In recent years electronic signatures have been given the same recognition as a hand-written version. This change has an early modern precedent, as Dr Hannes Kleineke, Senior Research Fellow in our Commons 1422-1504 project, explains…
Since 1 July 2016, European Union rules have given electronic signatures the same legal weight as their hand-written counterparts, and it is to be expected that these rules will in the near future be incorporated into English law, where the admissibility of an electronic signature is at present governed by the provisions of the Electronic Communications Act 2000.
There is a neat irony in this, since in the last years of Henry VIII England led the way in allowing for the authorization of government papers in the King’s absence. Like rulers elsewhere, the Kings of England had long used a variety of seals to add their authority to official documents. If the royal seal had originally travelled with the monarch, over the course of the medieval centuries an evolving bureaucracy saw first the Great Seal of the realm and subsequently also the King’s privy seal become stationary at Westminster. In the fifteenth century, it became increasingly common for the King to add his monogram to the impression of his signet, and ultimately to dispense entirely with the seal in favour of his signature. Thus, even the original acts of parliament of the Yorkist and Tudor kings received the formal royal assent by the monarch’s signature.
At the same time, the volume of papers the King was required to read and sign grew. Henry VII was an avid administrator and peruser of papers, but his son – in his own grandfather’s, Edward IV’s mould – rather less so. Particularly in his final years, Henry grew increasingly reluctant to sign documents in large numbers, a state of affairs which led to the introduction of the ‘dry stamp’, a stamp of the monarch’s signature which could be affixed to official papers. The documents in question were then recorded in a special register that was placed before the King for approval.
The dry stamp was placed in the care of the King’s favourite, Anthony Denny and his brother-in-law, John Gates, and was used by them to authenticate the will of the King. In view of the will’s implications for the succession, this proceeding caused much subsequent controversy, which continued into the reign of Elizabeth I when it was revived in the course of Anglo-Scottish diplomacy concerning a possible Stuart succession.
More general, also, the use of stamps in favour of signatures continued to be disparaged and mistrusted. In a speech in the House of Commons on 5 April 1624, the prominent lawyer and former Speaker Sir Edward Coke attacked the lord treasurer, the earl of Middlesex for allowing the use of a dry stamp of his signature on his official letters. Peter Mutton, the newly elected Member for the Caernarvon boroughs, rose to the treasurer’s defence, claiming that ‘he had heard before he was born [sic] that stamps were used here in this kingdom’. At this unfortunately phrased claim ‘the whole House laughed and hissed’, and Coke pressed his advantage home, addressing the hapless Mutton as ‘Sir Peter Stamp’.
- Eric Ives, ‘Henry VIII’s will – a forensic conundrum’, The Historical Journal, 35 (1992), 779-804
- R.A. Houlbrooke, ‘Henry VIII’s Wills: A Comment’, The Historical Journal, 37 (1994), 891-99
- Suzannah Lipscombe, ‘Who Hijacked Henry VIII’s Will?’,BBC History Magazine, Dec. 2015 [http://www.historyextra.com/article/premium/who-hijacked-henry-viiis-will]
- John Guy, Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart (2005)