimetre. It's stamped with an oval Seal that was made during Elizabeth I’s reign - 1558-1603. In the centre is a skull.  Written around it the inscription ‘N. R. MEMENTO MORI’ which roughly translates to ‘a reminder that you are mortal’ or ‘Remember you will die’. On the reverse side, a fragment of parchment is still attached.

Seals were primarily used to authenticate documents, specifically those which concerned matters of a legal nature. They were either attached directly to the paper or parchment, known as an applied seal or were hung loose from it with cord or thread - a pendant seal. The seals prevented anyone who was not the intended recipient from opening the document, as the seal could not be reattached.

Seals made in the 1500s and early 1600s are often decorated with monograms, coats of arms, images and mottos or legends. These would give an impression of who the sender was and perhaps also what they did for a living. Both the seals themselves and the impression they left would indicate the status of the owner.  Royal seals were extremely large and ostentatious. 

Seals bearing the motto ‘Memento Mori’ and other similar phrases were commonly used in Tudor England to remind people of their fragile mortality and to encourage them to pray and to be more pious; the idea strongly emphasises the Christian concept of divine judgement. The phrase itself and the themes of mortality surrounding it are seen in various artworks, particularly those relating to Christianity.

It was not uncommon to have these sorts of rings made in remembrance of loved ones who had passed away. In one particular case in 1585, a gentleman from Worcester named Anthony Sheldon stipulated in his last will and testament for his brothers and sisters ‘to each of them a ring ... A piece with a death head in remembrance of me.’

The impression of this seal has some links to Shakespeare's Love’s Labour’s Lost where Biron [BYE-ron] mentions ‘A Death’s face in a ring’ and Shakespeare himself left money in his will for friends to purchase rings.